Speaker by Various Artists

10

Prospects for inclusive education after the 2014 general election

by Giovanni Tiso

We may be approaching a point in New Zealand where a consensus is reached that our model for funding and delivering so-called ‘special education’ is inadequate, and has been for some time.

The system survived a comprehensive review in 2010, ordered by the outgoing Clark government and carried out by ACT’s Heather Roy in her capacity as Associate Minister of Education. Roy was rolled by Hide just as she was about to deliver her recommendations to Cabinet, and what we got in the end were small changes – the biggest of which was probably making the voucher-like targeted funding regime known as ORS no longer reviewable (meaning that once your child got it, she would get to keep it, although the rates would likely diminish over time).

Four years later, it is my sense that there is more strength in the sector. It starts with language – we want to talk about ‘inclusive education’ instead of ‘special education’ – and with the consolidation of forums such as Education For All, which presented its list of priorities to the Ministry of Education in July. The document talks emphatically about the need for ‘systemic changes’ and ‘transforming education to quality inclusive education’. Its demands are very bold yet consistent with the commitments in rhetoric of successive governments. The objective of bridging this gap should by rights be achievable.

I set out to compare the policies of the various parties in this area as a follow-up post to Hilary’s, which looked at the broader disability policy framework. My overall assessment is that several parties are readier to recognise the long-term problems in the sector compared to three years ago, and that on a very broad centre-left – including New Zealand First, United Future and the Maori Party – there is ample scope for decisive policy improvements.

Hell, even National recognises that ‘there are students who need assistance at school but do not meet the criteria for higher levels of education support,’ and has responded by offering ‘up to 800,000 teacher aide hours per year’ as well as by planning to ‘focus on supporting those whose needs have been identified locally by their school’. This is a key point, as it suggests National is at least dimly aware that the current allocation of funds – which effectively promotes exclusion by punishing economically the schools that enrol children with disabilities – should be reviewed. It is, however, a very small, vague commitment, just as those teacher-aide hours smack of a non-strategic band-aid measure. But it’s a concession of sorts, which is perhaps the most one can expect from the incumbent.

At first glance, Labour’s targeted policy announcement isn’t much more inspiring. The party has promised 100 additional special education teachers, which is about as meaningless in itself as 800,000 teacher-aide hours. However, the announcement comes with a strongly worded commitment to inclusive education and the promise of a ‘comprehensive review of the entire system of special needs support’. NZ First and the Greens are also calling for such a review (Mana doesn’t, but it’s strongly implied), which is a further encouraging sign and area of commonality. Labour is also committed to continue to fund residential special schools, against the advice of organisations such as IHC and CSS Disability, but at least it’s no longer talking about making them ‘centres of excellence’. That was a bad call.

Internet Mana requires my first disclaimer: I voted Mana at the last election. I’m a socialist, I’m on board. Their education policy is very strong on inclusion, and their disability policy is similarly solid (my slight apprehension that ‘well-resourced learning environments’ might mean special units notwithstanding). It’s the only party talking openly about the need to ‘overhaul’ the system, and specifically of eliminating barriers to access (which is a profound philosophical shift from working within diminishing or non-priority budgets). So there’s your strong call for a Mana vote. As for the Internet Party, however, it has a major policy on dolphins but not one on disability. Its education policy boils down essentially to “let them eat iPads”, makes no mention of special needs and understands an inclusive learning environment to mean one in which more technology is used. It has been suggested to me that where the Internet Party has a policy gap, it simply means we should refer to Mana’s policy. That’s not how Laila Harré explained it to me when I asked her. I’m not sure where that leaves your vote nor, indeed, mine.

Second disclaimer: I was asked to comment on the Greens policy as it was being drafted. It was a very small contribution and I’m not a party member. Nonetheless, I was impressed with the leadership shown by Catherine Delahunty and Mojo Mathers (the overall education portfolio belongs to Turei). The emphasis given to the announcement two weeks ago is encouraging, insofar as the political capital spent to bring into the campaign an issue that has traditionally been very marginal can be as important as the content of your policy, for it’s an indicator of how much you’re prepared to fight for it.

Besides proposing a comprehensive review along the lines of Labour’s, the Greens have been characteristically pragmatic: double the number of children covered by ORS (but not the funding the child, meaning there would still be a shortfall), increase funding for the Early Intervention service, extend after school care provision for children with special needs within their proposed hubs. The price tag comes to $350 million over three years, which is a significant commitment. It’s how much the government’s major new Investing in Educational Success initiative would cost.

As Hilary noted in her post, the Maori Party has been strong advocate for disability, and their legacy includes institutions such as the Humans Rights Commissioner for disability issues, which will assist in any proposed reform. However, neither their education policy nor their disability policy going into this election makes specific mention of school inclusion or special education.

If you’ve seen the ACT Party billboards trumpeting ‘Educational Excellence’, you’re fully appraised of the meaning of irony. Would it surprise you to know that their plan to address the current inequities in educational outcomes is to give parents more choice and ‘make educators face more competition’? Seeing as the significant economic pressures that already exist have so far led schools to compete to exclude children with disabilities, I consider this proposal grotesque.

The less that is said about the Conservative Party, the better. At least in this area, in which they have nothing to say.

If you have been following Tracey Martin’s work, you’ll know that NZ First has had a good track on disability issues. Those who favour mainstreaming as a core philosophy for inclusion may question the party’s commitment towards the provision ‘where possible’ of special units in mainstream schools, but NZ First is calling for a review of the funding system, the extension of ORS to 3 per cent of the school population (currently I believe it’s only 1 per cent), and creating a training and career path for Special Needs Co-Ordinators – all proposals that put it in the same camp as Labour and the Greens.

Lastly, United Future. That such a small party even has a policy in this area may be a function of how long it has been around for, but it includes extending ORS and ensuring that ‘future progress isn’t hampered by a reduction in allocation because the student has made progress’ (this is one of the most genuinely absurd aspects of the current system). So my sense is that Dunne could be worked with, too.

To bring it back to where I began, then, while few of our parties have formulated concrete policies for the overdue transformation of this area of our education system, there is enough shared recognition of the scale of the problem for advocates to make their case and hopefully see it through. It is not a feeling I had three years ago. 

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