How inclusive do NZ schools think they are? Looking at a 2012 ERO progress report

Back in 2010, the ERO (the New Zealand Government’s Education Review Office) released a Report that found only half of New Zealand schools demonstrated “mostly inclusive practices for students with high needs.” Subsequently, the Government came up with a policy (“Success for All“) which included a goal that 80% of schools do a good job of this by 2014. In 2011, 253 schools took part in a questionnaire to identify how well they were progressing towards this goal of inclusiveness. A report containing the findings was released in April 2012. According to the schools’ self-reports, 88% of them now have “mostly inclusive practices.”

Too good to be true?

In this post I’m going to have a look at what I found to be some of the more interesting pieces of information coming from that 2012 Report.

One of the distorting factors in the schools’ self-reports of their practices, is that they didn’t use the actual questionnaire’s definition for special education students. The questionnaire defined these students as “those who have learning, communication, emotional or behavioural difficulties, or intellectual, sensory, or physical impairments.” The intent was to focus on the higher needs student – the top 1% to 6% with moderate to high needs.

Instead the schools used a very broad definition for special needs students, including gifted and talented students, those with English as a second language, and even “boys” as a special needs group. Having such a broad definition meant the schools’ answers weren’t about the top 1% to 6% needy student, but rather for half of the schools it was 7% of their students, and for one in eight schools it was a quarter or more of their students. Clearly this impacts on the reported inclusiveness of the schools for the most needy students.

A second major issue in the schools’ self-reports, was the notable lack of information about the actual achievement levels of the children with special needs; only 15% of the schools provided their Boards with such information. As the ERO Report notes, this makes it hard for schools to actually evaluate or accurately conclude on how effectively the school is including these students, or on how well their practices are working for these students. The schools instead focused on things like “improved attitudes” or what they’d done to include special needs students, apparently largely over-looking the actual gains made by those students.

The 88% of schools which considered themselves to be “mostly inclusive” were not evenly split between primaries and secondary schools: Primary schools at 91%, secondary and composite schools at 64%. Of the remaining schools, only one said they didn’t have some inclusive practices.

In some instances, the school policies in themselves indicated that special needs children would not be included, if the school considered that it had insufficient resources. Statements along these lines are apparently contrary to key disability and education documents, specifically the Education Act 1989, the Human Rights Act 1993, and the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

The relevance of a school considering it has “insufficient resources” as a valid reason to exclude special needs children, is thrown into sharp relief when you consider a point made later in the Report about funding and support issues: About half of the schools said the funding they received was insufficient, and 43% of the schools had difficulty accessing sufficient specialist advice. That’s a huge proportion of schools that consider themselves under-resourced. Schools are not meant to suggest to parents that their children would be better off elsewhere, and are meant to ensure that all students with high needs can attend even if their teacher aide is absent. News stories collecting parent anecdotes, and stories I have personally heard many times over from many families, show that schools are often using these funding and general resource shortages as a reason to exclude special needs kids.

In summary then, the schools self-reported findings looks good on the surface; with 88% of schools considering themselves as being mostly inclusive, surpassing the 80% target for 2014. However, as the 2012 ERO Report notes, there are very real limitations to the validity and accuracy of these findings, including the schools’ changed definitions of “special needs” and the lack of backing evidence for the schools’ views. In fact, the details of the Report show that there is real reason for concern about schools’ practices and attitudes, and that we have a long way to go yet before there is meaningful wide-spread inclusion.

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