SummaryWe are responding to the various television, press and radio coverage on 27 June of the release of the Education Review Office (ERO) report on alternative education.We agree with the review’s outcome that the model of funding and management of alternative education requires a radical overview.However, this is insufficient to address the failure of these vulnerable learners. Action is urgently needed to address the deficiencies of mainstream education, which put tamariki on a pathway to alternative education.It is likely that many of those in alternative education have diagnosed or undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) due to prenatal alcohol exposure.It is estimated that 60,000 children in New Zealand have this lifelong brain disability and will struggle through the education system because of unmet needs in their support.If intervention occurs early it can lead to improved life outcomes for rangatahi with FASD, particularly avoiding school exclusion, involvement in anti-social activities, substance abuse, mental health difficulties and significantly increased incidence of suicide and involvement in crime.The lived experience of whānau supporting people with FASD is that few are able to remain in mainstream schooling throughout their education.We have also observed that alternative education may provide a supporting education environment catering to the needs of those with FASD, enabling them to gain NCEA or vocational qualifications.However this comes at the cost of a more limited education – including limited subject choice and poor resources – due to inadequate funding and often a lack of professional awareness and training.ERO report
An Education Review Office report, released yesterday, found that Alternative Education is failing some of our most vulnerable rangatahi (https://ero.govt.nz/news). The ERO identifies many factors contributing to this failure, including lack of funding, the professional status and training of those employed in the facilities and lack of accountability. We strongly endorse the call for reform of the system.
However we suggest that the system response has to be more broad and look at the failure of the mainstream education system to accommodate the individuals who eventually end up within the alternative education system.
Although there are no data on the prevalence of those with FASD in these facilities, it is likely that they will be a major cohort within the system. The Ministry of Health acknowledges there is evidence that the prevalence of FASD in Aotearoa could be 3-5% of the population. This equates to 60,000 children aged under 18 in Aotearoa.
The vast majority of those will not be diagnosed due to lack of diagnostic capacity and capability, and many are misdiagnosed with other conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). They will require extra supports and understanding through the education system because prenatal alcohol exposure can significantly affect multiple brain domains including executive functioning, inability to process abstract ideas, short term memory difficulties, emotional dysregulation and dysmaturity. It is however a hidden disability and is frequently overlooked in early childhood.
Few receive the supports needed and understanding of the brain disability (unless they fit within the 20% of those with FASD who also have an intellectual disability). Others with FASD do not receive disability support. A recent University of Auckland research study indicated the level of understanding of the disorder amongst education professionals is very low. This is concerning because international research shows that early interventions can provide notable success in limiting the impact of the secondary characteristics of FASD.
The consequences of the lack of accommodation through the mainstream education system sets people with FASD off on a troubled life-course – school exclusion, truancy, substance abuse, anti-social activities, mental health challenges, increased incidence of suicide and crime. By the time they find their way into the alternative education system it is much more difficult to change their life course. Hence the lack of academic achievements and increased likelihood of unemployment highlighted in the ERO review.
The ERO report categorises those in Alternative Education as mainly disengaged young people who have been exposed to crime, violence and trauma. One in six of them have been in care. Yet the link is not made with FASD – Oranga Tamariki acknowledge that approximately 50% of those in care have FASD.
Doesn’t our society care about these vulnerable and disadvantaged children? The fault lies with the education system and society who fail to recognise, act on and advocate for those who are seen to be outside of so-called ‘normal’ society. Yet the outcome affects everyone – through the societal costs of crime, addiction, homelessness and other adverse outcomes.Truancy
Some of those in alternative education have ended up there because of school exclusion and truancy. The government is investing heavily in reduction of truancy, yet we have seen nothing to indicate that the root causes are being investigated systematically. A survey of our members showed few young people with FASD survived the mainstream education system due to a lack of understanding and accommodation of their neurodisability. The truancy reduction initiative represents a good opportunity to address underlying causes of failure to thrive in a mainstream school setting.FASD Life Trajectory
Those affected by FASD experience lifelong physical, behavioural and learning difficulties which affect their interactions within education, health and justice settings. Without support, their entire lives can be extremely challenging for themselves and their whānau, and can also have a huge impact and cost on our society. However, international research shows that with early diagnosis, interventions and the right accommodations and supports, people with FASD can learn, grow and achieve just like anyone else.