An increasingly inclusive education system

Issue: Volume 100, Number 5

Posted: 27 April 2021
Reference #: 1HAK4r

An inclusive education system is one in which all schools are supported to have the skills and expertise to deliver the highest level of learning for all students. Specialist schools are one part of this system, playing an important role in learning support provision. Today, more than 99 per cent of learners attend mainstream schools and the Education Review Office reports improved attitudes towards inclusion in most schools.

Education Gazette talks to Maureen Allan, principal of Waitaha School, a specialist school in Christchurch, about the shift to a more inclusive learning system.

Waitaha School principal Maureen Allan works with students Marcus, Edward and Patrick on a project.

Waitaha School principal Maureen Allan works with students Marcus, Edward and Patrick on a project.

Until 1989, children with disabilities were largely excluded from state education and the responsibility for their learning lay with families, special schools, voluntary organisations and psychiatric institutions.

A few words, tucked into section 8 of the Education Act 1989, signalled a seismic shift in approach: … people who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education at state schools as people who do not.

In the three decades since, a raft of systemic changes has followed to support and promote inclusive education values and practice for all learners.

Every child matters

Waitaha School principal Maureen Allan says she has seen a shift from segregated to inclusive learning during her 33 years working in learning support. She has also been privy to the hope expressed by many parents that their child will be able to attend the local school with their brother or sister.

“As a specialist school, we really support that family vision. Whatever can be done in a special school should be able to happen in a local school, and vice versa. If you listen to the parent voice and to the voices of the learners, they want to be able to learn and have fun alongside their same aged peers in the local school, but there are often barriers to that … I don’t think there should be.

“I know schools will say it’s fiscal, that it comes down to resourcing, but what is needed, greater than money, is a shift in mindset. Children need to learn with and alongside their peers. All members of the class benefit from the inclusion of diverse learners. The development of caring and inclusive values is a noted outcome of fully inclusive school communities,” says Maureen.

The key is in quality leadership. “This includes the belief of the principal that everyone is worth investing in, and that all children are valued as part of the school community,” she says.

“It’s about making sure that every child matters and that the work you’re doing for every child is what they need.”

Maureen cites Special Education 2000 as a huge inspiration. The aim of this policy was to develop a fair and equitable system in which all students received appropriate support according to their level of need by earmarking funding for different groups.

It included improved specialist interventions at the early childhood stage, funding for schools to provide extra help for learners with mild-to-moderate needs, improved access to specialist help for students with difficulties in speech-language or behaviour, and a whole-of-education grant for learners with high needs.

Working collaboratively

According to Maureen learning support is not just the role of specialist teachers, it’s for all school staff. As a specialist school, the Waitaha teachers work closely with the local schools across their catchment and Kāhui Ako to share (and gain) expertise in supporting learners with diverse needs, whether or not they are enrolled at the specialist school.

“Regardless of whether a learner has a formal diagnosis, there’s always a reason for why a behaviour happens or why the learning isn’t happening. And it’s the job of the teacher and the school leadership team to be the detectives, and to work out what teaching strategies are required.

“At Waitaha we are constantly working to understand why a young person is responding the way they are and what we can do to make the environment better for that young person. Everything our young people do centres around learning and it’s our job as teachers to make sure we’ve got the learning in place; particularly with regard to positive behaviour and the development of social skills.

“For example, social learning might happen through a small restorative chat or it might be that the restorative practice happens as part of daily practice within circle time in the classroom. We operate a repair and restore model rather than a punitive system.”

Waitaha superheroes in action: Seamus, Marcus, Edward, Tak (teacher), Lauren, Patrick, Eric and Brock.

Waitaha superheroes in action: Seamus, Marcus, Edward, Tak (teacher), Lauren, Patrick, Eric and Brock.

Waitaha School: where superheroes thrive

Waitaha School is a specialist school in Rolleston, Christchurch, catering for high needs students ages 5-21 who are funded by the Ongoing Resource Scheme (ORS).

The school operates from a co-located base facility at Lemonwood Grove School with three integrated satellites at Rolleston College, Rolleston West School and Knights Stream School.

Waitaha students have multiple, complex needs including intellectual and physical disabilities. The school supports their learners to become more self-managing and independent, and is keenly focused on enabling them to be active participants in the school and in the wider community.

“We refer to our students as superheroes with superpowers and we know that anything is possible. In 2021 our challenge is to really grow community connections with respect to employment for our young people.”

This year, a Waitaha secondary student has been appointed as a full member of the Selwyn Youth Council, and a second student has taken on an apprentice role on the Council.

“In this small but growing area of New Zealand we applaud the inclusive mindset of the Selwyn District Council and celebrate that the voices of young people with disabilities resonates across the district,” says Maureen.

The school is also in the process of transitioning some students to their local school using tailored transition plans that are shaped by the aspirations of whānau and developed collaboratively with Waitaha, the local school and the Ministry.

“The school is fully committed to supporting the transition of learners back into their local schools after a time at Waitaha. How fantastic it is to have both worlds [specialist and local] working together in such a rich and reciprocal partnership to provide the best opportunities for our young people.”

Waitaha School employs 34 teachers and a specialist therapy team. Five teachers have academic qualifications in specialist education, and the school encourages all teachers to continue their professional development.

“This year we are focused on strengthening post-secondary transition pathways for our 18- to 21-year-olds and are working closely with our local Ministry of Education office regarding opportunities for this group of students. This has also involved positive engagement with the Selwyn District Council.”

The school’s population is diverse with 11 percent identifying as “other” in addition to those who are Māori, Pākehā and Pacific.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:50 pm, 27 April 2021

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