Nearly 40 per cent of public school students with learning difficulties had to wait more than six months to be assessed by an educational psychologist last year – with some children waiting up to two years – according to data from the Education Department.
The Australian Education Union has labelled the waits “shocking”, saying too many students aren’t getting the help and support funding they need, leaving teachers frustrated and exhausted after spending “countless hours” writing referral applications only to have many rejected.
However, the Education Minister denies there’s a “waitlist” for support, saying “assessment times” have been reduced over the past two years and the State Government is “committed to reducing them further”.
Education Department data provided to InDaily shows 38 per cent of students waited more than six months to be seen by an educational psychologist in 2020, with two per cent waiting two years.
AEU state president Lara Golding said it was “appalling” that nearly 40 per cent of students were waiting more than six months for an assessment and “any student waiting for two years is simply unacceptable”.
“Waiting times for an educational psychologist assessment are shocking,” she told InDaily.
Golding said students who waited for six months or less for an assessment still had to subsequently wait for an application to be written, considered and implemented if successful for disability support funding known as Inclusive Education Support Program (IESP).
“While students and their families are waiting to find out if their level of need is considered significant enough to warrant additional funding, they are often left in large classes without support,” she said.
“In some cases, schools take funding from other areas of the budget to make up the shortfall, but this is often not possible and it is certainly not sustainable.”
Golding called on Education Minister John Gardner to “take urgent action to address these long waiting times”.
“It would be irresponsible to continue to allow children and young people to continue to wait for months and years for support, losing valuable learning time,” she said.
But Gardner said “to be clear, there is no waitlist as such regarding support”.
“If a child has been identified, then they will get support,” he said.
“Schools still have access to IESP funding while students are assessed. During this time, schools are able to provide learning support to these students to continue their education.”
Gardner said there had “never been more resources, more focus, or more money devoted to supporting students who need this sort of assistance, and the extra support we have provided is seeing improvements”.
“Educational psychologist assessment times have been reduced over the past two years and we are committed to reducing them further,” he said.
An Education Department spokesperson said “wait times can vary from site to site depending on demand and location”.
“However, schools are still able to access IESP funding support during waiting times,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said educational psychologist wait times had been reduced during 2019-2020 by “mobilising support from different offices, use of outsourcing (and) reviewing our service delivery models”.
“We are committed to further reducing wait times in 2021,” the spokesperson said.
The department said it employed 64.5 full time equivalent psychologists in student support services.
“In 2019, when the IESP was introduced, school students with disability were allocated $255.2m, compared to $230.6m in 2018, representing a 10.66% increase,” the spokesperson said.
The Department said as of Term 3 last year, more than 21,000 students were being supported by the IESP – about 12 per cent of all enrolments.
The department said this was a 10.5 per cent increase on the previous year, and includes students with and without a diagnosed disability.
“Individual funding applications under the IESP consider the functional need and adjustments required for the child or student, not the diagnosis or label – as such a diagnosis or final assessment is not a prerequisite for requesting additional funding,” the spokesperson said.
“As part of system funding for students with a disability, schools receive up-front funding to use at their discretion, as well as being able to apply for additional funding for individual students.
“The IESP grant introduced in 2019 supports schools to make adjustments for students as well as support newly-enrolled students with immediate needs.”
But Golding said according to budget papers, there was an increase of 15.5 per cent in the number of students with an identified disability, from 16,534 students in 2018 to 19,111 in 2019.
“Funding only increased 10.66 per cent during this time meaning there is actually less funding per student available,” she said.
“Teachers are working incredibly hard to make up the shortfall, but in the end children and young people miss out.
“Teachers who have submitted IESP applications without significant supporting documentation including assessments by psychologists or speech pathologists have had them rejected.”
Golding said the IESP grant replaced a range of other grants already provided to schools including the Students with Learning Difficulties Grants.
“Previously, students identified as requiring medium to low levels of support still received additional targeted individual funding and this has now been rolled into the IESP fund, meaning they no longer receive individual funding,” she said.
“Some schools are using their entire IESP base grant to support students with a speech program, leaving nothing left to support other students.”
Golding supplied anonymous statements to InDaily from teachers concerned about the system and wait times.
One said “our site has struggled to get students assessed”.
“Over the last two years we have jumped through hoops providing evidence for several students,” the teacher said.
“We had only one student that I am aware of approved in 2019. Even after extensive intervention funded by the school, we cannot get anyone out to assess these students.
“We waited until term 4 for only a couple of students to be approved in 2020. We have been informed that support services are stretched and cannot get to schools as they are doing special placements.”
The teacher said “all of the students we referred have severe and complex learning needs”.
“Despite our best efforts, it is challenging in a mainstream classroom to meet the needs of all our students,” the teacher said.
“Teachers are feeling frustrated by a system that is not providing adequate support for all students. It is also frustrating for the families as they don’t understand why their child cannot get the help they need. Meanwhile the gap widens for these students and crushes their wellbeing.
“There are many students that we don’t refer because we know nothing will happen and their needs will not be considered severe enough to warrant support.”
Another teacher said some students at their school had been waiting 18 months to be assessed.
“There have been several examples of students with significant needs – social, emotional and learning – where even after a massive effort to do the One Plan and IESP funding application the outcome was one category above the base allocation but four categories below what the school had requested,” the teacher said.
“The school struggled to meet the needs of this particular student.”
Another teacher said “once a submission is made, students are left with no additional support for months whilst applications are seemingly ‘in progress’”.
“As an example, one of our students has displayed highly problematic and unsafe behaviour towards their teacher and other students,” the teacher said.
“They clearly require a level of support and regulation that cannot be provided at all times in a class of 25 students, however their application was denied after waiting nearly six months for the application to be processed.
“It is heartbreaking as a leader to ask teachers to spend hours collecting information, making referrals for psychological support – that can take more than six to twelve months – all the while managing difficult behaviours only to have applications for much-needed support to allow students to engage safely and successfully in the classroom denied for trivial and bureaucratic reasons.”
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