As I was driving back from the swimming pool this morning, I listened to an interview with Peter Blatchford from University College London which focused on a recent study of teacher aides and the fact that - as counterintuitive it may sound - the children who had the most support from teacher aides improved in their learning the least.
Now, as I said, it may sound counterintuitive at first but... as soon as they'd mentioned it in that interview, I knew why it's happening.
It's a peculiar thing within the education system. My son, The Kid - just as many other kids - gets support from the speech therapy team under New Zealand's Ministry of Education, but I've wondered about the efficacy of such funding. Their finances are stretched and to cover the most kids with the funding available to them, they've stretched their therapists to a point where The Kid, for example, sees a therapist for an hour every two weeks, and nothing during school holidays. Basically, we see a therapist on average for one hour every three weeks. About 17 times a year.
Out of that hour, the first 15 minutes is spent catching up and telling the therapist what The Kid has been doing lately. In the remaining 45 minutes they usually play three board games - a variety that prompts The Kid to speak.
And as much as I've been grateful for the support available, I've also wondered on whether the speech therapy has actually done much, apart from calming me. An hour every three weeks is... very little.
In classrooms across the country, a similar thing is happening. To help primary teachers who struggle with kids that have special needs, Ministry of Education - or schools themselves - assign teacher aides who help with a variety of tasks, often with the kids with learning difficulties. Except... teacher aides are usually the least qualified people in the classroom, and therefore cost the least. (Do you see where this is going?)
Kids who need help the most end up spending the most time with people who are trained the least.
And now fast forward to this recent study which confirmed that, indeed, the kids who get the most support from teacher aides actually learn the least. Yes, there is a positive image around helping and being there for those kids, but it's not actually... efficient. What is needed is a highly skilled approach instead.
I understand that a country's economy is a balance - there cannot be enough money for everything, and so it is a question of priorities. But when I hear a current government talking about lowering income taxes whilst I already see the pressures that are put onto the education system to deliver results in limited funding, I feel a shiver run down my spine.
Education is the key. It *cannot* be set up in a way where parents' incomes dictate what access children get to education and healthcare. It is not funny to expect a family to pay $50+ a week for an hour of specialised therapy when families with small children are usually the ones with the most limited finances - by doing that it damages children who are in their prime learning age and sets them up for all sorts of problems in the future.
Skilled therapy costs, because skills come through education, training and experience - and all of those cost. And there isn't a shortcut available through less qualified aides. Yes, teacher aides have a very important part to play in the classroom - but it's not their job to do therapy which needs the most skills.