Schools in this study

ERO evaluated the extent to which schools provided an inclusive environment for students with high needs during Terms 3 and 4, 2009. Thirty secondary schools and 199 primary schools were included in this report.

This evaluation included 19 Years 9 to 15 schools, nine Years 7 to 15 schools and two composite Years 1 to 15 schools. Twenty of these schools were from main urban centres, three were from secondary urban centres, six were from small provincial centres and one was based in a small rural community. There were 15 large schools, nine medium-sized schools and six small schools.

There were 109 contributing schools in the sample, 80 full primary schools and 10 intermediate schools. One hundred and one of these schools were in main urban centres, 13 were in secondary urban centres, 23 were in small urban centres and 62 schools were based in small rural communities. The primary schools were a variety of sizes with 54 large schools, 99 medium-sized schools and 46 small schools.

Evaluation approach

ERO gathered and analysed information in response to the following questions:

  1. How well do schools include students with high needs?
  2. What issues and challenges exist for schools in enrolling and supporting the inclusion of students with high needs?
  3. What are some specific exemplars of good practice in including students with high needs?

An extensive set of indicators was used to guide the judgements made by review officers about the inclusive practices of schools. [1] They were based on the Indicators for Inclusion developed in the United Kingdom, [2] as well as other research literature [3] and ERO’s evaluation experience. The indicators were developed in terms of the following dimensions:




  • Enrolment and Induction
  • Identifying student needs and strengths

Participation and Engagement

  • Links with families
  • The coordination of services and support
  • School-wide culture
  • Relationships with peers
  • Classroom teaching
  • Extra-curricular involvement
  • Learning supports
  • Professional development and support
  • Cultural responsiveness


  • The achievement of students with high needs
  • The benefits to mainstream students

ERO collected documentary evidence from schools, including student enrolment and induction processes, student achievement information, classroom planning and IEPs. Teachers, school leaders and teacher-aides were interviewed by ERO at most schools. ERO talked with parents and students at some schools.

A questionnaire was given to each school. This questionnaire included questions about:

  • each school’s involvement with external agencies (including Group Special Education);
  • the barriers or challenges each school faces in meeting students’ needs; and
  • whether or not as a school they had enrolled students with high needs subject to certain conditions (such as part-time enrolment or enrolment subject to additional funding or support).

A total of 149 schools completed this questionnaire.

Methodological challenges in this evaluation

Identifying students with high needs

In managing this evaluation ERO has taken a practical approach to identifying students with high needs. In line with the Special Education Framework, ERO used the guideline that students in the top three percent of educational need are designated students with ‘high needs’. Typically these students receive funding and support through such mechanisms as Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes, the Behaviour Initiative, the Communication Initiative or through the School High Health Needs Fund.

In carrying out this evaluation ERO discussed with schools which students they considered to be in the top three percent of educational need. Many of these students qualified for some sort of additional support, while some did not.

Consequently, this report therefore uses three terms. ‘Students with high needs’ generally denotes the students who have been designated high needs through their funding and support. ‘Students with special needs’ represent the broad grouping of students who may need some form of additional support or assistance (including those of moderate need.) Where it is relevant, ERO also refers to students the school perceives as having high needs. These are students who exhibit special educational needs but who have not qualified for the additional resource currently allocated to students with high needs.

Low numbers of students with high needs

In this evaluation ERO gathered information about a school’s inclusiveness based on the systems and culture of the school.

The small number of students with high needs at most schools, and their different abilities and special educational requirements, has an important implication for this evaluation. ERO’s analysis was primarily based on what was observed in schools. We have not made a judgement about how well these schools might have included the diverse range of students with high needs. In essence, this evaluation has placed more weight on how a school was catering for its students with high needs and less focus on how it may operate with future students.

As a result, little statistical data is provided in this report. Schools are evaluated against highly variable contexts in terms of the different proportions of students with high needs they have and the range of needs these students may exhibit.

Similarly no differences between types of schools are identified as part of this evaluation. The findings section of this report does, however, include a discussion about the different sorts of challenges faced by schools.

Secondary schools and inclusion

One of the indicators ERO looked for in this evaluation was that students with high needs were spending as much time as possible in mainstream classes. Research evidence shows considerable benefits for all students when students with disabilities are mainstreamed.

The issue of mainstreaming is complicated for some students with high needs when they get to secondary schools. Some secondary schools have special education units where students with high needs learn for at least some part of the day. The students in these units may be included in a mainstream form class as well as the school-wide social, cultural and sporting activities, while also spending a majority (or even all) of their learning time in the special education unit.

The decision made by the staff at these schools is that many special education students are better served in the special education unit, especially when it comes to learning the core subjects and skills (numeracy, literacy, science and so on). This judgement has often been made because the teachers in mainstream classes were not well prepared to meet the diverse needs of a classroom that includes a student operating at level 1 or 2 of the curriculum.


1. See Appendix 3 for a copy of these indicators.

2. Indicators for inclusion at English.pdf

3. For example Kearney, A. (2008). Exclusion at school: What is happening for students who are disabled? The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, 7(6), 219-227.