A Wellington school's struggle to fund its special needs programme

by Jai Breitnauer / 20 March, 2018

Principal Mark Potter spends $53,000 a year on his school’s special needs programme, drawing from his operating budget to cover the funding shortfall. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

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Berhampore School would rather fund their special needs students than repaint their buildings.

Mark Potter has been the principal of Berhampore School in Wellington for almost two decades – creating what many families believe is a truly inclusive school, in spite of the system.

“When I took over as principal, we had a lot of refugee families, and our community wanted to welcome them,” he says. “We worked hard to make sure we understood them, rather than just tell them how it was. We wanted to really connect them to the community.

“One day, a Somali mum walked in with a child with autism. We thought, why stop at refugees? The same conditions apply to a child with autism, or any other need.

“We have put in place differences in the classroom to enable all children to get along. For example, we have calm cubes, a safe place where a child feeling anxious can retreat to without having to leave the classroom. We work closely with families to find out and plan for what their child needs. It’s essential a school values the opinions of families – most parents arrive with a PhD in their child. We also have 23 teaching assistants for 300 children and a dedicated special needs co-ordinator, and we resource our classrooms according to the need.

“This all comes at a cost. For example, for every child with an ORS [Ongoing Resourcing Scheme] contribution, we have to top it up by about $7000. We have nine ORS students, so we have to find $53,000 a year. It comes from our operational funding. I often say I have no problem funding inclusive education, my problem is that once I’ve spent what I need to spend, I don’t have enough money for my buildings. That’s not the ministry’s approach. Their approach is that you look after the buildings first and then worry about what you can do for the kids. That shows an upside-down values system.

“The MoE have come here telling us we’re doing it wrong, but my board of trustees backs me 100%. That’s very important. Our community has a strong value around inclusion. We believe no one should miss out. But not all schools feel they can cope with children with additional needs, and a lack of support and funding from the MoE incentivises exclusion. What the MoE needs to do is change that attitude by incentivising inclusion, instead.”

Berhampore School in Wellington. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.

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