Jim Cooper, president of the NSW Primary Principals' Association

Sean Mooney reports on a new government-funding model for supporting schoolchildren with special needs.

The start of Term 3 2012 marked the beginning of a new funding system for students with special needs in NSW public schools. The stated aim of the Every Student, Every School: Learning and Support (ESES) initiative is to provide better outcomes for the 90,000 students with a disability, learning difficulties or behaviour-support needs.

ESES is supported by the Federal Government's More Support for Students with Disabilities national partnership, which will provide $47.9 million over the next two years towards professional learning and support for teachers and support staff in NSW. State Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli says there has been an increase of more than $69 million in allocations to NSW schools under the partnership, and nearly 90 per cent of schools will receive more funding.

There are five new interrelated project areas to be implemented in schools under ESES: increasing professional learning opportunities for teachers and other education professionals; bolstering support for students with low-level additional learning and support needs in regular classes through the creation of specialist-learning programs in every school; establishing special schools as centres of expertise; developing materials to assist teachers to better meet the additional learning and support needs of students; and improving access for teachers and support staff to expert knowledge and support. Piccoli says ESES will also deal with resourcing anomalies for students with low-level support needs while leaving untouched the way students with moderate or high-level learning and support needs enrolled in regular classes are funded.

Prior to the State-wide implementation of ESES, a new model for supporting students with additional needs in regular classes was trialled in 221 schools in the Illawarra and south-eastern NSW in response to calls by parents, teachers and principals. The trial provided a specialist teacher and funding in every regular school to support students with low-level additional learning needs and their classroom teachers. This involved allocating specialist resources directly to schools using formulae based on school size and student-learning needs.

Jim Cooper (pictured), president of the NSW Primary Principals' Association and principal of Albion Park Public School, says under the trial his school received a fairly significant increase in teacher support and a minor increase in funding. "Our association surveyed principals and asked them to talk to people involved," he says. "When the trial started there were hiccups, but by the time it was established close to 90 per cent of principals were happy with it; not necessarily with every single aspect, but in most cases they were better off. The bottom line is the philosophy of the system is redirecting resources so that more end up in schools."

Under ESES, each school receives funding allocation based on the size of the school and the learning and support needs of students. Enrolments come into the equation, as does data from NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) tests. The community prevalence of a particular disability may also be considered, as in the case of autism, which now has a fixed ratio of one in every 100 children. Piccoli says this is a great outcome for all parties.

Cheryl McBride, chair of the Public Schools Principals Forum and principal of Canley Vale Public School, says allocation of these funds will be made easier next year with the introduction of a functional-assessment tool, which she says will measure the child's functional level, rather than just considering their diagnosis or label. "With this tool, each child, irrespective of whether they have the label of autism or Asperger's, or whether they live in Mosman or Minto, will get a similar level of funding," says McBride. "That's a step in the right direction, and I believe this has been needed in our system for a very long time." She says there are winners and losers with the new system. "The biggest losers are schools which had regional programs like language and reading classes and early-school support programs for young, mildly disabled kids."

The NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) says the reorganisation of support positions required under ESES will see existing specialist-support positions converted to single generalist-support-teacher roles. NSWTF officer with responsibilities for special education Claudia Vera says she is worried an increase in allocations to one school would see losses in another, given that there is to be no increase in the current number of support teachers.

NSW Public Service Association president Sue Walsh says under ESES many students with special needs who have been receiving support will no longer be properly assisted. "In fact it's clear it won't happen," she says. "The money is going into a bucket, not to a particular child, therefore we believe there will be a number of children who will fall through the cracks. The reality is that it has absolutely nothing to do with student outcomes – it's all about saving money."

However, the State Government says there will be no reduction in the numbers of full-time equivalent specialist teachers or permanent school learning-support officers working in public schools. Furthermore, every public school will have a specialist learning and support teacher, many for the first time. Piccoli says ESES addresses the changing demographic nature of many schools. "New schools have opened, some school enrolments have increased and some school enrolments have declined," he says. "Throughout NSW the individual learning needs of students have also changed."

This article was first published in the August 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.

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