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OPINIONSocietyDecember 4, 2020

We miss New Zealand desperately, but we’re staying put in education exile

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Half a million New Zealanders are predicted to return home in the wake of Covid-19, but our family won’t be on that list until New Zealand sorts out its approach to special needs and disability education.

In August 2019 we left our beloved New Zealand, the country my husband and kids are natural citizens of, to return to my family in the UK. We were sure it would be temporary, but so much has changed in 15 months. Now, as Aotearoa braces itself for half a million Kiwi expats to return as refugees of the coronavirus pandemic, we feel sure our names will not be on that list.

It is not that it is not tempting. We traded a semi-rural paradise by Te Henga beach for a small, mid-terrace home in Bristol, possibly the UK’s rainiest city. Financially, we are worse off in the UK too. I know some New Zealanders cry that returning ex-pats will run screaming as soon as they see the shitty housing stock and low salaries, but we earn significantly less in West England than West Auckland, and our house is only warm because it’s tiny and sandwiched into a cluster like a penguin. Why on earth then are we not packing our bags? To quote ’90s-era Tony Blair (before Jacinda went to work for him), “education, education, education”.

The struggles my son had at school in New Zealand are no secret. His clutch of diagnoses like ASD, ADHD and anxiety were poorly catered for in the underfunded and under-resourced mainstream system. Dedicated and caring teachers tried and failed to give him what he needed because there simply wasn’t enough money in the pot. I, like many other parents, watched Tracey Martin’s Tomorrow’s Schools review process with hope. Finally, I thought, change will be made. But when the results of the review, Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together came in to effect in August 2020, I wasn’t the only one left disappointed. When I asked what people thought of the changes on the VIPs – Equity in Education Facebook group, which I was bowled over by the number of comments, mostly very negative.

I asked IHC director of advocacy Trish Grant why yet again parents of high-needs children feel thrown under the bus. According to her, Education in New Zealand is “at the opposite end of the continuum to a rights-based, reasonable accommodation, child-centred model”.

Following the review, changes to the system of learning support have been limited, and not backed up with any real increase in dollars. There is seemingly no recognition that children are currently just not getting the support they need because of budget constraints. In addition, many of the changes tabled by the review are yet to emerge, months after they apparently became law. There has been no update on the implementation of the Learning Support Action Plan, or the establishment of the promised Education Service Agency, for example.

“Only a quarter of the learning support coordinators needed are in place, with many disgruntled by the lack of support from the Ministry of Education,” adds Grant. “Work around the new legal obligations for boards of trustees to measure and report on inclusion has not even started.”

Grant says it is chaos, and that the system is so complicated it actually prevents those in need from accessing help.

ECE teacher Frian Wadia, a parent advocate from the VIPs – Equity in Education group, says important aspects of initial consultation with parents were removed from the final review document.

“The initial recommendations by the Tomorrow’s School Review Taskforce had more measures for accountability that would probably have improved inclusive practices and policies,” she says. One key change that failed to happen was mandatory board of trustee training, another was the establishment of student and parent advocacy panels. “That essential advocacy role is missing.”

Parent advocate Giovanni Tiso says the reforms so far have been “incredibly disappointing”. He notes that an alternative chapter relating to learning support was submitted to the taskforce by advocacy group Education for All, but was largely ignored.

Here’s an excerpt of that alternative chapter for the review document:

“… disabled children and young people are disabled by an education system that defines them as separate and different in negative ways and/or fails to provide the high quality, inclusive environments needed to fully participate, learn well and have friends.”

This quote struck me because reading it, I realised these things are finally available to my son via the education road he is now on in the UK. For the first time, he feels he truly belongs.

Don’t get me wrong, education in Britain is also in crisis. It took us 15 months, all of our white privilege, and – eventually – a solicitor to access the supports our son desperately needs. It was not an easy ride. But unlike in New Zealand, there was always light at the end of the tunnel, because our right to a tribunal if we don’t get what we are entitled to is enshrined in law. The supports we have eventually been able to access in the UK are incredible. It isn’t just better than what we had in New Zealand – it simply doesn’t exist in New Zealand.

Our son now attends a school with a non-exclusion policy. He attends part-time based on his needs, not what the school can manage. Every member of staff at the school has specialist training and recognises all behaviour as communication. There are sensory rooms, animal therapy, and an occupational therapist and speech and language therapist available when needed – no jumping through hoops. Best of all, he has one-to-one support from a trained teacher aide – not the cleaner when she has some spare time, or an inexperienced local mum hired for pin money, but someone who has been invested in, who has skills that are valued and used well. How could we possibly leave that behind?

We miss Aotearoa deeply. We miss our friends, the beach, our cats and of course our family. The UK is a wreck, with a bully for a home secretary setting the tone for a country in crisis. But school, previously a source of incredible unrest for us, is now the utopia we dreamed of. I just wish all New Zealand kids could have the chance our son now has, but the Tomorrow’s School review has been a missed opportunity. For us, it appears to be the final closing of the door to our Kiwi dream.

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