Mainstreaming special needs children; re-looking at the recent New Zealand controversy

There has been a lot of recent media attention and public debate over the barriers faced by parents attempting to enrol their special needs children at mainstream schools, here in New Zealand. The problem has been identified as primarily one of discriminatory and fearful attitudes on behalf of the mainstream schools. Issues of lack of funding and insufficient staff training and numbers to adequately support those students within the mainstream environment, have been treated as secondary issues.

Much of the public discussion and media reports are being had without enough context to form meaningful and well-informed opinions; of course that doesn’t stop those opinions being formed. It is easier to spot the missing information when your child is already part of the special education system, and when you personally know some of the situations being discussed in the media.

One of the vital pieces of information being left out is whether the children at issue qualify for attendance (and full funding) at a special needs school. Most of the public cases under discussion are ones where the child does qualify because they have high needs, but the parent has chosen to pursue mainstream education instead. But the story gets presented and discussed as one about the child having no access to public education at all, and the public gets in an understandable uproar about the child being denied an education.

These discussions are frequently accompanied by erroneous claims in comment sections (whether on facebook or in discussions below news pieces, or on forums like trademe) that the government has shut down – or is planning to shut down – all special needs schools to save money, and this is why we’re facing this crisis of trying to fit special needs students into mainstream schools. This is said despite the fact that the government has recently reviewed the existence of special needs schools and made the active decision to continue to support them and increase special needs funding.

Another large and almost always unmentioned detail – which if acknowledged would have a significant impact on discussions that otherwise follow – is that the cases at issue are ones where the student could conceivably attend either a special needs school or a mainstream school (with adequate support of course). There are though special needs students who comfortably fit within the mainstream setting (and in fact have no option to attend a public special needs school since they’re not considered high needs enough to qualify). And there are children with such intensely high levels of need that the chance of them fitting within a mainstream setting is never seriously considered by their parents or specialists, because they function at such a minimal level or (for example) pose a significant danger to themselves and others that it would be counterproductive to put them alongside their “peers” (“peers” in age only, that word can be highly misleading in this discussion).

Despite these diverse groupings of special needs children, the children with arguably the most options – ie the ones who have the funding to attend a special needs school but choose a mainstream instead, considering that a viable option – are the ones who are referred to and form the centre of the discussion that flows on to wider considerations. By which I mean, the discussion about whether special schools should exist at all, and the attitudes and (non)accepting nature of schools, is judged in the media and in the current public eye, on what is happening to these children in the “middle”: calls for all special schools to be shut down, or claims that mainstream schools are refusing to take on special needs students, are based on a specific subset of special needs children.

It is this middle group – those who could conceivably fit into mainstream or special schools – who are more likely to face genuine uncertainty from schools as to whether they can cope with the child’s needs. So it’s quite understandable this sub-group is the one we’ll hear about the most in such news pieces and cases. It is because these are borderline / middle subset cases, that they are difficult for the school to make a determination about whether the child really would be best educated at the mainstream school; whether they really do have the training, staff and resources to cope in a way that will be best for the individual child. These are hard cases, which is always cause problems, because the answers aren’t obvious; “hard cases make bad law“. I consider it somewhat unfair and distorting to use genuinely hard cases, as evidence that mainstream schools are anti special needs students.

Which brings me to the evident demonization of the school teachers and administrative staff; the people put in the position of making a decision about whether the student is best suited to their particular learning environment. The school staff have to balance the interests of all students, unlike the parent who is understandably focused on their own child (and there is nothing inhuman, unexpected or unfair about that parental focus). This balancing act can and has lead to thoughtless and cold statements like “other parents would withdraw their child if we accepted your child”.

As a parent of a special needs child, if I was told this, my response would be outrage that children who could attend any normal school without difficulty, are being prioritized over my own, and that fear and ignorance on behalf of those other parents is valued over whatever the reality may turn out to be. I would be astounded by the lack of empathy in such a reply, and I would be left with the impression that my child was considered undesirable and not worth the effort. So of course I understand parental – and public – outrage at such responses by schools.

However, the school which made such a statement – and other schools which are charged with similarly turning away special needs students on the basis of fear and ignorance – have defended themselves by pointing out that this was not the reason for turning down the enrolment; that the real problems they face are ones of funding or other administrative issues (such as full rolls for the year). (Either way though, I suggest that it is a poorly thought-out response to any parent to say other parents wouldn’t want the child in the same classroom as their precious darlings; that does deserve some condemnation.)

I think this fear from other parents about having their children in the same class as a high needs student, is an important issue; I have no doubt from personal experience with my son and from reading public forums, that my generation needs a lesson in the rights of the disabled to be involved in society and to be treated like human beings. While we’ve come a long way with race relations and gender relations as a society, we seem to have a long way to go towards meaningful understanding about disability rights; for example, people know it’s unacceptable and why it’s unacceptable to use racial or gender slurs, but disability related slurs are still widely used without awareness or public condemnation. However, some organisations are (arguably) a bit extreme or unrealistic in their highly “optimistic” views about the disabled, which is a point I want to address now:

Underpinning the current mainstreaming controversies is an ideology that separating out special needs children from other children, is a form of segregation, and that mainstreaming special needs children is always in their and society’s best interests.  Often built into this is a covert (or overt) attack on the very existence of special needs schools; viewing them as dumping grounds or as providing a substandard education. The national charity IHC which holds this view of special schools as a form of segregation – and expressly states it wants special needs schools shut down – has been actively pushing these stories into the public eye here for years.

This is a topic I am passionate about, and have written on many aspects of it previously. If you believe all special needs schools should be abolished, or think the education provided by them is inevitably worse than that found at mainstream schools, then I would strongly encourage you to click-through on my previous posts which I’ll list at the end of this post, and see if I can’t change your mind. I’d encourage you to point out why you disagree with my conclusions. As a brief introduction to what you’ll find in those posts, I argue why it’s not segregation to differently educate children with learning difficulties, I discuss the importance of maintaining parental choice about education options, and I address many of the myths and contradictory reasoning used to reach the view that special needs schools should be eradicated.

I want to be clear that I fully support the aims of parents who have done their research and genuinely believe the local mainstream school is the best option for their child, and I absolutely sympathise with the parents who have met rude, ignorant and fearful barriers to attaining that access. I am in no doubt that some schools are breaching the government-provided rights of some students to attend their local schools on the grounds of the child’s disability, and that some schools are placing far too much weight on the views and interests of other students to the real detriment of the neediest students. But I think that these stories and the discussions that flow from them, need to be kept in context, and that the errors and lacks of information presented in these stories are concerning and result in distorted and unhelpful views being formed in the public; views that endanger the existence of the special schooling many parents actively seek because it is the best option for their child’s wellbeing, happiness and education (parents like me).

To summarise my concerns over the current controversy in New Zealand: I think the hard cases are being erroneously presented as the norm, I believe the generalisations drawn from these cases are distorting and damaging; I believe schools are being demonized without enough focus on the challenges they face for getting adequate resources to adequately care for these children, and without enough focus being placed on the role played by the ignorance and fear of other parents; and I think the underlying ideology (sometimes overt) against the very existence of special needs school, is highly questionable and can have serious and unwanted consequences for high needs children.

I think the discussions about mainstreaming special needs children are important, but that the way those discussions are currently being had, are concerning.

***

My previous posts relevant to this discussion:

Selection of New Zealand news stories and public discussions on the topic:

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