Ministry of Education: Managing support for students with high special educational needs.

My staff carried out a performance audit to assess how well the Ministry of Education (the Ministry) manages four initiatives set up to support school-age students that it assesses as having the highest level of intellectual, sensory, or physical disabilities, speech language difficulties, or behavioural needs. There are up to 20,500 students receiving support through these four initiatives.

The four initiatives are the Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes (ORRS), the School High Health Needs Fund, the Severe Behaviour Initiative, and the Speech Language Initiative. Through these initiatives, the Ministry provides extra help, adapted programmes, specialist advice, equipment or materials, and access to therapists. The Ministry spends about $176 million on these four initiatives each year. They are part of a larger framework of support for all children and young people who need special help to participate in education, in line with the Special Education 2000 policy.

The Ministry has a challenging task in ensuring, within the resources available, that it has identified students who need its support, and that this support is provided fairly, appropriately to needs and circumstances, and in a timely manner. Every day, Ministry staff need to exercise professional judgement and respond appropriately to students who can have a complex range of needs that change over time.

Overall, the Ministry's management of the four initiatives was reasonable, but there were still areas that need to improve. The basic systems and resources were in place to enable the Ministry to deliver its support. More recently, the Ministry has started to focus on improving those systems and improving the quality of service it provides. The Ministry also needs to improve how it identifies all those students with high special educational needs to ensure that those students eligible for support receive it in a consistent and timely manner, and that the support they receive and progress they make is appropriately monitored.

We are not certain that the Ministry has a clear measure of the level of need for its support for students with high special educational needs. The Ministry considers that, for three of the initiatives, there is a very low risk that some students in need of support have not already been identified by the Ministry. However, for the Severe Behaviour Initiative, the Ministry is aware of a higher risk that some students eligible for its support have not been identified by the Ministry and are not receiving support.

The Ministry could be more systematic and vigilant in its efforts to identify children who have high special educational needs but are not receiving Ministry support. The Ministry expects that the work it has done in strengthening its collaboration with schools and resource teachers will help it to gather better information more systematically about all levels of need. The Ministry's involvement in cross-agency monitoring of young children is also expected to help it to gain a more comprehensive picture of the level of need. In our view, more regular and systematic analysis of trends in the community, and of internal application and referral data, will also help the Ministry to better assess this overall picture.

My staff expected to find that students with similar levels of need and in similar circumstances received similar levels of support, delivered in a timely manner. However, some districts have a greater need for Severe Behaviour Initiative and Speech Language Initiative support, and in some districts this support was not timely enough. In the districts we visited, the assessment and allocation practices varied. This risks variation in the level of support provided to students with similar levels of need and in similar circumstances. The Ministry's model for distributing funding to districts, which is based on the number of school students in each district, may contribute to the variation in practices and timeliness.

The Ministry has appropriate processes in place for checking the quality of its specialist services, gathering client feedback, and tracking individual students' progress at a district level. At the time of our audit, the Ministry did not have information systems that could adequately or reliably collate data at a national level about the support that students were receiving or the progress they were making. After we completed our fieldwork, the Ministry improved the reliability and use of the information held in its outputs database, and gained funding approval for a new data management system. The Ministry has also implemented better systems for collecting, collating, and regularly reporting information, so it can evaluate and plan its support more effectively.

The Ministry is aware of the need for greater national consistency and co-ordination in some of the areas we have identified. The Ministry told us that improved practices and systems are being developed or implemented in 2009/10, including nationally consistent processes for accessing support and allocating funding, a complaints register, and a plan to work with other agencies to address students' behaviour issues. Recent funding decisions reflect some of the work the Ministry has done to address the increasing demand for services, such as provision in the 2009 Budget for increased funding for ORRS and the School High Health Needs Fund. The Government Review of Special Education has also started, which focuses on many of the issues identified in our audit.

We have made 10 recommendations in this report. They encourage the Ministry to:

  • continue to improve its information about the level of need for support;
  • provide students who have similar needs and circumstances, with similar support – regardless of where they live;
  • better assist and explain the initiatives to educators and parents/caregivers; and
  • put in place more effective systems for collating information about the Ministry's support for students.

This report includes the profiles of four students who receive support from the initiatives we examined as part of the audit. To protect their identity we have not used their real names, but the profiles are included to show some of the complex needs and challenges these students have, and how they are being supported by the Ministry. I thank these resilient young people, and their parents, for giving us permission to include their stories.

I would also like to thank the dedicated Ministry staff and stakeholders we interviewed for their help and co-operation during our audit.


Phillippa Smith
Deputy Controller and Auditor-General

22 October 2009

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