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Rural schools left out in the cold

‘Rural schools left out in the cold’


-       Ministry of Education’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach not possible in Northland

-       Specialist support not available in many rural Northland schools at all during the school year

The Tai Tokerau Principals’ Association (TTPA) says the Ministry of Education is out of touch with Northland schools and is failing the students of the region, particularly those in rural schools.

“They just do not understand how their policy decisions are impacting on rural schools in the region,” says Pat Newman, President of the TTPA. “The Ministry of Education sit in their ivory tower in Wellington and make bureaucratic decisions which just can’t work in places like Northland. If they actually listened to us, or bothered to visit the region, they could see that for themselves.”

 The TTPA, which represents more than 150 schools within Northland, is leading a crusade which focuses on the lack of special education provision in Northland. The Ministry of Education is charged with providing resources for students with a range of special needs. These needs are categorised into four areas (Behaviour, Learning, Communication and Disability) and students can vary from having ‘Low-level Needs’ to ‘High-level Needs’ in each category.

Newman says a great option for students requiring support is a Resource Teacher for Learning & Behaviour, or RTLB. “An RTLB teacher focuses solely on students who have either learning or behaviour issues. RTLB’s work in conjunction with the child, his/her parents, the teacher(s) and the principal.  They observe the child in the classroom, identify any issues, and provide ideas and options to help improve the child’s progress.”

Newman says the RTLB system is a brilliant way to support students with learning and behaviour issues, but it is falling apart in Northland. “We have far too few RTLB’s available, and they just cannot see all the students who need their support. The end result is that many of our small rural schools don’t get visited by the RTLB as often as they should, and in some cases, schools don’t see them at all.”

Newman is quick to point out that the TTPA does not place any blame on the RTLB teachers themselves. “Many of these RTLB’s are fantastic teachers who are passionate about education, and they work hard to improve the progress of every child they see. But unfortunately, they are each trying to do the work on three or four people, and it is the students who miss out.”

Newman believes that in a region like Northland, which has such a large proportion of low-decile schools, there is a critical need to increase support services such as the RTLB system.

“RTLB teachers are assigned a cluster of schools, so they are often travelling between many different locations during their work day. For example, there are 14 schools in the Kaipara cluster, and they are serviced by three RTLB teachers, including one who focuses on students attending full immersion kura schools in other cluster groups. These teachers have to travel to places like Pouto, Aranga and Ruawai during one school day. They are trying to get to so many schools that they end up spending the bulk of their time on the road, not in the schools where they should be.”

Newman says that the Ministry of Education sets arbitrary rules around the provision of RTLB teachers, without any thought on the region they are working in. “Yes, we may have a small population compared to regions like Auckland or Wellington, but many of our schools are in isolated areas, there are disproportionately high numbers of low-decile schools, and we have huge numbers of children in need of specialist support. But the Ministry looks at their ratios and that’s the end of that.”

In a recent and comprehensive special needs survey commissioned by the TTPA, almost 75% of the schools identified themselves as rural, and nearly 90% of the schools who responded are classed as decile 6 or lower.

“Those figures have huge implications,” says Newman. “We have far more low decile schools, proportionately, than almost any other region in the country. We have far more rural schools, proportionately, than almost any other region in the country. Yet our RTLB’s are supposed to provide the same level of service to schools as an RTLB who works on the North Shore, for example. Schools on the North Shore are only a 5-15 minute drive apart. How can that same model be applied to areas like the Kaipara or the Hokianga? If an RTLB starts the day at Kohukohu School, then how are they supposed to effectively service other schools like Mitimiti, Rawene or Herekino, who are miles apart?”

But worst of all, having removed a number of RTLB teachers less than three years ago, the Ministry of Education now has plans to remove more RTLB teachers, including one from the Kaipara cluster. “As if the job of an RTLB wasn’t hard enough, these changes will make it virtually impossible,” says Newman “The Ministry has decided that a ratio of one RTLB for every 720 students is workable. I’d like to see them come up here and attempt it.”

The Tai Tokerau Principals’ Association is demanding that:

-       All special education resources be funded according to need, not population

-       Funding is provided for a teacher aide in every low-decile classroom in Northland

-       The application process for special education resources is restructured

- ENDS -

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