My son attends a special school, in both senses of the word: It is for special needs students, and it is an amazing school in its own right, staffed by caring, dedicated, highly trained teachers and therapists. I love his school, and so does the Education Review Office (ERO). The ERO’s report on my son’s school is glowing, and uplifting and very encouraging, which is not something I’ve regularly come across in ERO reports of the many other schools I’ve researched. However, according to recently released data, 100% of the students at this amazing school, are failing National Standards for reading, writing and maths.
Reading that set of data, was like a slap in the face, for a whole host of reasons. It was the first I’d heard that my son – as necessarily part of the 100% – is well below meeting any of the standards. I was quite upset that the school hadn’t told me directly, at some point in time, that he was so below the standards. I meet with the teacher twice a year, and write to her and hear back from her via a notebook pretty much everyday of the school year. How does it not come up, why not even a “by the way, the data is about to be released, and we thought we should warn you about what it will say…”
Add to this the sense that my son’s – and every child in that school’s – privacy has just been breached big time. This is because there is no variation in the results; everyone knows that every single child in that school falls in that failing 100%. Not one single child sits outside of the grouping, so no one could think “maybe her child is that single out-lying child who’s doing well in reading” or whatever it might be. It’s like having some part of my son’s personal school report being splashed all over the internet for everyone to judge.
It was a shock: Everyone in the school is not even “below” but “well below” the standards. I honestly thought my son was doing well in some areas, that he might even be meeting some standards for his age. I had (what are apparently) delusions that he might one day do well enough to be able to attend a mainstream class. It’s like someone took my hopes and threw a bucket of cold water on them.
His is not the only special school with these results. Another special school went very public recently with it’s 100% outcome, and why it doesn’t reflect the school or the children’s improvements and abilities. That makes me feel a little more settled, but it leads to the obvious question: Why are these schools being expected to match their students against standards that apparently it could be predicted no student would meet? Or if they must be tested against these evidently irrelevant standard (irrelevant in terms of what the students could and should be achieving in any meaningful sense), then why is the data presented alongside the outcomes of every other school; is this not a foreseeable broad breach of privacy, and does it not make a farce of the data in total?
Back in August 2011, when I wrote about National standards and special needs students, the government had decided it was going to provide data for special needs students separately. For some reason, in late 2011, it decided to go back on this arrangement: “As the Herald on Sunday has put it, ‘despite being told they would be exempt from national standards…many show a line of noughts for the numbers of pupils achieving at or above standards’. This is referring to a change of Ministry of Education policy in late 2011 that saw all students, regardless of background characteristics, having to be entered for the National Standards..”
Not only does this reversal in policy mean our schools are placed alongside other schools which are set up for entirely different types of students, it also means special needs students within mainstream schools will count poorly against the schools overall data, thereby also making special needs students “undesirable.” Which is to say, one of the key protective mechanisms that I thought would save students like my son from being unwanted and rejected from mainstream schools on the grounds of impact on National Standards, has been done away with. This feels like a threat against our children; they’re already unjustifiably, and in some cases, illegally, excluded from entry to mainstream schools on the basis of prejudices and ignorance, and now there’s one more reason to make the schools and other parents say “no.”
National Standards in context, made sense to me; putting it in place alongside a student’s IEP and overall progress, even if they didn’t meet the actual standard. But it feels like that context has gone now, and in its place is a new excuse to exclude and attack our children.
Yes I wish my son’s school and teacher had told me about him failing to meet any standards. I would have liked to know so I had a more realistic over-view of his abilities. I know he’s progressing well, and I am so proud of his progress and so happy with what his teachers have achieved with him. But I would have liked to have a broader context for those achievements too. It’s not the sort of thing I want a twice or thrice yearly reminder of (“hey your son’s doing great, but he’s failing compared to normal kiddies”), but maybe once a year just to be told whether he is advancing towards those standards. If he was never ever going to reach any of the standards by their assessment, then I would have wanted to hear them say that once, and never hear of it again; at that point the information will never change, so why constantly remind a parent of something they already know, and that will be painful for some.
At first when I saw my son’s school’s 100% “well below” rate (or “failure” rate to use a harsher word), I went into a bit of denial; surely the school is just saying it’s 100% as a form of protest? But no, this is just reality, as harsh as it is. And having to face that reality being read off a public website, available to everyone else in New Zealand too at the same time, hurt me. It made me cry. Even writing this I literally have tears in my eyes because this is hard. It’s unfair. It even borders on cruel. I know my son has an intellectual disability, I get it, though I didn’t realise how bad it was. But does everyone else in the country have to know how bad it is too?
I’m upset at the system, at the school, at the teachers, at the media. I need time to get my head around all this and whether it’s worth my tears. My husband is calmer than I am about this, and he reminds me that our son has vastly improved since the data was last collected (last year). But are we both still just grasping on to the hope that our son will be the one person in the entire school to break out of that 100% failure rate? Isn’t that hope itself poorly placed considering every other student hasn’t reached that point either? Is the fact that we even carry this hope and expectation mean we should think differently about a school that hasn’t produced that result for any of their kids? But even thinking that way means I’ve fallen into the trap of forgetting what this school is all about, and their amazing and meaningful and contextual achievements with all their students.
Like I said, this is confusing for me. And if it’s confusing for me, imagine what it says to all vast majority of the population out there who have absolutely no appreciation of what schools like my son’s do everyday, and about what our children are capable of in everyday life. Do results like these make them think even less of schools and people that they already didn’t understand or appreciate? That’s a definite possibility, and that scares me too; things are hard enough in this world for my son already, without people prejudging his deeper intellect and capacities based on the fact that he attends a special needs school. He is so much more than a number, or a failure rate.
So how do I feel now about National Standards, having seen how distorting and irrelevant it actually is for children like my son, and schools like these? I’ll let you know once I’ve recovered from the slap, for now I’m too emotional to be as objective as I’d like to be. But I’m interested in hearing your own thoughts and reactions, and whether now seeing the data has changed your previous opinions about the merits, and demerits, of National Standards.
I’d like to know how others feel about the application of National Standards to special needs children; I know not everyone feels comfortable commenting, so here’s a poll for those who prefer that method: