Mum backs disability training call

CATHY Page was all for integration before her autistic son started school - but then reality hit.

Cathy Page and son Ben Matrix, 8, of Devonport, at Giant Steps at Deloraine. Picture: Paul Scambler

Cathy Page and son Ben Matrix, 8, of Devonport, at Giant Steps at Deloraine. Picture: Paul Scambler

Her now eight-year-old son Ben Matrix started prep at his local primary school in Hobart and in his first year coped quite well.

But as he grew and was expected to spend more time sitting at a desk, any thoughts that he would be able to function like other children at a mainstream school with limited care provided by a teacher aide, went out the window.

Ms Page, now of Devonport, is one of a growing number of parents, educators and those in the sector who supports teacher aides and is standing up for them to get professional learning in working with children with disabilities.

There are 1538 teacher aides employed in the public system in Tasmania, yet no one knows how many of these have training to work with students with disabilities.

It is well known among educators and those in the sector, that the vast majority of TAs spend their days only with students with disabilities and learning difficulties - yet they have no, or limited, training to work specifically with these children.

In Ben's case, Ms Page said the aides did not understand his needs or how to deal with him and he would get violent, they would then respond by treating him like a "typical" child and make the situation worse.

On one occasion other parents told her that they saw a number of aides hold Ben down on the ground when he was having a "meltdown".

On one occasion other parents told her that they saw a number of aides hold Ben down on the ground when he was having a "meltdown".

Another time she was called to school because Ben had a "meltdown" but by the time she arrived, staff had lost him and he was eventually found across the road at another campus.

Ben now attends Giant Steps at Deloraine, an independent specialist school for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders.

Ms Page said she chose to leave Hobart, her family and friends, to move to the North so Ben could attend the school and he's a different boy.

He receives the best care appropriate for his level of autism, he loves school and he is learning.

Ultimately, Ms Page would like to see a return of more special schools in Tasmania and that would provide a much greater, focused level of care for Ben and other children with a wide range of ability levels and learning difficulties.

Only a handful of special schools remain in Tasmania, with most closed in the 1990s during a push for integration into mainstream schools.

Both the Australian Education Union state branch and Tasmanian Association of State School Organisations say there is growing unhappiness amongst educators and parents with the situation.

AEU president Terry Polglase said teacher aides were no where near valued for the work they do and you would find similar situations, as that occurred to Ben, in every school.

He said aides were given mixed messages - they're highly valued but treated poorly - they receive minimal pay, are not paid for holidays and given limited support to improve qualifications.

"A career structure is needed so that the level of skill each possesses is acknowledged and rewarded," he said.

TASSO president Jenny Eddington said a British model where students with special needs attended a mainstream school but which had a specific unit or annexe just for them, appeared to be quite successful.

However, she was unsure where the government would be able to come up with the money required.

Department deputy secretary early years and schools Liz Banks said the department offers aides professional development opportunities for working with students with disabilities, as well as online modules to ensure staff meet their obligations under the disability standards.

"Professional learning opportunities are undertaken at an individual school level, with school principals assessing the needs of their school community and the skills and professional learning requirements of their staff," Ms Banks said.

Those in sector argue though that few schools can afford their TAs to take part, so the problem remains.

Ms Banks said under the one year Respectful Schools funding model, many schools had received additional funding and some would have spent this on teacher aides.

Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff did not to respond to questions.

Opposition education spokeswoman Michelle O'Byrne said teacher aides play a significant role in supporting students with disabilities and it is important that they are well resourced.


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