Legislation, Ministry of Education expectations, and the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, all send clear and strong messages to early childhood services about inclusion of children with special needs. ERO’s evaluation of services’ inclusion of children with moderate to severe special needs indicates that many services are doing a good job, but that leaders and educators also face challenges in doing so.

New Zealand research on inclusion in early childhood services, and anecdotal evidence from the Ministry of Education Special Education and advocates from disability action groups, highlight some of these challenges. The challenges, identified in this evaluation, generally stem from a lack of knowledge and strategies about including children with special needs, rather than a lack of an inclusive philosophy.

Overall, over two‑fifths of services were very inclusive, and just under half were mostly inclusive. Most services that did not currently have children with moderate to severe special needs enrolled were well placed to include these children. For the remaining seven percent of services (with special needs children enrolled) that were only somewhat inclusive, the main reasons for this lack of inclusion were a lack of shared understanding, knowledge of strategies, and pedagogy to adapt programmes, and limiting physical environments, rather than a lack of the right attitude. In these services, ERO found the quality of teaching for all children was often poor.

ERO’s main concern, identified across all services, regardless of inclusiveness, was a lack of self review about the impact of practices and programmes on outcomes for children with special needs. Self review with an outcomes focus for children with special needs was only undertaken in a few services, and it was mostly informal.

Challenges were also identified across services, from the very inclusive to the somewhat inclusive. Service leaders and educators identified challenges in working collaboratively with parents who were either previously unaware, or did not want to acknowledge, that their child had a special need. Many other challenges centred on working with Special Education about referrals, funding, and the provision of education support workers (ESWs). Children with special needs who attended services for more than 15 hours per week were not funded for ESW hours over and above those 15 hours, or during school holidays. These challenges were magnified in some services where adult-to-child ratios were low, or where the service had a reputation of including children with special needs and this ‘magnet’ attraction was overwhelming their capacity to meet each child’s individual needs.

This evaluation has identified four ingredients for a very inclusive service:

  • believing that children with special needs are confident and capable learners
  • having and practising inclusive processes and practices
  • accessing and providing additional support
  • working collaboratively with parents and specialists.