The journey to a more inclusive education system

Issue: Volume 101, Number 6

Posted: 20 May 2022
Reference #: 1HAUD0

What does an inclusive education system look like and how do we get there? Education Gazette talks to a number of people about their vision to make our education system more inclusive and accessible for ākonga with disabilities or learning needs.

Tahatai Coast School has had to set up a roster to manage the number of children wanting to spend time with Isaac, pictured centre.

Tahatai Coast School has had to set up a roster to manage the number of children wanting to spend time with Isaac, pictured centre.

Shaun Markham orders an iced chocolate from the café across the road from the Reserve Bank, where he works as an analyst.

Shaun has cerebral palsy. He attended King’s High School in Dunedin, where he was named Dux in his final year. The Ministry of Education’s transition team then helped him get set up with the support he needed to make the step to University of Otago, where he went on to complete a Master of Economics.

Shaun, now 27, credits the inclusive approach taken by his school for setting him up for success.

“I think sometimes people are afraid to criticise my work. But I had an economics teacher who realised my potential and pushed me quite hard. If people don’t challenge me, I won’t improve,” he says.

Shaun also speaks highly of his former principal who encouraged him to speak in school assemblies, sharing his perspectives and raising awareness among the student body that everyone is different.

“I don’t expect people to understand what it’s like to live with a disability, but the main thing is that we have to be open about the fact that we all have challenges – you can see mine, but I can’t see yours.”

However, for all he speaks positively about his experience, Shaun says that there is still more to be done to achieve a truly inclusive system.

“Everything is divided into boxes – we have boxes for disability, mental health, and so on. Even within disability there’s boxes and we have many agencies providing support. But nobody really fits into a ‘box’. To me, it’d be much more efficient to pool resources together, focusing on getting the right support to people.”

Mixed experiences

Shaun’s view that ‘nobody really fits into a box’ resonates with members of the Youth Advisory Group (YAG), a group of young people who bring their insights to the Ministry of Education to help inform its work.

YAG member Tanin did not have such a positive experience of school. “I went into school excited, creative, curious and after three years I felt broken. The school made you do things their way, and only their way. You do it this way... say it like this... think like this... Nothing else was acceptable.

Isaac loves learning alongside his peers at school.

Isaac loves learning alongside his peers at school.

“I want to see each child being able to learn in a way that comes naturally to them. Don’t change the children to fit the system, change the system to fit the children,” he says.

“People look down on me because I have a learning difficulty. I sometimes feel like I am not helped,” noted another YAG member.

Other YAG members felt there needs to be more proactivity in thinking about student needs rather than catering to them as an afterthought, particularly in relation to accessing the full curriculum and accessibility in general.

These reflections mirror those voiced at an I.Lead forum attended by 50 young people with disabilities from across Aotearoa.

Youth facilitator Lavinia spoke of her experience and how she had to have her NCEA classes on the first floor with students two years above her year level, because there was no access for her wheelchair to get to her original classes and friends on the second floor of her school. 

Tamara spoke of how she wasn’t receiving any support due to staff and teachers not knowing how to cater to autistic people, usually labelling her as ‘normal’ because she doesn’t outwardly look as if she has a disability at all.

Even from gauging a small number of perspectives, it is clear there is a wide range of experiences, from those learners who have had a positive time at school or kura, to those who have not.

One parent’s perspective

One learner who is having a positive experience of school, is 12-year-old Isaac, according to mum, Shelley Merrie.

Isaac, who has cerebral palsy and Sotos Syndrome, is a high-needs ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme)-funded student at Tahatai Coast School in Pāpāmoa, Bay of Plenty. He loves school, and by all accounts, the school loves Isaac.

“They had to set up a timetable at school because so many children want to spend time with him! They are so empathetic and interested,” says Shelley.

“It means a lot that he is able to attend a regular school. When I went to school, children like Isaac were shut away, out of sight. Now children are being taught that it’s OK to be different. And they’re going to be better adults, kinder people.

“As a parent of a child with complex needs, it has already been a tough road; you don’t want or need sympathy, you want acceptance and community for your child, and that’s why it’s so important to keep children like Isaac attending regular schools, to have them a part of a community, to teach children about life and love. I think every school would benefit from an ‘Isaac’.” 

While she’s aware that not everyone has had such a positive experience of navigating the right support, she describes the support she’s received from the Ministry and the school as “amazing”.

“The minute we walked into Tahatai Coast School as a family, we were welcomed. That’s the big difference, it starts from who is leading the school. The team approach at the school is incredible – it’s not just one person’s job to meet Isaac’s needs. They have some amazing, long-term teacher aides working as part of Isaac’s team.”

Shelley’s experience hasn’t always been so positive. Isaac’s previous school had been unable to meet his needs. There were inaccessibility issues and he was left in some unsafe situations, she says.

“Not all schools are equipped and ready and willing to take children like Isaac. And some schools are just not open to it.”

Shelley would love to see that change, so that every school in New Zealand is ready and able to welcome all learners and put reasonable accommodations in place that meet their needs.

Improving the system

A team approach is taken at Tahatai Coast School to meet Isaac’s needs.

A team approach is taken at Tahatai Coast School to meet Isaac’s needs.

It’s a vision shared by both Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti and Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero. Both have witnessed many great examples of inclusion in action. And they agree that the challenge is to make those great experiences universal, so inclusive practices permeate every school, kura and early learning centre.

“There are some schools and early childhood centres doing some wonderful things, but I guess if you compare what our education system looks like with what it could look like under the CRPD, there are certainly gaps,” says Paula.

The CRPD is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which New Zealand signed in 2007. It outlines – among other things – what constitutes inclusive education. The plain-language version defines it as ‘where students of all abilities learn together in the same classroom environment. This means students with and without disabilities.’

Paula says New Zealand’s obligations under the CRPD are “non-negotiable”.

The CRPD benchmark aligns with Minister Tinetti’s view. She says that to be truly inclusive, our education system needs to be more flexible, and adapt to the learner, not the other way around.

“I like to use the ‘square peg, round hole’ analogy,” Jan explains, over a Zoom call. “We’re always trying to change the shape of the peg, when in fact we should be trying to change the shape of the hole. My vision is that within an inclusive system, a young person enrols at a school, any school, and then we consider what is needed to enable that young person to have success in their life.”

Paula agrees. “For me, the vision is that every disabled child is included in their local school, and that they’re included in every aspect of education, and that the system adapts to them, not the other way around.”

“What will success look like?” asks Jan. “I think it will be when young people turn up to a school to be enrolled and they are welcomed with open arms. Every single school. That’s a big goal, but I think that when that happens we will know that we’ve got a truly inclusive system, because the school will know what it is that they need to do to help that young person thrive in their journey.”

Ongoing journey

The Minister is quick to add that when it comes to inclusion, there is never really an endpoint. “We’re never going to get ‘there’ because there’s always going to be something else that we need to be looking at,” she says.

“It’s like we’ve got a leaky roof and we put a bucket under the area where it’s leaking, but then another leak springs and we put a bucket there and we end up with all these buckets, but what we really need is to take a look at the entire roof. And so that’s what I want to see happening with where we’re heading at the moment: let’s look at all those leaks and look at where we’ve tried to patch, and then ask ourselves, ‘what is it that we can do to affect the system as a whole?’”

Jan points to the high needs review as an example of this gap analysis in action. “We’ll be looking to find out what it is that’s working really well and also to determine whether we do need anything new or not, or whether we just need a reorganisation. I strongly believe that a lot of the answers lie within what we’ve already got.”

Paula adds, “Everyone’s trying to do the right thing around inclusive education. But let’s fast-forward 10 years. Are we doing all the right things? We almost need to stop and say ‘what is the vision we’re trying to achieve and how do we get there?’ And lots of the things that are underway will help us get there. But there are some things missing. And I suspect that there are some things that probably could be dropped.”

Paula says it’s about looking at every domain of the education system and asking whether each meets the needs of all our learners. Policy settings, the accessibility of our curriculum, workforce development, the funding model – including the ORS system – the teacher aide model, and governance of schools are all part of the picture.

A flexible system

The Minister adds that the work to support neurodivergent learners includes a focus on better understanding and meeting the needs of gifted and talented ākonga.

However, while broad groupings may help categorise support at the system level, every learner is different and any one learner may fall into multiple groups. Creating a flexible system that meets each learner’s specific needs remains the overarching priority.

One of the challenges of creating inclusive experiences for all students is that there are many interdependent parts within the system and everyone has a role to play.

The Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand is promoting and regulating professional standards in teaching, including approving Initial Teacher Education programmes that meet their requirements.

The Education Review Office is evaluating and reporting publicly on the quality and effectiveness of education provided in schools and early learning services.

At the same time, teacher education providers are working to equip teachers with the skills and understanding that support inclusive practice; school leaders are focusing on prioritising and demonstrating inclusion; and teachers and kaiako are developing their practice.

The Ministry of Education is progressing the Government’s Education Work Programme using five objectives: Learners at the centre; Barrier-free access; Quality teaching and leadership; Future of learning and work; and World-class inclusive public education. These objectives and feedback from New Zealanders through the Kōrero Mātauranga | Education Conversation are reflected in the National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP) which identify seven priorities to help places of learning create education environments that are learner-centred.

Established in 2021, Te Mahau plays a key role in progressing this work for the Ministry. The frontline groups and services of Te Mahau work alongside schools, kura and early learning services to help support the individual needs of ākonga and their families.

Historic drivers of change

This work builds on decades of progress towards a more inclusive education system, learning from the key milestones(external link) along the way.

Education Act 1989 signalled a turning point for inclusive learning in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Act stipulated that children with special educational needs have the same rights to enrol and receive education as those who do not.

However, the law change wasn’t accompanied with the necessary resourcing schools needed to deliver inclusive education.

“Schools had to compete for a small pot of funding and the division of resources became unequal between high and lower decile schools,” says Sally Jackson(external link), former chief advisor for learning support at the Ministry of Education, who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to special education last year.

It wasn’t until the introduction of Special Education 2000 that funding was allocated to enable a more inclusive education system. Among the Special Education 2000 funding initiatives was 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).

Sally says the funding measures were accompanied by a gradual attitudinal shift, with language and mindset slowly reflecting a more inclusive approach to learning. Twenty years ago, she says, there was a tendency to refer to anything relating to a child or young person with a disability as ‘special education’ and curriculum design would sometimes not include children with learning support needs.

Over time, the emphasis has shifted to gathering the right expertise and involving the parents and whānau, with the child or young person at the centre. The introduction of Te Kahu Tōī, the Intensive Wrap-Around Service, a collaborative support programme for a small number of learners with high needs, is an example of this shift.

Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) have played a key role for many years in leading this collaboration, and more recently, Learning Support Coordinators, with the introduction of the Learning Support Action Plan(external link) 2019-2025.

The Learning Support Action Plan articulates the Government’s vision for inclusive education and is closely aligned to the CRPD. The plan talks about a “system where every child feels a sense of belonging, is present, makes progress, where their wellbeing is safeguarded and promoted, where learning is a lifelong journey, and where all children and young people get the right support at the right time for their specific needs.”

Recent education legislation and policy provide a solid foundation for this vision. Within the Education and Training Act 2020, school boards are now required to take all reasonable steps to eliminate racism, stigma, bullying, and other forms of discrimination within the school. This expectation is also reflected in the NELP, which applies to early learning services as well as schools.

Ka mua, ka muri

Isaac (centre) with his buddies Rylan (left) and Kaden (right) and teacher aide, Cassandra.

Isaac (centre) with his buddies Rylan (left) and Kaden (right) and teacher aide, Cassandra.

Minister Tinetti emphasises the importance of continuously reflecting, learning and improving.

“I was around in education when we did the Wiley Review resulting in Special Education 2000 which was really far-reaching and forward-thinking. This is what I want to see happening now. We need to look at: what worked from that? What didn’t work? What didn’t we implement that we should have implemented?”

She points to the evaluation of Learning Support Coordinators as an example.

“I’m OK with the fact that the implementation of learning support coordinators has been a bit slower because, let’s get it right. The evaluation is making certain that we’re getting it right so that when we’re getting to that point of being able to roll it out to everybody, it’s going to be successful.”

In addition to other tools used to monitor progress in this area, the Education Review Office is developing a multi-phase research and evaluation project to explore the quality and inclusiveness of education for disabled learners in New Zealand, which will include the voice of disabled learners and their whānau.

Listening and learning

Indeed, understanding what learners and their families need is critical, says Jan.

“I want to make certain that we’re being responsive to the needs of all our learners. We need to step outside of our lens and look at it through the lens of the learner. And sometimes it’s not easy for us to do because we think we know it all!

“In everything that we’re doing to build a really inclusive system, we have to listen to the young person at the centre – they have the biggest story to tell because they’re the one that this impacts upon greatly.

“When I was a decile 1 principal there wouldn’t be a week that went by when I didn’t have someone walk in my door with the very next best programme that can save your kids. Our kids didn’t need saving, we needed saving, because we needed to look at our young people and understand and listen and hear them and be the best that we could be to support them in their journey. And when we got to that point, our kids thrived. And that’s what I want to see for the system.”


What inclusion is and what it isn’t

In education, inclusion means:

  • Schools welcome and teach their local children and young people, and education providers in a locality work together to address needs and challenges collectively.
  • Parents make enrolment decisions in the knowledge that the local school is a positive choice, because it is associated with positive outcomes in the short and longer term, and a choice of a local school means going to school with siblings, family, neighbours and friends.
  • Teachers engage with and know all the learners in their class and plan the curriculum to respond to their needs. Teachers build on strengths, abilities and interests in their teaching and learning. All types of progress and achievement are valued, regardless of pace.
  • Teachers and schools respect and value differences, and reflect critically on beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and practices to identify and address ableism.
  • Teachers are not alone in this task, they are well supported. They are supported by other teachers, school leadership, the Learning Support Coordinator and Te Mahau curriculum support. They work together and have common values that are evident in the school culture. They know and trust those who provide additional support, which is provided in a timely way.
  • For students the focus is on being at school, and having lots of opportunities to connect and belong, build friendships, to participate and experience wellbeing, to learn, progress and achieve.
  • Social connection matters, connection within a class community, a school community, and in the wider community. There are lots of people who can help and lots of different ways and places to support learning.
  • Learning support is not just one place in a school. Learning is supported in lots of different locations in the school and community and the whole school is accessible. Examples include small group learning spaces, student support spaces, medical and personal care, rest, quiet or nurturing spaces, storage for specialist equipment, safe social spaces, movement spaces and routes, or calm down tasks and spaces, or the community pool, library or gym.
  • High quality learning support services and funding is available in any school and in a timely way.

Inclusion is not:

  • Defined by place. People can be included or excluded (marginalised, segregated, separated) in any place. People work to identify and address attitudes and practices that marginalise or segregate students.
  • One end of a continuum with special education being available for those with high needs and inclusion being available for students who can learn in the mainstream.
  • Just about disability, it’s about all children and young people and all forms of diversity.
  • Dependent on level or type of disability or learning support need.
  • A matter of leaving teachers and schools to manage alone.
  • A one size fits all approach.
  • Rules that determine children and young people must learn in certain ways ie, all in one classroom, in one group, in one way, inside the school dates, with one teacher or teacher’s aide, all of the time
  • Being enrolled in a mainstream class but being withdrawn to learn 1:1 with an adult most of the time
  • About re-establishing special needs units or withdrawal rooms.

Inclusion in action

Ākonga and parent perspectives

There is some excellent mahi happening in our schools, kura and early learning services to make learning inclusive. This growing series of articles explores what inclusion looks like in different education settings and considers the next steps for achieving our shared vision for make learning inclusive and accessible for every child and young person.

We would love to hear about what you’re doing in your school, kura or early learning centre to make learning inclusive. Please get in touch with

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:21 am, 20 May 2022

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