The Education Review Office (ERO) has now published a follow-up report on the inclusiveness of mainstream schools in New Zealand. The original study back in 2010 did not return good outcomes about how inclusive our schools are, with only 50% considered to have “mostly inclusive practices.” (There are three key categories of performance here: “mostly”, “some,” and “few” inclusive practices.) The report that has just been released looks at the progress since then, and will be followed next year by a broader study to see whether we have reached the aim of 80% of schools being mostly inclusive and 0% having few inclusive practices, by 2014.
The summary of findings is that over the past three years, there has been an increase from 50% with mostly inclusive practices, to 77%, which looks well on target for the 80% by 2014. The “few” inclusive category has dropped from 20% to just 7%, which is also an encouraging improvement (keeping in mind of course that no school should only have few inclusive practices; I’ll be looking at what’s happening with these schools later in this post).
As I go through the core pieces of information I found interesting and useful in this latest report, you need to keep in mind some very real limitations to this study. It was only of a small sample of schools (81), all schools included in this study are Primary schools, and the children focused on are those with “high needs” (defined as those being in the top 3% of need for additional learning support). The inclusiveness concern is in relation to all special needs students (not just the 3% most needy), and at all schools, including Secondary schools. The broader study next year will take into account these much broader categories. Still, I think there are important insights that we can take from this interim report, in particular I found it highly educational on what to look for when you’re trying to figure out whether a particular mainstream school will be a good fit for your special needs child, which I will be looking at throughout this post too.
There are six elements that give insights to how inclusive a school is for our children. These are useful not just to understand the outcomes of the study, but to know what to look for when you’re researching a school for your own child. So I will spend a little time explaining what each mean:
(1) Coordination. This elements is about the relationship between all involved parties; that’s the student, family, teachers and support staff. A good relationship begins before the child even starts at the school, with transition visits and meetings to get to know those involved. Coordination involves recognising that the child is the responsibility of all the staff (and in particular here, not just the teacher aide). Good coordination also evidences good attitudes from the school staff towards the child, and is often linked to the presence and skills of the SENCO (Special Education Needs Coordinator).
(2) Achievement. This element reflects staff having high expectations of the child, and positive attitudes towards what the child can achieve. (It is interesting to note under this element, that some schools expressed concern about the achievement levels of special needs children being tested and reported as part of National Standards. This is a concern that I have too, but the ERO report simply reinforced that schools are obligated to perform this testing and reporting regardless.)
(3) Professional Development and Learning. An interesting consideration here is whether the school focuses on just extending the learning of affected staff (perhaps the specific classroom teacher), or believes and acts in such a way that all staff should be educated about special learning needs of children, regardless of whether they have a child with the specific disability in their class at the time.
(4) Transitions. A good transition practice would allow for multiple visits before starting school, and the open sharing of information between relevant parties. It may even allow and encourage parents to be present in the classroom, and class teachers to visit the child in their home environment, as part of the transitioning process. The focus should be on the school fitting around the child, not the child fitting around the school.
(5) Outside Support. Accessing external specialists to assist the student, and the teacher’s understanding of the child’s needs too. This outside support can take various forms (which can be found on the report itself if you’d like the list of possibilities / suggestions. All elements are expanded on in the report itself, do click through for further information and context.)
(6) Teacher Aides. The focus should be on keeping the child within the classroom setting, rather than frequently removing them from the classroom (of course, this is about inclusion after all!) The teacher aide themself should be a part of relevant conversations about the child.
The 77% of schools that exhibited mostly inclusive practices, besides doing well across these elements, also showed a particular and note-worthy trend that was again notably absent in the schools failing these students: Positive attitudes from those in leadership positions towards the inclusion of children with special needs. In the “few inclusive practices” category, you’ll find Principals and other core staff who do not believe mainstreaming is appropriate or possible for our children, so it’s hardly surprising to see these attitudes affect other staff and practices across the school.
Another strong indicator of a school showing good inclusion of our children, is the existence and the skills of the SENCO. If there is no SENCO at the school, or the SENCO is inadequately trained or inexperienced, this can significantly impact on coordination.
A third key marker of a well-performing inclusive school, is the attitude towards teacher aides: Understanding that they are not solely responsible for the child in school, and are not being overly relied on by the school and class teacher.
The schools falling into the “some inclusive practices” category often had low coordination between relevant parties. They also needed to reduce their reliance on withdrawal strategies when issues arise with the high needs child. In the schools in this category, you may find parents being forced to pay for fundamental resources like teacher aides. (It is worth noting that some schools complained that funding was a key issue, however the ERO report found that strong leadership and differential teaching was more vital than the lack of funding, when it came to inclusiveness.) There is also evidence sometimes of “small-scale” bullying at schools in this category.
The schools with few inclusive practices, were generally not just failing their special needs students. The report found that these schools tend to be performing poorly on broader measures as well.
A consistent finding regardless of how well the school scored, was that there is a need for better self-review processes; the schools need to do better at monitoring and understanding how they are performing in these areas.
So this is what I think you should take away from the report, if you are a parent trying to figure out if the school you’re looking at (or your child is already at) is providing an inclusive environment: Talk to the Principal, teacher and teacher aides where possible, to figure out their attitudes towards special needs children attending mainstream schools; find out whether the school has a SENCO and try to find out about their training and experience; and look at how the school views the role of the teacher aide (are they there to assist the classroom teacher who remains responsible for including the entire class, or will they be expected to do most of the teaching and to remove the child from the classroom as a key strategy to coping with issues that arise).
There are some very interesting issues and points raised in this report that I would like to go into further (such as inclusiveness as a value, as an indicator of success, and how well I see these things occurring at my son’s schools), but for now I leave this post as is: A summary of the report, that contains suggestions of what you may want to look out for when looking for a school for your child. I hope you found it useful, and I’d be interested to hear how well you think your child’s current school performs on these markers.