What’s Wrong With ‘Special’ Education?

Hilary Stace

Parliament’s Education and Science Select Committee is currently holding an Inquiry into the identification and support for students with the significant challenges of dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders in primary and secondary schools. The public took the opportunity to make over 500 submissions dealing with concerns relating to what is commonly called ‘special’ education, the inclusion of learning disabled children in our public education system. The Committee’s report is expected before midyear.

This is the fifth review of ‘special’ education since the 1989 Education Act, which legalised the right for every child, including all disabled children, to go to their local school. This latest inquiry has heard from parents whose children have been thwarted from attending school, or asked to provide extra resources, and students who experienced bullying from peers and teachers rather than having their educational needs acknowledged and met. The Committee has also heard educators pleading for more resources and training in order to include every child.

Why this constant reviewing of something which should be straightforward: the education of all New Zealand’s children including those with learning or other disabilities?

History shows it is not a new issue. In 1939 the first Labour Government’s Minister of Education, Peter Fraser and his Director-General, Clarence Beeby, promoted the educational rights for every citizen (notwithstanding the sexist language of the time) in this often quoted extract:

The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which his is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers.

Despite these admirable aims, many learning-impaired and other disabled children remained excluded. Why? Do we fear disability? History suggests we might.

Before 1877 access to education in New Zealand was largely depended on the availability of educational options and parents’ ability to pay. The 1877 Education Act legislated for free, secular and compulsory education for all 7-13 year olds including disabled children. However, school committees had discretionary powers to exclude children on grounds of ‘temporary or permanent infirmity’. ‘Backward’ children were often eased out. Specialist residential schools began for students who were deaf or blind.

From the beginning of the 20th century, there were growing fears of hereditary mental illness and disability. ‘Special’ soon became a synonym for ‘other’. The 1914 Education Act required departmental notification of any ‘mentally defective’ children. The Department of Education established Otekaike, a residential school for ‘feebleminded’ boys in 1908 near Oamaru, followed in 1916 by Salisbury in Nelson for girls. The 1925 Committee of Inquiry on Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders, which linked impairment and moral failing, promoted residential special schools as a means of surveillance of ‘defective’ children. However, apart from the few, mainly residential, special schools, most disabled children were unofficially excluded from education. Many were deemed uneducable and even locked away in institutions.

So Section 8 of the 1989 Education Act which provided for the legal right for all children to attend their local school was a great victory for parents and the NGOs which had long lobbied for this law change. It guarantees that every child can attend their local school from five to nineteen years, with a legal requirement to attend from six to sixteen years. Section 9 retains the right of parents to opt for a special school or unit.

However, soon after the Act’s passing it was obvious that educational inclusion was still not happening for many disabled students. The 1996 policy of Special Education 2000 (SE2000) was the National Government’s attempt to address the problem. It hastened the mainstreaming of students, closed many special units and brought in initiatives including resource teachers (RTLBs) and the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), which later became reviewable, to provide targeted funding for 1% of students. The complicated ORS application process required a worse-case scenario, as opposed to the usual language of achievement and progress. A verifier, who didn’t see the child, decided whether they qualified and their level of support. However, the money provided by government for verified children is tightly rationed and remains insufficient for full day school support. So children are either sent home early or schools and parents top up the funding. All schools also get government money through their Special Education Grant (allocated by decile, not on numbers of students with special education needs). But, as the current inquiry heard, many children are still missing out on support.

SE2000 had become such a minefield by 1999 that a promised review featured in the election promises of the Labour Party which won the election in December that year. This second post-1989 review resulted in a report called Picking up the Pieces. This policy that had intended to be more equitable, transparent and fair across the country had gone badly wrong.

Following SE2000, some parents, angered at the closing of their children’s unit for insufficiently supported mainstream education, took the Government to court. The case dragged on until 2004 when it was settled with the Ministry of Education required to conduct an extensive consultation across the whole area of Special Education. This process was called ‘Let’s Talk Special Education’ (the third review).

The year 2010 saw a fourth review Success for All under the auspices of the Associate Minister for Education with responsibility for Special Education (Heather Roy, later ACT Party Leader Rodney Hide). About 1500 submissions were received. Targets resulted from this review and now although most schools can demonstrate inclusion, reports of exclusionary practices persist.

Extra funds have been put into the system for more targeted funding by both Labour and National governments. In January 2011, ORS became non-reviewable again so that when a child was verified as requiring this help, they would keep this individualised support through their school life. However, if a child makes any progress, funding is reduced.

There are claims that schools are incentivised to exclude students who will be expensive in terms of time and financial resourcing, as the funding does not cover the full costs of educational inclusion. ‘Magnet schools’ are inclusive schools which have a disproportionate number of students requiring extra support, but no extra funding for this role. Scandalously, the Ministry has underspent its special education budget. There is also evidence that what little support is available, such as Special Assessment Conditions for NCEA, goes to wealthier schools and families.

So despite some progress there is still a long way to go, hence this current Select Committee inquiry, which can be considered our fifth review. A new NZEI survey of schools’ Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) provides valuable new data. SENCOs are specialist teachers but they receive no mandated extra management or staffing units. The survey found 16% of students on the special needs registers of schools which have such records, but 60% of children were not receiving the support they needed, and 89% of respondents considered government funding inadequate.

In 2016 it is time to revisit the 1939 words of Fraser and Beeby, listen to the expertise of parents, educationalists and students, and properly resource, support and incentivise the inclusion and teaching and learning of all our children. Otherwise we will soon be having a sixth review.

Hilary Stace
About the author

Hilary Stace

Dr. Hilary Stace is a Visiting Research Fellow with the Wellington Health Services Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington. Her research interests include aspects of disability and her 2011 PhD was on autism policy. Hilary is a regular contributor to the Access disability blog on the Public Address blog site.