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Dyslexic learners challenging education for support

Apr 3rd, 2013 | By | Category: Diversity, Featured Article, Features, Student Features

STEPHEN Press is a teacher of video journalism and one of New Zealand’s top news cameramen.

His amusing anecdotes, expansive body language and clear instruction keep students interested.

But when it comes to writing up a timetable for the next day’s practical exercise, he hates it.

Press has dyslexia and like most of the estimated one in 10 people who have the condition – including his teenage daughter – he finds writing difficult.

It is his daughter’s generation that is beginning to benefit from recognition of the learning disability, with education bureaucrats working out how to support dyslexic learners.

Dyslexic individuals tend to think in pictures rather than words and receive information in a different way to ‘neurotypical’ thinkers.

According to the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand’s website, the receiving and retrieving of information occurs in a different part of the brain.

The condition is often misunderstood and undiagnosed despite being identified more than a century ago.

Journalism student Kristen Paterson describes the frustration that having dyslexia can cause to a young learner.

“At school I was prevented from participating in areas where I could excel.

“I was not allowed to join the drama class because I wasn’t achieving at maths.”

Children with dyslexia are often labelled as slow, lazy or disruptive when they struggle with aspects of school work.

Kristen recently achieved her 80 words per minute in Teeline shorthand.

“It was extra hard to write the outlines because I need to be able to phonetically spell the long hand words that they are based on.”

In 2007, the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand successfully lobbied the government to recognise dyslexia as a specific learning disability.

The recognition means that secondary school students with dyslexia can apply for Special Assessment conditions (SACs) when sitting NCEA external exams.

SACs can include reader/writer assistance, separate accommodation, extra time to complete the exam, or the use of a computer.

In order to qualify for SACs, students must have been assessed by a registered professional (costing around $700).

Stephen Press completed an assessment last year along with his 14 year old daughter.

“We both have dyslexia, she needed the assessment and as I’d never been tested, I decided to do it as well.

It was interesting as it confirmed things I always knew but it also identified things I wasn’t aware of.”

As a year 10 student, Stephen’s daughter completed some NCEA units with special assistance provided by the school in 2012.

When a student reaches Year 11, the approval and funding must be sought from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority.

Last year NZQA received 2535 new applications for SACs which was a far higher number than anticipated.

Proportionately there were also an increased number of applications that were declined.  Of the 535 that were declined 455 applications were overturned on appeal.

Many of the applications were initially declined because the wrong assistance had been requested, says deputy chief executive of NZQA, Richard Thornton.

“Some applications were for a reader/writer when they really needed use of a computer or regular breaks.

The good thing is that we did manage to overturn most of the applications that were initially declined.”

Mr Thornton, appointed in January 2012, says there has been confusion during the last three years.

“NZQA is conducting a review that is expected to take six months to complete. Any amendments that result from it will be in place in 2014.”

Trevor Crosby is president of Auckland-based group, Dyslexia Parent Support. Parents cannot make the applications, they must be completed by the schools so it is essential that everyone is well informed he says.

“The NZQA criteria are not transparent and the cut off points are not clear. It is not just about equal rights to educational opportunities, it is enshrined in human rights legislation.”

The group would like to see tacit approval for SACs when students are in year 9.

This view is shared by Guy Pope-Mayell DFNZ Chair of Trustees.

“If students were granted the approval sooner they could decide which assistance works best for them.  By the time they reach year 11 they may decide they don’t need SACs for external exams.”

Schools provide variable levels of learning support for year 9 and 10 students and some are dependent on assistance from volunteers.

Stephen Press says his daughter has great support at her current school, whereas the last one she attended was unable to provide adequate assistance.

The number of high decile schools applying for SACs last year vastly outnumbered applications from lower decile schools. Decile 10 pupils made up about 28% of all SAC candidates.

DFNZ has concerns that this indicates shortcomings in the current system.

“SACs are expensive to manage, so clearly lower decile schools are at a disadvantage. All schools need to have access to a pool of funds that is specifically for this – otherwise other priorities steal this right from students that learn differently.   Students granted SACs last year only represent 2.4% of students sitting exams. With a conservative estimate of at least 10% of the population having dyslexia, it is inevitable that we’re going to see more and more applications for this much needed support,” says Guy Pope- Mayell

Richard Thornton agrees the number of applicants is likely to grow along with an increased awareness of dyslexia.

In addition to the review, NZQA is taking a road show to schools this year to increase understanding of the SACs application process.

IMAGES: Liz Wylie; iStockphoto

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  1. Very good report Liz. Thanks for all of this information. Recently we found out members of our family have dyslexia and even though both of them have been very successful in their lives financially, it meant a lot of hard work on their part and staff to help with the figures side of their businesses. When they were going to school of course, this problem was not recognised and therefore they were both forced to leave school as soon as they reached the leaving age of 15 at the time, so that their lives would be less boring for them as school systems did not treat either of them well.

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