This evaluation examines how well students with high needs are included in New Zealand schools. The focus of this review is the enrolment, participation, engagement and achievement of students with high needs in schools. This report also provides examples of good practice for including students with high needs.

Students with high needs make up approximately three percent of the student population. These students have significant physical, sensory, neurological, psychiatric, behavioural or intellectual impairments. Some students with high needs qualify for support funding from Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes (ORRS). Others may be eligible for other forms of assistance including Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) funding, high health needs funding, supplementary learning support (SLS), input from educational psychologists, assistive technology, physiotherapy, speech-language therapy and other support related to hearing or vision impairments.

Some students with high needs may have their education supported through the involvement of Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) or through additional resources provided by their school. This may include extra time from classroom and specialist teachers, teacher-aide support and individual programmes.

What does ‘including students with high needs’ mean?

The phrase ‘including students with high needs’ can have several meanings. In its most literal form, ‘including students with high needs’ is concerned with mainstreaming. Under this definition students with high needs are expected to undertake all their schooling within a normal classroom setting.

ERO has taken a pragmatic approach to inclusion in this evaluation. ERO recognises that it is desirable for students with high needs to learn in mainstream classes. However, it is also important to point out that many students with high needs learn well in special schools and units that may be outside the mainstream. Some others with high needs are homeschooled. Many of these students have tried education in mainstream settings but were not successfully included. Moreover some students with high needs benefit from specialist assistance, outside of mainstream classes, to meet their specific learning and/or medical needs.

The legislative and policy basis for including students with special needs

New Zealand state and integrated schools are obliged to enrol all students in their local area, regardless of their level of impairment or educational need. This right is enshrined in the Education Act 1989 which sets out that all children from five years old are entitled to attend their local school until the end of the school year in which they turn 19. Students who receive ORRS funding can stay at school to the age of 21.

…people who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education in state schools as people who do not. Section 8 Education Act 1989

Other legislative and policy statements underline the right of students with high needs to be included in their local school. This includes the National Education Goals (NEGs), which set out the rights of all students, including those with special needs, to receive the highest possible quality of education. NEG 7 specifically refers to special education students in setting out the following goal:

Success in their learning for those with special needs by ensuring that they are identified and receive appropriate support.

In addition, the Human Rights Act 1993 makes it unlawful for a public school to deny enrolment for various reasons, one of which is disability.

The New Zealand Disability Strategy is a framework for government to deliver on the rights of people with disabilities. Objective three of the strategy sets out eight actions related to schools’ obligations for including students with disabilities.

3.1 Ensure that no child is denied access to their local, regular school because of their impairment.

3.2 Support the development of effective communication by providing access to education in New Zealand Sign Language, communication technologies and human aids.

3.3 Ensure that teachers and other educators understand the learning needs of disabled people.

3.4 Ensure that disabled students, families, teachers and other educators have equitable access to the resources available to meet their needs.

3.5 Facilitate opportunities for disabled students to make contact with their disabled peers in other schools.

3.6 Improve schools’ responsiveness to and accountability for the needs of disabled students.

3.7 Promote appropriate and effective inclusive educational settings that will meet individual educational needs.

3.8 Improve post-compulsory education options for disabled people, including: promoting best practice, providing career guidance, increasing lifelong opportunities for learning and better aligning financial support with educational opportunities.

Not including students with special needs

There is considerable evidence to suggest that many children with special needs are not included in New Zealand schools. This includes material from government publications as well as educational research. A short summary of this evidence is included below.

Disabled Children’s Right to Education

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) 2009 report Disabled Children’s Right to Education refers to 261 complaints about disabled students’ access to schooling from 2002 to 2008. The majority of the concerns from parents related to:

  • enrolment problems, for example schools not wanting to enrol children or only enrolling them for limited hours;
  • the suspension, exclusion or expulsion of disabled children from school;
  • funding for teacher aides or additional resources; and
  • the ability of children with disabilities to participate fully in wider school activities, such as school camps and other school trips.

The structure and content of the HRC report does not provide the detail about the substance and resolution of each of these cases. [1] Despite this, the number of complaints indicates that many children are denied access to schooling because of their high needs.

Significant proportions of the complaints received by the HRC were from the parents of students with disabilities that affected the behaviour of students. This included students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and with some form of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including Asperger’s syndrome. The number of students with behavioural issues reflects the challenge such students can pose for many teachers and schools.

In addition to these individual complaints in the 2008/09 financial year, the HRC also received two complaints concerning the government policy for students with disabilities. As stated in the HRC report: ‘IHC brought a class action complaining about acts and omissions of government that prevent a broad range of students with disabilities from fully accessing the curriculum at their local mainstream school.’ At the time of publication, this complaint has yet to be resolved.

The other complaint was from Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ). HRC has said that this complaint alleges that ‘the Ministry of Education has not recognised NZ Sign Language (NZSL) as a medium for education nor the role Deaf identity and culture play for deaf students’ education…’. [2] At the time of publication this complaint had been deferred in light of work being undertaken by the Ministry of Education, deaf education service providers and DANZ.

Recent New Zealand research on students with disabilities

Research from Alison Kearney outlines how particular students with disabilities (including some with high needs) are not included in schooling. For example, in a 2008 paper Kearney discussed the experiences of 63 parents or caregivers who each perceived that their child had faced barriers to schooling, including limited access to ‘learning experiences, learning resources, friendships, school and class rewards, teacher time and so forth.’ [3]

Kearney suggests that the reason why students with disabilities are experiencing exclusion and marginalisation is because of unquestioned assumptions held by education professionals about disabled students and their rights, and about their own roles as professionals. These assumptions include placing less value on the worth of students with disabilities, both as learners and as contributors to the school.[4]

Learning better together

In May 2009 the IHC published the Learning Better Together report based on the inclusion of students with disabilities. The aim of the report was to ‘provide readers with clarity by presenting a current perspective on inclusion as it is described in the research literature in education.’ The report is critical of the extent to which New Zealand education has included students with disabilities, and calls for significant changes to the way students with disabilities are included in New Zealand schools.

There is also an emphasis on the benefits for students with disabilities of being included in regular schools and suggests that special schools be disestablished.

The report contains a useful way for considering the inclusion of students with disabilities or high needs. Drawing on the work of researchers in the United Kingdom, and their Index for Inclusion, [5] the report sets out the importance of presence, participation and achievement as distinct dimensions of inclusion.