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Are we there yet? The bumpy road to inclusive education

An independent review panel says the education system is not working well enough for students with special educational needs and disability, and wants more funding to reduce the burden on parents and schools. But, argues IHC’s Trish Grant, nothing short of widespread transformation is required.

Max, now 14, began his education at a special school but wanted to go mainstream. He sought to be included and to have a sense of belonging.

His mum, Antonia, worked hard to lay the groundwork at his new school – to inform teachers about his disability and ensure his needs were met.

“We needed a school that would support Max to achieve his own version of success rather than forcing him to conform, a school that would support his right to be there, and appreciated poor behaviour can be the result of feeling like you don’t belong,” says Antonia.

“We needed a school prepared to include Max with a ‘whole school’ approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).”

It has been 30 years now since it was made a right for children with disabilities to attend their local school, but their journey to be included on the same basis as their non-disabled peers in the classroom is still ongoing.

IHC has been asking these questions for many decades now: Do children and young people with disabilities get a fair deal in New Zealand’s schools? And does the education system give schools what they need to do their best by all learners, including those with disabilities?

Unfortunately, the answer is categorically no.

This has been backed up by a new report from the Independent Taskforce appointed to review Tomorrow’s Schools, which has found that, systematically, students with learning support requirements do not have the same access to education as other students.

These same students, and their family/whānau, have been made to feel unwelcome when seeking enrolments in some schools. And, once enrolled, the support needed for those students to learn and participate is unavailable, contestable, highly fragmented or almost non-existent. Even when approved, it takes far too long to arrive.

The report clearly concludes that tinkering with the current education system will not work, and states that nothing short of a cultural and structural transformation will suffice.

IHC is in full agreement with these findings. We know from evidence that many students with disabilities, along with their families and schools, have struggled for far too long. We know that children are being turned away at school doors, or they are told they can’t complete a full day and have access to the curriculum.

This doesn’t happen for any other group of New Zealand students.

We know this because in 2008 we lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, arguing that children with a range of disabilities experience discrimination at their local school. Despite a preliminary hearing in the Human Rights Review Tribunal in 2015, IHC’s substantive complaint is still to be heard.

So, are we there yet? It’s the infamous phrase uttered on many a family road trip, where the end doesn’t come soon enough or the road is bumpy.

The report from the Independent Taskforce confirms that the road has, and continues to be, full of potholes, barriers, traffic jams and dead-ends. We’re not even close.

We are not there yet when the support students need to learn is not funded or available and there are impossible hoops to squeeze through.

We are not there yet when stories of success are down to luck and love – when great families and students work with great schools to make an imperfect system work.

We are not there yet when teachers have not been given the knowledge or ongoing support to teach all children.

We are not there yet when there is no accurate data about how many children need the support to learn or what that would cost.

We are not there yet when attendance and achievement of students with a disability is not monitored or evaluated.

We are not there yet when students with a disability are punished or disciplined for behaviours associated with their disability.

In Max’s case, his new school realised quickly that if he didn’t follow the rules it wasn’t necessarily ‘naughty’ behaviour but a need not being met. The school was careful to keep rules simple and when rules were broken to ask why.

Teachers accepted some of Max’s more out-of-the-box behaviour, and warded off concerns from other parents with positivity and enthusiasm for Max’s role in the school.

With support from staff, an inclusion network was created to better meet the needs of pupils with disabilities and learning differences. They also secured extra funding for programmes like music therapy, and created a new format for school reports to celebrate the successes of children like Max.

While Max has been advocated for by his school from the start and included, this isn’t the case for all classrooms around New Zealand.

Max’s mum says he’s valued by friends and teachers, has learned well at his own level, and become a happier person.

“I’d love to see all schools including their SEND children in this way,” says Antonia.

The Independent Taskforce’s recommendations take us some distance along the road with its call for transformation of the education system. However the journey will not be complete until the legislation recognises and responds to what students with disabilities need for a fair go.

We will reach our destination when students with disabilities have enshrined in legislation their rights to a quality inclusive education system along with their rights to reasonable accommodation.

We will reach it when students with disabilities who require supports to learn have an enforceable right to education.

We will reach it when students with disabilities and their families can access to a legal mechanism that has the power to right a wrong.

A transformational solution is required. The system is broken, and New Zealand is failing children with disability. It’s time for the government to show bravery and think beyond election cycles.

The right to turn up to the local school gate does not count as an explicit right to inclusive education.

We need a system that works for all children.

IHC wants to hear from parents of children who need additional support about their experiences with the education system. Use the Twitter hashtag #AreWeThereYetNZ or visit campaigns.ihc.org.nz.


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