Tag Archive for special needs

All students are special, but some students have special needs

I think the 21st Century will be characterised by a phenomenon that might be called “condition creep.” This is where a condition starts to be redefined to such an extent that the clearly understood condition becomes obfuscated and the search for a “new” condition begins.

This occurred to me when listening to several speakers on the radio who were talking about the Dyslexia Awareness Week. In the course of this I learned that 45,000 New Zealanders suffer from dyslexia. This seemed rather high to me. But then it became increasingly apparent that the condition was now not simply the impact on reading of some neurological process that sees people confusing letters. It now seemed to apply to a lack of co-ordination, a series of learning difficulties and being a little bit off track in terms of teacher expectation.

I was reminded of the trouble that a UK academic got into a few years ago when he argued that dyslexia was often no more than a description by middle class white that sought to explain why Sally or Charles were having trouble getting the hang of reading or perhaps even being a little slow to pick up maths.

Of course he was wrong and his comments were a disservice to the young and old people who really do have dyslexia – there is no doubt that it exists. But in my time as a teacher of English and all my time working in education, I have to say that the clearly and genuinely dyslexic (in terms of the original definition) seemed to me to be quite small in number.

There is also the puzzling feature that white middle class communities have higher levels of reporting of dyslexia than the poorer areas where there is a significantly increased number of people with literacy issues. One wonders about this!

Some years ago I felt that the same condition creep was occurring with “ADHD” and right now I have to wonder about the spread of “depression”. What is it that makes us want to blur definitions? It can’t be a simple attempt at inclusiveness. Rather it seems to me that it might be a symptom of a community that has a number of people who are asking for help and of people who are seeking explanations by way of labels. In short, what is described as a condition might well in fact be a symptom for something else.

Another strange fact is that high decile schools access special assistance for students with issues when it comes to external assessments more than low decile schools and by quite a margin. The radio report I was referring to earlier noted that 17% of candidates from high decile schools compared to 1.0% of low decile school candidates were recipients of NZQA funded support at assessment time. It takes my mind back to the days when “equity funding” was dished out to institutions on the basis of the total EFTS. How’s that for targeted resource?

No-one sets out to rort the system on the one hand nor to deny a student that to which they are rightfully entitled on the other – but it happens. The swirl around the whole business of “special needs” and the support of students suggests a situation where we might have got something somewhat wrong.

Perhaps we should seek guidance from countries where they get it right?


Pathways-Ed: How can you succeed when you eat doughnuts?

Stuart Middleton
3 May 2012


I have long wondered whether legal action over educational failure is navigable. But I had always thought that it was likely be played out at the tertiary level – something along the lines of a student questioning the legality of the institution failing to deliver a “product” purchased by the students and perhaps under the Consumer Guarantee Act.

Melbourne student, Beau Abela, has sued the Department of Education in Victoria, Australia, because he is unable to read or write or count. He is reported as saying that he was “silenced with medications and teachers blamed his inability to learn on eating doughnuts.”

His case was that his early education showed a well-adjusted, happy and responsible lad and now he is being described as aggressive and disengaged. He cannot demonstrate the literacy or numeracy skills that are required for employment.

Most interest in the case is in the way it has proceeded.

The Abela’s claim that schools simply dished out medication rather than actually help the boy who had ADHD, they promoted him year after year despite his not achieving at each level and that the father’s attempts to intervene were ignored.

On the other side, the claim is made that the Discrimination Act does not require them to act in response to the boy’s needs. Furthermore, the boy “had an IQ of only 62!” And that the real reason the boy failed was “that he had not received enough help with his homework.”

“We are not blaming the father, we are not blaming the family,” says learned QC for the Department.”but the child had come from a broken home and was clearly emotionally disturbed.” This was after noting that the boy was “destabilised” (sic) by his mother when he was young because of perceived threats to him and his sister, “…the teachers did a fantastic job.

There is an element of farce in the Department’s case with the QC’s emailing that Beau often ate sugary, fatty foods, such as doughnuts, and this is only one example of a lack of home support. “teachers we’re really worried that Beau Abela was going to school without a wholesome meal.” But this is no French farce, it is more like a minor tragedy played out by many families in many countries.

This case (which is still proceeding), pits two sides against each other who have in all likelihood done their best. Families cope as best they can and the schools can only do their best by coping. Individual students including many with special needs, fall through the cracks of schools under pressure in a system that is itself under severe pressure.

There won’t be a winner in this instance. The Department will simply answer the charge while the family will have great difficult in seeing the complaint succeed. This is because no-one is responsible for educational achievement and lame attempts to simply blame the family underlines the failure of a community and a plethora of government agencies to maintain the ability of a community both to manage generally but also to interface effectively with educational providers. Thrashing it out in the courts is a pointless exercise.

I wonder if an adequate programme of support for Beau Abela might have been provided by Department for much the same cost as that of defending the allegations?