Schools with mostly inclusive practice

ERO found that approximately half of the primary and secondary schools in this evaluation demonstrated inclusive practice for students with high needs, albeit with the need for minor improvements. The staff at these schools demonstrated good practice in teaching students with high needs and in ensuring that that they took a full part in the social, cultural and sporting life of the school. The areas of strength for the personnel at these schools were their:

  • ethical leadership and standards;
  • coordinated and informed approaches; and
  • innovative and flexible practice.

Ethical leadership and standards

Commitment in the face of challenges

The staff at the most inclusive schools demonstrated a commitment to educate students with high needs. This commitment went beyond offering a welcoming environment to students, and extended to ensuring that the school made adaptations to cater for students with high needs and their families.

At these schools, principals, Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCO) and the wider staff expressed the importance of meeting the needs of students, rather than ‘fitting’ a student to the school. In order to include students with high needs the staff at these schools led changes to the buildings, equipment and teaching programme. This can be seen in the example set out below.

The parents of one student with high needs were greeted by an enthusiastic principal when they went to discuss enrolling their daughter. These parents had not received such a warm welcome at other schools.

Subsequently the principal worked with the family to develop an individual learning programme for the girl who was in a wheelchair, had autism and did not speak. She was enrolled in a mainstream class and took part in almost all class activities. One of the activities the student had taken part in was a dance class where she had used a walking frame to straighten her legs in time with the music. As part of the programme the principal also organised for the child to use a heated pool at the retirement village to help strengthen her muscles.

In order that the school was ready for the student, the principal got training and background information from GSE staff on her complex health needs. A SENCO from another school spent a day in the school with the principal, GSE staff, teacher and teacher aide providing training on strategies for learning. Regular visits from a physiotherapist, speech-language therapist and occupational therapist assisted with programme development, needs assessment and assistive equipment.

The commitment shown by the principal and school staff appeared to influence the friendly approach to this student by her peers. The other students at the school took turns at reading to her in the classroom and being her buddy in the playground. Fellow students also joined together to paint the wheelchair ramp she used to get to technology class

A caring culture

The above example also demonstrates how a caring culture developed around a student with high needs. ERO found several other examples of how a caring culture can operate at the inclusive schools. For example, at one school a Year 8 student with Down syndrome and autism had become a popular member of the class. The student participated in all classroom activities and was genuinely welcomed by his peers. After showing some interest in wheels and bikes the caretaker, along with several classmates, built the student a go-kart.

At another school a student with high needs wanted to represent the school in a cross country event. Unfortunately, because of her poor eyesight, the student could not navigate the course on her own. An older student at the school volunteered to run alongside her so that she could compete in the event.

Experienced and able leadership and staff

The high professional standards of the staff at inclusive schools were linked to their experience in working with a diverse range of students. Staff at the inclusive schools drew on a wide range of knowledge, strategies and networks to support students with high needs and their families.

The examples given above demonstrate how ethical school leadership influences the development of an inclusive school culture. The role played by school principals was vital but other areas of school leadership were also important to developing an inclusive approach across the school.

One of the most important roles requiring an experienced and able leader is that of SENCO. The SENCO’s role is pivotal for ensuring that students with high needs have the learning programmes and support they need to achieve at school. The SENCO also works with other staff to ensure that professional development is in place and that effective teaching strategies are applied in classrooms.

Teacher aides, as well as teachers, need appropriate professional development. Targeted professional development for teacher aides encourages them to understand the sorts of effective learning and behavioural strategies they should employ. It emphasises the role of the teacher aide in relation to the teacher and outlines strategies for how teacher aides can support the social relationships and inclusion of students. This is especially important given that, in some cases, students can become socially and emotionally dependent on teacher aides and effectively excluded from contact with their peers. [1] Effective professional development also gives teacher aides information about the sorts of health, privacy and medical issues that affect students with high needs.

Managing the available funding

The personnel at inclusive schools noted that the amount of funding they received for students they perceived to have high needs could create challenges when it came to paying teacher aide hours and specialist learning equipment. Despite this challenge, it was evident that these schools found a solution that supported the inclusion of these students. For instance, students that the school considered to have high needs, and who did not qualify for additional government funding, had teacher aide hours paid for out of locally-raised funds. Boards also changed their priorities when it was identified that such students required additional support.

Some school personnel were adept at getting whatever funding was available from government and non-government agencies. This could include RTLB, GSE, Behaviour Support Worker (BSW), the Interim Response Fund, Child Adolescent and Family Service (CAFS) and Child Youth and Family service (CYF). The fact that the current funding framework for special needs often appears to reward the quality of a funding application, rather than the actual level of need, is a potential issue that needs more investigation.

However, the use of locally-raised funds for including students with special needs reflects wider funding issues for schools. ERO’s 2006 review of operational funding [2] found some schools relied on locally-raised funds to help run their school. Similarly, some schools were using locally-raised funds to include students with special needs. Given their varying ability to raise funds locally this can create pressure for schools, especially in funding support for those students who the school considers to be high needs, but who do not qualify for additional government funding, especially ORRS funding.

Self review questions for your school

School culture and leadership for including students with high needs

  1. To what extent do the staff at your school expect to adapt their practice to support the achievement of students with high needs?
  2. How caring is the culture of your school towards students with high needs?
  3. To what extent do staff at your school have access to a wide range of knowledge, strategies and networks to support students with high needs, and their whānau and families?

Coordinated and informed approaches

Teamwork, systems and relationships

Schools that demonstrated the most inclusive practice for students with high needs had well-organised systems, effective teamwork, and constructive relationships with outside agencies and with families and whānau. The systems, processes and relationships at these schools worked well to identify and support the education of students with high needs. They helped people, both inside and outside the school, to identify and solve any problems, develop effective processes and/or celebrate and promote student success.

Several schools held regular meetings, both inside the school and with outside agencies, to deal proactively with any issues that involved all students, including students with high needs. For example, at one secondary school, weekly meetings occurred between an Assistant Principal, deans and the RTLB. Multi‑agency meetings had also been held with GSE, the RTLB, Child Youth and Family, police, an alternative education provider, the truancy service and the school counsellor. In addition a special needs management committee operated with the principal, the teacher in charge of special needs education, an additional member of the senior management team and a parent representative of the board of trustees. The role of the management committee involved appointing staff, approving programmes and promoting parent/whānau/iwi partnerships.

In addition to these meetings, the staff from the special needs department met once a week to plan and review student progress. Individual education plans were reviewed twice yearly. These meetings involved parents, teachers, teacher aides, GSE and, where practical, students. These meetings ensure that all the relevant health, home‑life, academic and social information relevant to a student was coordinated to support the student’s successful inclusion at school.

Working with families/whānau

Inclusive schools worked well with the families of students with high needs. The basis of an effective relationship between the school and family members was open communication. Good communication at the enrolment stage made it clear which health, social and academic issues the family saw as important. Good communication also made it easier to set goals for individual education plans s and, once a child was working in the classroom, made it possible for teachers and parents to work together to support student learning and development.

Inclusive schools used the same sorts of communication strategies as they did for the parents and care-givers of other students. This included electronic note-books, face‑to‑face communication, email and phone calls to talk with parents and care‑givers. ERO found that parents’ receiving good news about their child’s day at school was important. This information helped parents to be proud of their child. It also enhanced the working relationship between the child’s family and the school. 

Use of information

The nature of information available to school staff, and how they used it to help students with high needs, was fundamental to the quality of a school’s inclusion. Inclusive schools used information regarding student achievement, interests, strengths, medical conditions, behaviour and parental expectations to inform the programme and support they gave to each student with high needs.

Individual education plans needed specific measureable goals and/or objectives for the student. These could cover a range of fields including academic, social and extra‑curricular activities. Where possible, individual education plans included the student’s perspective or voice on the learning goals. Student interests and strengths were an important focus for inclusive schools, not just the areas in which a student with high needs may struggle.

The feedback for individual education plans often included observations from GSE staff. This type of input helped identify specific strategies that were working with the student as well as how they could be modified to support future learning and engagement.

Other information about a student with high needs was useful for placing that child with a particular teacher. Some large schools, including intermediate schools, used the range of information, such as the strengths, interests, needs and medical issues of a student, to ensure a good match between them and their class teacher.

A detailed and up‑to‑date special needs register gave schools a base for understanding the types of educational need for students with high or moderate needs. Inclusive schools also had information about the initiatives they had for all special needs students and how effective these were in supporting their academic and social development. This was a good way for the school to review and improve its performance in special needs.

Managing school transitions

The effective coordination of staff at inclusive schools was evident in their management of entry and exit transitions for students with high needs. At their best, transitions involved several staff, working together with a student and their family so that the specific needs of a student were taken into account in making a transition as effective as possible.

In one example of transitioning a five-year-old with high needs to a school, the approaches used involved:

  • having pre-entry visits to the school over one or two terms;
  • meetings between the staff of the Early Childhood Education (ECE) service;
  • the involvement of GSE and other agencies working with the student and family;
  • putting into place any necessary building or equipment needs; [3]
  • hiring and training teacher aides; and
  • ensuring individual education plan was completed with short and longer term goals.

A strategy that helped the transition of several students to their new schools included the use of photos or learning stories. These helped some students with high needs know the routines, people and environment of their new school. Contributions to these learning stories could be made by the student, parents, staff at a student’s exit school or early childhood centre as well as the staff and students at the new school.

Another effective strategy involved teachers discussing with their classes the differences in routine and behaviour they might expect from a new student with high needs. These discussions gave staff a chance to model and emphasise the sorts of behaviour that would make a student with high needs feel welcome at the school.

In some cases five-year-olds would attend their new school in a part-time capacity. This enabled a student to develop a sense of safety in their new environment and/or to build up the physical stamina that a day at school requires. It is important that such transition decisions are made in the best interests of the student, rather than the school and its staff. Parents and GSE specialists should be consulted about part-time attendance to confirm that it is the best possible decision for the student.

Transition and support at a low decile primary school

One low decile school used a variety of strategies to successfully enrol a six-year-old with ADHD [4] and severe behavioural difficulties. The student had been stood down from two other schools and, for several months previously, had been homeschooled by his mother.

Staff at the school worked with a Behaviour Support Worker from GSE to prepare his transition to the school. They collected information from the previous schools and the child’s family so they would understand the specific issues affecting the child’s behaviour. The subsequent transition plan focused on ‘working with others.’

Initially the child would frequently speak to staff and students by swearing or shouting. He would often not participate in classroom learning, disliked any exercise/physical activity and wanted to leave the school. In these early stages he also assaulted and abused some staff and students at the school.

The school did not stand the child down, but instead ensured that he was withdrawn from class if he exhibited the early signs of non-compliant behaviour. The principal and classroom teacher also made it clear to the child that he was cared about and that, even though he wanted to leave the school, they wanted to keep him.

The classroom teacher implemented some additional strategies to support the boy’s positive behaviour. This included taking a few minutes every morning to encourage the student. "You're going to have a really good day today…” or “Today is a new day and a new start …” (especially if there had been a problem the day before). The teacher also reminded the child of the consequences if he left the school grounds or assaulted anyone.

The teacher employed a ‘no surprises’ policy if there was going to be a reliever in the class or a timetable change. This involved the teacher talking through any upcoming changes with the student. This approach made it easier for the student to be mentally prepared and helped avoid a change of routine leading to behavioural problems.

One of the biggest changes the child had to face was when the classroom teacher went overseas for two weeks of the term. The school used the same reliever for the class over this time. The classroom teacher also provided the child with a laminated map of the countries she was visiting. In addition, she sent emails and text messages to him as encouragement while she was away.

The child’s behaviour has improved over time. He has been at the school for nearly two years and although his behaviour can still be challenging, the focus for the school is now on the child’s learning. His reading has improved significantly in recent times and he has become an enthusiastic participant in the school’s mini-ball team and swimming programme.

The school has kept the same teacher with the child from Years 2 to 4 to make the most of the positive relationship that has been developed. She receives daily hugs from this student, in marked contrast to their initial relationship. The teacher has sought to find important interests for the student, and as a result, he has been on the classroom gardening duty for over 12 months.

Self review questions for your school

Teamwork, working with families, using information and transitions

  1. To what extent does the school hold internal meetings, and meetings with external people, to support students with special needs?
  2. To what extent does the school’s relationship with the parents of students with high needs support the inclusion and achievement of these students?
  3. How well does the school use various forms of information about students’ achievement, social interests and physical skills, to better include and support students with high needs?
  4. To what extent does the school have the systems, coordination, links with external agencies and internal expertise to support the transition of students with high needs both to and from their school?

Innovative and flexible practice

As the above example indicates, good practice in being inclusive requires innovation and flexibility. Staff at inclusive schools were effective at managing the complex or unique challenges related to including students with high needs. Despite these challenges they continued to focus on the individual needs of students.

The most important area in which inclusive schools could be innovative was in their pedagogy for students with high needs. An inclusive pedagogy involves understanding what a student can achieve and designing a programme that engages that student. For some students with high needs their learning programme was essentially the same as other students. For other students with high needs an entirely different approach was required.

Some schools used the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki, to develop meaningful learning experiences for particular students. The use of Te Whāriki is especially useful for those students who are not yet operating at level 1 of The New Zealand Curriculum. Te Whāriki allows teachers to identify the strengths and interests of students and develop a curriculum that is relevant to these aspects.

Using strengths and interests to develop a curriculum for students with high needs is also consistent with The New Zealand Curriculum. The work of inclusive schools provides examples of how this can be done. At one school a boy’s interest in film and media was used by teachers to involve him in videoing elements of a physical education class. The boy’s use of a wheelchair had precluded him from participating in this class directly.

Schools were also innovative in facilitating the social context for students with high needs. Some students with high needs required additional support to develop friendships at school. At the most inclusive schools teachers and teacher aides had developed networks of students around students with high needs to promote their social inclusion in the school. At some schools this involved developing a lunchtime and interval buddy system. One school established a friendship group who worked with the student to help him learn how to relate to his peers.

Other examples of innovative school practices included simple systems for particular students with high needs. For instance one school used student specific signs to provide directions for an autistic student. This student had previously ‘wandered’ from the school site and the signs helped this student to stay on the school grounds. Another school had painted yellow lines on the school playground to help a partially sighted student find her way back to her classroom.

Including a new entrant student with high needs

The inclusion of a new student with high needs at a small, middle decile school began with a comprehensive transition plan worked on by the school, health professionals, GSE and staff from the girl’s kindergarten. The plan included short term goals and long term learning goals. One of the short-term goals was that the student would be able to use “Yes” and “No” as accurate responses. Longer-term goals focused on the student learning to indicate her needs and wants.

The transition process included several discussions with the girl’s parent and visits to the school by the girl. Social stories with photographs helped the girl understand the move from kindergarten to primary school. The visits included her taking part in school learning activities. During these times the student was accompanied by her kindergarten teacher aide. The school’s new entrant teacher also visited the kindergarten to help build relationships with all the intending students, including the student with high needs.

Once the student began school the class teacher was released on a weekly basis to work with high needs student, using 0.1 release time under the child’s ORRS funding. The principal oversaw the planning for student and provided support for the work of the classroom teacher. In turn, the teacher set the teacher aide clear expectations of how she was to assist the girl to learn maths, writing, reading skills as well as being part of the class.

At the time of the ERO review, the girl had been at the school for almost a year. Frequent communication between her teacher and parents has kept them up to date with her achievements over the year. The parents have been involved in the individual education plan meetings along with the various health and education staff. These meetings have also served as a way to talk about what the student is able to do. For example at one of the meetings it was noted that she was able to play on the computer but has difficulty taking turns with other children. The adults at the meeting subsequently emphasised the importance of helping the girl learn to share and take turns.

The individual education plans provided specific targets in the areas of oral language, social skills (relationships), reading, writing and maths. Under each of these headings the teacher and teacher aide wrote ongoing assessment notes that were dated. These notes helped identify that the student was making progress.

Since her enrolment the student had made good progress. She was able to write letters and some high frequency words. She could repeat some sounds she heard and was reading at level 5. [5] In mathematics, she was counting to 10 and working on counting up to 20. The student had progressed socially and was willing to take part in classroom routines – including when it was tidy up time.

Meeting the diverse needs of students at a large secondary school

The work of a special education department at one secondary school has helped to ensure that the needs of all students, including students with high needs, have been met. The department oversees several programmes for students of varying educational need. At the time of the review, there were 110 students on the school’s special education register.

Nine students with high or very high needs were enrolled in a homeroom special needs unit. These students have been mainstreamed as ability and interests allow. All but one attend mainstream form classes, some independently, others with teacher aide support. Four spend the greater part of the school day in mainstream classes. Their individual education plans incorporate goals for social skills and the curriculum. The unit has at least one session a day where all students are together for language class. This class integrates work on sign language, literacy and numeracy.

Life skills are taught to students in the school’s special education unit. One simple strategy the unit uses to teach students social and financial skills has been to give students small amounts of money to buy items at the canteen.

The focus of the unit’s health and safety programmes has been on developing self esteem and personal hygiene, as well as developing an awareness of school emergency procedures. Technology has included crafts, fundraising activities, planning and cooking a meal, and the development of computer skills.

Various other special education programmes have operated across the school with different levels of support from the staff in the unit. For example the special education department coordinated basic skills classes for Year 10 students at risk of underachieving and a support class for Year 9 students with low levels of literacy. Some Years 9 and 10 students, with very low reading ages, have received individualised programmes from an external tutor.

In addition, the learning support department has provided mainstream support for several students; mentoring for students in Years 9 to 11; reader-writer programmes for several junior and senior students; and referral programmes for students with particular learning or behavioural concerns.

Areas for improvement at inclusive schools

Despite the good practice shown by the inclusive schools, there were still ways in which many of these schools could further include students with high needs. In general these did not substantially limit the degree to which the schools were inclusive for their students with high needs. However, these development areas may have been more significant should other students with high needs enrol. ERO’s concerns included:

  • teachers having insufficient time to plan for students with high needs;
  • teachers at a secondary school having insufficient knowledge of formative assessment and/or differentiated teaching to specifically meet the needs of students;
  • little Māori or Pacific presence in the school although several of the students with high needs were Māori or Pacific;
  • some IEP goals lacking in detail, making it difficult to identify progress;
  • teacher aides doing too much of the programme planning with too little input from teachers;
  • weaknesses in writing ORRS applications, meaning that some students with high needs may not have received funding to which they may have been entitled;
  • the principal of the school also operating as the SENCO;
  • some physical access difficulties (including a split site and some two-storey buildings);
  • evidence of teasing/taunting by other students in some contexts;
  • a shortage of teacher-aide cover (for instance if a teacher aide is ill); and
  • too high a work load for the SENCO.

Self review questions for your school

Cultural identity, ORRS, Individual learning programmes and school safety

  1. To what extent does the school support the cultural identity of students with high needs?
  2. To what extent are the school’s ORRS applications successful for gaining support for the student?
  3. To what extent do all teaching staff know how to develop differentiated programmes for students with high needs?
  4. To what extent do individual education plans provide specific, measureable, attributable, realistic and time-bound goals for student achievement?
  5. How does the school know that students with high needs are safe from bullying?

Schools with some inclusive practices

Approximately 30 percent of schools were found to have some areas of good performance in including students with high needs. However, ERO found that these schools also had some significant areas that needed improvement. In general these schools had ‘pockets’ of inclusive practice across the school, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. For example, some schools demonstrated some good levels of commitment, but lacked systems for monitoring the inclusion of students with high needs. Other schools showed coordinated and informed approaches, although the inconsistent quality of their teaching did not support the achievement of all students, including those with high needs.

Examples of specific strengths at these schools included:

  • caring relationships across the school;
  • good relationships with parents and external agencies;
  • well-developed IEPs for students, with detailed goals or objectives reviewed each term;
  • a focus on student strengths and abilities;
  • good transition processes that involved the family and resulted in a child’s successful start to school;
  • the SENCO providing good monitoring of students and assistance for mainstream teachers;
  • staff able to differentiate their teaching and include students with high needs in the classroom activity;
  • students’ high levels of participation in the extra-curricular life of the school; and
  • celebrating the success of students with high needs.

The specific weaknesses found by ERO at these schools included:

  • no learning plans or IEPs for students with high needs;
  • using unsuitable strategies to support the learning of students with high needs;
  • a history of poor leadership and coordination for high needs (now being overcome by a new principal);
  • a lack of differentiated teaching;
  • unclear transition processes;
  • students excluded from some activities, such as camps and physical education;
  • some parents having to pay for teacher aide hours;
  • some staff with poor attitudes about including students with high needs;
  • no toileting and shower facilities;
  • a lack of training for teacher aides;
  • ineffective monitoring of initiatives to support students with high needs;
  • students socially included but not adequately learning; and
  • some evidence of bullying.

The case studies below show how two schools, with some inclusive practices operated. They highlight in particular the mix of practices. Some practices supported the inclusion of students with high needs while others did not.

Moving towards inclusion at a small, rural secondary school

This secondary school demonstrated several good practices to support the inclusion of students with high needs. For example, all students with high needs have had individual education plans. The assessment information for these plans was gathered from the student’s previous school, as well as Supplementary Testing of Achievement in Reading (STAR) and GSE testing. Teaching and support staff were consulted as part of the individual education plans and deans have been fully involved in the planning process.

Families are involved with the setting of individual education plans. The school’s RTLB visits most homes or meets parents to discuss the educational and social issues for their child. The RTLB is also an important figure in planning pathways and general support for students requiring an individual education plan.

Regular meetings of the special education committee and the teacher aides help to monitor student progress and adapt IEPs as necessary. The committee discusses appropriate strategies to assist students with high needs. Student progress has been reviewed each term and IEPs are considered and modified.

Students with high needs have teacher aides assigned to them. These teacher aides are trained and have ongoing assistance from the RTLB and are critical to the success of the high needs students in classrooms.

The SENCO knowledgeably leads a supportive team of teachers. The SENCO has a degree in special education and has a clear vision of how to support students with high needs. Her focus is on improving the extent to which students with special needs are integrated into mainstream classes. Currently students are withdrawn for special learning focus such as literacy but are mostly involved in the same activities as other students, if at a different level.

In some classrooms students in the mainstream classes have well-planned learning experiences and differentiation learning takes place. Classes are generally small and students receive a lot of individual attention.

Despite the good work happening in some classrooms, learning does need to improve for students with high needs in other mainstream classes. Some teachers need professional development to introduce programmes and teaching strategies that would assist students with high needs. The development of these strategies would be enhanced through greater use of student achievement data to inform teaching.

Inclusive aspects at medium-sized primary school

The principal has provided a supportive and welcoming approach to students with high needs and their families. The positive attitude towards students with high needs was evident in the principal’s active involvement in supporting students, including the work done in seeking additional support from external agencies.

The principal’s approach has helped build a school culture where students with high needs are included in the social life of the school. Students with high needs have been treated as just another student by their peers.

The size of school means the principal has several teachers from which to choose the most appropriate class placement for students with high needs. This means students can usually be placed with teachers who are willing and able to adapt aspects of the curriculum in ways that are responsive to their needs.

Experienced and empathetic teacher aides have been provided for students with high needs. The school has not topped up the ORRS grant supplied to pay for teacher aides, but has limited their contact hours based on the money available.

The individual education plans have varied in quality. Some were more explicit about strategies and targets than others. This has made it difficult to evaluate the progress made by some students.

Frequent changes in SENCO and a lack of job description has hampered the effectiveness of this role in the school. During ERO’s time at the school, the SENCO was the school’s deputy principal. While the SENCO is a high status member of staff the competing demands of this position limit her time in liaising with staff, including the specialist teacher employed for the ORRS funded students. The demands on the deputy principal may have also influenced the fact that the 0.2 specialist teacher hours for one student were not fully used.

Schools with few inclusive practices

Approximately 20 percent of schools were found to have few inclusive practices for students with high needs. While these schools usually had one or more aspect where they performed well, their overall performance meant that students with high needs experienced significant forms of exclusion. The individual strengths found at these schools included:

  • the SENCO’s making good use of best practice literature to inform their work;
  • applying reliable methods for identifying the strengths and interests of students;
  • having an affirming school culture;
  • staff working together to identify successful strategies used with students with high needs;
  • students with high needs having genuine friendships at the school;
  • working with ECE and/or feeder schools to ensure good transition processes;
  • students with high needs participating in extra-curricular events; and
  • making use of external agencies to support the health needs of students.

The strengths shown at these schools were outweighed however by the several weaknesses they also each demonstrated, including:

  • teachers’ not convinced about the right of students with high needs to learn and their unwillingness to change to meet the needs of students;
  • appointing an inexperienced teacher as SENCO;
  • uncoordinated systems with no strategy or policy for supporting students with high needs;
  • poor monitoring and evaluation, including student progress and achievements
  • weakly constructed individual education plans;
  • insufficient support and monitoring of the teaching provided for students with high needs (especially at secondary schools);
  • staff and student prejudices about disabilities;
  • students excluded from extra-curricular, sporting and cultural activities; and
  • insufficient focus on building the student’s learning and achievement.

The key differences between these schools and the most inclusive schools were linked to the ethical approach taken by school leaders and staff. While the personnel at inclusive schools consistently discussed and managed their obligations to help students with high needs learn, much less commitment was evident from the staff at these schools about how they could help students with high needs. As one principal said to ERO:

Is school really the best place to be at for these students at the age of five? Their individual programmes, independence skills and socialising are at a three-year-old level. Would children with this level of learning be better to come to school at seven years of age?

Similarly, a parent who talked to ERO expressed concern about the quality of schooling her child received at a previous school. The parent was very happy with the school her child was now enrolled in. At the earlier school the experiences was markedly different as the deputy principal had asked the mother why she intended enrolling her daughter given that ‘she would never learn anything.’

Information from ERO’s questionnaire to schools

The benefits of students with high needs

School staff identified several benefits to the school of enrolling students with high needs. Through ERO’s questionnaire, principals spoke about the positive influence of students with high needs on the culture of the school. Principals noted the degree of tolerance, understanding and empathy that was engendered in a school community in support of students with high needs.

Principals also discussed the professional benefits to teachers in having to adapt the curriculum to meet the diverse needs of students. In some cases, students with high needs gave teachers the opportunity to be more patient and understanding of different ways of learning.

Teachers also developed networks in response to their work with the outside agencies supporting students with high needs. These networks could be beneficial for the school’s work with students in the future. Some teachers also observed the advantages of working with whānau in the way teams of professionals could work with the family of a student to support his or her learning.

Other students also benefited by having leadership responsibilities for some students with high needs. Not only did students understand that in a community people have different strengths and weaknesses, but they also saw how they could appropriately support those who had high needs.

The challenges and barriers of including students with high needs

The questionnaire information from schools also identified the challenges and barriers schools faced in including students with high needs. While these can vary with schools’ context, most of the issues identified were not related to school size, decile, location or their ability to include students with high needs.

By far the largest identified challenge was the level of funding schools received for students with high needs. The majority of principals indicated that funding, in some form, was a considerable challenge. The specific issues associated with their funding included the costs of teacher aide time, specialist equipment and specialist services and, to a lesser extent, professional development for teachers and support staff.

The next most commonly identified challenges or barriers to including students with high needs were:

  • recruiting suitable support staff;
  • the amount of teacher time and energy needed;
  • the level of staff knowledge; and
  • property and buildings.

Each of these issues can be complex for schools.

The recruitment of suitable support staff was raised by some rural and provincial schools in terms of their isolation. All schools noted that it could be difficult finding teacher aides with the correct skills and knowledge to work with individual students. Other support staff issues involved the difference schools observed between the money they received for teacher aide time, for example through ORRS funding, compared to what they paid a well qualified teacher aide at the top of the pay scale.

Various aspects of teacher time and energy were noted as a significant barrier or challenge by several schools. The degree of classroom planning as well as the additional meeting time and paperwork for a student with high needs was often cited by schools as a time consuming activity for staff. Concerns about the time spent in professional development for teachers and managing behaviour of some students with high needs was also of concern.

Property issues were seen by some schools as significant obstacle. The main property issues related to the extent to which their site could be navigated by a student with limited mobility. Some schools are built on different levels, they may be on hillsides (with many stairs) or on opposite sides of the road. A few of the schools with access challenges were integrated schools that had not yet brought their buildings up to specified requirements. [6]

Other barriers or challenges for schools included the time delay receiving additional funding for students with high needs and difficulties accessing external agencies and specialists. Again, some rural and provincial schools noted that their isolation exacerbated difficulties in accessing external support.

The behaviour of some students with high needs was seen as a challenge for some schools, including the effect some students could have on the overall classroom dynamic. To a lesser extent some schools also noted that the lack of support they received from the parents of students with high needs was a problem.

Some school personnel outlined the challenge posed by community perceptions of their school. Some parents of students without special needs can have concerns about the placement of students with high needs in a school. These parents may challenge the way a school uses resources to support students with high needs and they may also change schools, thereby reducing the schools roll and the overall level of funding they receive from government.

A further challenge facing schools is the confidence of completing ORRS applications. Anecdotal evidence suggested that there were students who had been denied ORRS funding on the first or even second application, only to receive this funding on the third application. At least part of the reason for the variation in funding acceptance appears to be the knowledge of the person completing the application. Where staff have more experience, and even some training, in completing ORRS applications, they appear to be more successful. It is ostensibly a difficulty with the special education funding system that some students may not be funded because of weaknesses in a schools’ ORRS application rather than their actual level of need.

Professional development and support

School questionnaire information showed that SENCOs, teachers and teacher aides take part in many different professional learning and development activities related to students with high needs. Typically staff are involved in one-off courses relevant to the specific educational or health needs of the students under their care. The courses taken by staff included:

  • hearing impaired, sign language;
  • Autism/Aspergers;
  • working with ORRS children;
  • Downs syndrome;
  • behaviour management;
  • dyslexia and dyspraxia;
  • clicker and LEXIA training;
  • Braille and vision-impaired courses;
  • non-violent intervention;
  • early language learning; and
  • specialists teacher aide courses.

Some schools noted that they had professional support from GSE, RTLBs and from special schools. Teachers and support staff used professional development time to observe the practices at special schools and to develop strategies for their own students.

Very few schools indicated that they undertook whole school professional development related to including students with special needs. Some schools have completed initiatives on differentiated teaching and some had undertaken school-wide professional development on autism.

ERO’s recent reports on professional learning and development (PLD) in schools suggested that effective whole-school development targeted at classroom teaching is more likely to change the overall quality of teaching in a school. The features of such professional development should: [7]

  • be focused on student outcomes, with links between classroom activity and the desired outcomes;
  • be based on worthwhile content, such as the findings of established educational research, and related to the particular context of the teacher;
  • integrate theoretical ideas about teaching with teaching practice;
  • use assessment information about the performance of teachers and students to make a difference in the classroom;
  • work with, and challenge, teacher assumptions about learning; and
  • have active school leaders who can create a vision for professional learning as well as lead and organise staff learning.

Given the amount of professional learning and development time that is based on course and conferences, rather than in dedicated school-wide initiatives, then it is questionable as to the extent to which the current professional learning and development of staff contributes to making schools more inclusive. It is more likely that these initiatives provide some skills for specific issues, without deeply challenging the school practices for students with high needs.

The work of Group Special Education (GSE)

As part of the questionnaire information gathered from schools, ERO asked to what extent schools have received GSE support in meeting the needs of students with high needs.

Approximately a quarter of schools were positive about the work GSE. These schools cited the responsive work of GSE staff, ORRS applications, classroom observations, behaviour support plans, interim response funding, working with staff and providing specialist support such as speech therapy, psychologists and physiotherapy.

A majority of schools were neutral in their comments about the GSE support they received. These schools discussed the types of support SENCO, teachers and teacher aides received without commenting on the quality of this support. It could be inferred that schools did not, therefore, have any major concerns with this service.

Fewer than 10 percent of the schools gave negative feedback about the performance of GSE. These negative comments related to a range of issues including limited access to support and funding, staff turnover and workload issues limiting the service that is available as well as concerns about the quality of service received.