Evolution of learning support in Aotearoa

Issue: Volume 100, Number 1

Posted: 4 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAG_Z

In 1921, children and young people with disabilities in New Zealand were denied education and confined to institutions. A century later, we know that inclusion works for all, and celebrate the fact that more than 99 per cent of learners are enrolled in local schools. What happened in between is the evolution of learning support.

The inclusive learning culture at Manurewa Intermediate School is supported by the Learning Support Delivery Model  implemented across the Manurewa Kāhui Ako.

The inclusive learning culture at Manurewa Intermediate School is supported by the Learning Support Delivery Model implemented across the Manurewa Kāhui Ako.

The door to inclusive learning opened when the Education Act 1989 stipulated that children with special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education as those who do not. However, that law change did not bring schools the services they needed to deliver education to students with disabilities.

“Prior to 1989 there was not much support for schools: some specialists and only limited teacher aide money,” says Sally Jackson, former chief advisor for Learning Support at the Ministry of Education.

“Schools had to compete for a small pot of funding and the division of resources became unequal between high and lower decile schools.”

Special Education 2000 followed with funding lines to make education opportunities more equitable. These included the Special Education Grant to help schools cater to students with mild to moderate needs; the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) for children with the very highest learning needs; and the introduction of Resource Teachers: Learning & Behaviour (RTLB).

“We put in ORS for the top one percent of children with the highest needs – we wanted to stress that all children can learn including those with the highest needs,” says Sally.

The Ministry partnered with universities to develop post-graduate training and establish RTLB, with an emphasis on learning and strengthening behaviours that promote learning.

Becoming more inclusive

In 2010 the Education Review Office (ERO) reported that half of schools surveyed could be described as inclusive and that the most successful models operated three key principles:

  • Having ethical standards and leadership that built the culture of an inclusive school.
  • Having well-organised systems, effective teamwork and constructive relationships that identified and supported the inclusion of students with high and very high needs.
  • Using innovative and flexible practices that managed the complex and unique challenges related to including students with high and very high needs.

By 2015, ERO reported that three-quarters of schools surveyed were operating an inclusive model. “The ‘mostly inclusive’ schools were more likely to have a coordinated, systematic approach, working strategically to provide for students with special education needs, and ensure they make progress and experience success.”

Sally Jackson says inclusion is in language and mindset, as well as practice. She is eager to see a continued shift away from anything that perpetuates an ‘us and them’ kind of attitude.

Twenty years ago, she says, there was a tendency to refer to anything relating to a child or a young person with a disability as ‘special education’ and curriculum design would sometimes not include children with learning support needs.

“If a family has a child with a disability, they don’t set them aside because they’re different. And nor should schools.”

Collaboration is key

Sally says teachers can’t expect to be experts in every single impairment – that’s where collaboration with others comes in.

“If this child isn’t learning the way that I have been teaching, then I need to do something different. I need to change what I have planned. It isn’t necessarily the child who needs to do something different. None of us has got all the answers; the key to success is collaboration and working as a team and that includes the young person and their family, putting all the ideas together.”

Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have played a key role for many years, in leading this collaboration between school and whānau to help support the learning and social needs of students with learning support needs and disabilities.

The Learning Support Delivery Model (LSDM) brings together learning support services in a community so all children and young people in that community can benefit from shared expertise. Clusters of schools, kura, early childhood education (ECE) and kōhanga reo work together with their SENCOs or Learning Support Coordinators, RTLB and Ministry facilitators to identify needs across their community and decide how best to use resources.

Learning Support Delivery Model in action

Iain Taylor, Manurewa Kāhui Ako leader and principal of Manurewa Intermediate School, says the LSDM is proving transformational, particularly the support provided by Learning Support Coordinators (LSCs). The LSCs were employed when the Kāhui Ako established its LSDM at the beginning of 2020, among the first tranche of LSCs to be allocated across the country.

“These LSCs are in our schools, they’re seeing teachers on a daily basis and I’m seeing our teachers developing a higher knowledge of learning support,” he says.

“And whilst they’re there to help children with learning disabilities and additional learning needs, their expertise is permeating into our school so those kids who are below the line, so to speak, but above the line of the needs of the kids that the LSCs were set up to support, are also being addressed more effectively.

“They’re helping with the identification and planning for the needs of kids in our schools; they’re starting to connect with a range of specialist supports and services so they’re able to make direct connections with the likes of other Ministry expertise and resource teachers, and all that will feed into part of their overall plan.”

Iain says the weekly meetings of LSCs, SENCOs and Ministry staff have allowed communication to “open up”, and the formation of strong working relationships.

“It was also a way of encouraging schools to have consistent protocol across our schools. They’re able to problem-solve and improve the data systems.”

Covid times

Given the disruptions of 2020, Iain says he was expecting the end of year data to be horrific. Instead he was happily surprised by good results, an achievement he says was greatly helped by the LSCs who joined the school shortly before lockdown.

“When Covid hit, the LSCs were right there collaborating with the leadership team and classroom teachers to develop hard copy resources that kids would be able to do at home on their own.”

It’s one of a number of successes that he attributes to the LSDM.

“In their year with us, the LSCs have had a big impact embedding a cultural collaboration between the LSCs and the SENCOs in our schools as well as our Ministry Service Manager. This is the first time that we’ve been able to cajole everyone together and that collaboration is pretty significant.”

School-whānau connections have been strengthened too.

“Because LSCs are not rushed with a hundred thousand other jobs like SENCOs or DPs, they’ve been able to take time to establish those relationships with the parents and the parents are feeling more listened to.

“We’ve also placed LSCs in a space away from the hierarchy, so to speak, so that parents can feel comfortable.”

 Kāhui Ako


A timeline of learning support in New Zealand 

This timeline does not attempt to show a complete record of events but it identifies some important milestones in the history of learning support in New Zealand. 



1914Education Act made it obligatory for parents, teachers and police to report ‘mentally defective’ children.


United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons signalled a new era of international disability rights including in New Zealand.


Introduction of Early Intervention Services (EIS) to provide support for children with additional needs from birth, until they transition in to school.


Education Act 1989 affords equal rights to primary and secondary education. Children with special educational needs now have the right to enrol at their local school.


Special Education 2000, designed to fund resources and support programmes for children with learning, communication and behavioural needs.

Special Education Grant, introduced to help schools to support students with moderate special education needs.

Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) introduced for students with the highest ongoing levels of need; providing funding for specialist support, additional teacher time and teacher aide support at school. Once a student is in ORS, their funding and support stays with them throughout their time at school.ORS provides services and support, including specialists such as speech-language therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, and equipment to assist learning.

Introduction of Resource Teachers: Learning & Behaviour (RTLB) to support teachers and learners in Years 1 to 10. Students may be referred individually, or as part of a group.

School High Health Needs Fund introduced to help schools provide support for children with high health needs such as epilepsy or asthma.

Regional Health Schools established in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for students with significant health needs who cannot attend their local school because they are unwell, physically or mentally.


Specialist Education Services (SES) that provided specialist support such as psychologists, speech language therapists and early intervention services integrated into the Ministry.


Resource Teachers: Vision and staff employed in Visual and Sensory Resource Centres are combined with Homai National School for the Blind and Vision Impaired to form the Blind and Low Vision Education Network (BLENNZ).


NZSL becomes third official language of New Zealand.

The United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities signed 2007. The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to changeattitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities.


Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success sets the direction for improving education outcomes for Māori learners – including those with special education needs/disabilities. Focuses on high quality, culturally responsive education that incorporates the identity, language and culture of Māori learners and engages their whānau, hapū and iwi.


Education Review Office reports that half of schools surveyed can now be described as inclusive.

Success for All – Every School, Every Child supports the goal of all schools demonstrating inclusive practices.

ORS service expanded.


Youth Mental Health Package announced to help schools take responsibility for student well-being. Includes Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) and related initiatives like PB4L School-Wide for many secondary schools and Incredible Years programmes for families and teachers.

More nurses in low decile schools, alternative education and teen parent units; trained youth workers in low decile schools.

Enabling Good Lives principles developed, leading to new models of disability support funding and the later prototype, Mana Whaikaha.


Education Review Office reports improvements from 2010. More than three quarters of the schools in the sample were found to be mostly inclusive compared with half in the 2010 evaluation.

Update of Special Education – change from “special education” to learning support.

Establishment of Intensive Wrap-Around Service (IWS).


Select Committee Inquiry into identification and support for children and young people with dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum disorders in primary and secondary schools.

Roll out of Learning Support Delivery Model across New Zealand.


Learning Support Action Plan (LSAP) 2019-2025 to support all children and young people with disabilities or learning support needs, introduction of Learning Support Coordinators (LSCs), strengthening of early intervention, provision of flexible supports for neurodiverse children and young people, increased access to supports for gifted children and young people, and improved education for those at risk of disengaging.

Review of Tomorrow’s Schools.

Education and Training Act 2020 requires all schools to be inclusive.


Refresh of Ka Hikitia.

Kelston and Van Asch Deaf Education Centres combined to become Ko Taku Reo - one national organisation providing specialist services to learners  who are deaf or hard of hearing.

National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP) to replace school charters. Guided by five principles:

Learners at the centre– Learners with their whānau are at the centre of education.

Barrier-free access– Greater education opportunities and outcomes are within reach for every learner.

Quality teaching and leadership– Quality teaching and leadership make the difference for learners and their whānau.

Future of learning and work– Learning that is relevant to the lives of New Zealanders today and throughout their lives.

World-class inclusive public education– New Zealand education is trusted and sustainable.

In progress

Redesign of the Ministry of Education to provide better support to schools and early learning services.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:03 PM, 4 February 2021

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