This evaluation examines how well students with special education needs are included in New Zealand schools. The report provides an update on progress towards meeting the Government target that, by the end of 2014, 80 percent of New Zealand schools will be doing a good job and none should be doing a poor job of including and supporting students with disabilities. This target was established in 2010 as a result of ERO’s earlier evaluation of the inclusion of students with high needs.

Inclusive schools

The 2010 evaluation focused on ‘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 mechanisms such as the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), the Behaviour Initiative, the Communication Initiative or the School High Health Needs Fund.

This 2014 evaluation included 152 schools reviewed in Term 2, 2014. ERO found that schools were generally successful at providing for the presence and participation of students with special education needs. They welcomed students with special education needs and had systems in place to support their participation. Most schools:

  • had enrolled one or more students with special education needs
  • had provided professional learning and development (PLD) for staff to improve the way they provided for students with special education needs
  • used local funding in addition to the Special Education Grant to support students.

Over three quarters of the schools in the sample (78 percent) were found to be mostly inclusive of students with special education needs, compared with only half in the 2010 evaluation. To some extent, this may reflect the changed focus of the evaluation from students with high needs to all students with special education needs. This extended focus was used to better reflect the Government focus on inclusion of all students. However, the finding is consistent with ERO’s 2013 evaluation of primary schools, which reported that 77 percent of schools were mostly inclusive of students with high needs.

Inclusive attitudes and practices

Almost all schools were positive about including students with special education needs. Their commitment to including these students was underpinned by school values and culture, and demonstrated by leadership, shared responsibility and partnerships with parents and whānau. Schools identified positive ways they included students with special education needs, and were very confident about being a fully inclusive school.

Most schools had good systems and practices to support students with special education needs. Responsibility for these students was usually allocated to a Special Education Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO), or head of learning support. Their responsibilities included identifying specific student needs, coordinating support, allocating resources, documenting guidelines for staff and monitoring student progress and effectiveness. Schools planned how to improve their provisions for students with special education needs and used PLD to build staff capability. Some allocated time for teachers to identify and share effective teaching strategies. Most schools had effective systems for helping the child to successfully transition into, through and out of the school.

Teachers and SENCOs carefully identified and responded to students’ needs. Schools involved students with special education needs alongside their peers and placed them with staff who matched their needs and strengths. Effective practices included responding to individual needs with specific support, differentiating the curriculum, modifying activities and providing guidance for teacher’s aides. Schools involved parents, teachers, specialist teachers and specialists in developing individual education plans (IEPs) with specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) goals. They regularly reviewed progress towards these goals.

Many of the schools with only some or few inclusive practices needed to increase the use of effective teaching strategies to respond to students with special education needs.

Improving outcomes for students

Since 2010, the understanding of inclusion has deepened to recognise that students with special education needs not only need to be present in the classroom, but also need to make progress and achieve. Schools regularly monitored the progress of individual students with special education needs. However, this monitoring was often informal, with outcomes described in general terms such as “students had progressed”.

Progress and achievement data was not always used for self review. Schools were more likely to review how they provided for students with special education needs than how effectively their actions had promoted achievement for these students. Many did not analyse achievement information to identify strategies that were effective for particular groups of students. Reports to the board were also usually about provision of programmes but did not discuss their effectiveness. This means some schools are not well positioned to identify effective practice in teaching or whether resources are being allocated in the most appropriate way.

Wider education system

Schools used a variety of specialist teachers, specialists and resources to support students with special education needs. The Ministry of Education provided PLD, equipment, advice and guidance, and funding for property modifications. Most schools had used the Ministry’s published resources on developing IEPs and inclusive schools. Some schools reported there had been challenges in accessing specialist services, and delays in their responses.

Next steps for schools

ERO recommends that school:

leaders and teachers:

  • improve the use of achievement data to focus on outcomes for students by
    • developing detailed goals that allow progress to be shown, particularly for students who work within level 1 of the New Zealand Curriculum, and
    • reviewing the effectiveness of teaching strategies and programmes
  • build teacher capability in using differentiated teaching strategies through appropriate professional learning and development and sharing good practice among staff
  • provide information for boards to help them decide priorities and determine how well their resourcing is improving outcomes for students with special education needs. Useful information includes:
    • how the school provides for students with special education needs
    • progress and achievement and other outcomes for students
    • plans to improve the provisions, including professional development.

Next steps for the Ministry of Education

ERO recommends that the Ministry consider and action a range of approaches to support:

  • schools to enhance achievement and improve progress of students who are likely to work long-term within level 1 of the New Zealand Curriculum
  • schools to develop their capability to review how well their strategies and initiatives improve outcomes for their students with special education needs
  • boards in asking questions about the progress and achievement of SWSEN, and the effectiveness of their provision.

As part of the review of professional learning and development, the Ministry should also identify opportunities to support PLD providers in building capability in inclusive practices and effective teaching of students with special education needs.