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Inclusive education report, missed opportunity

The Education Review Office has released a new report on inclusive education. The report, which is a follow-up to reports in 2010 and 2013, is called Inclusive Practices for Students with Special Needs in Schools. The Government is heralding the report as evidence of huge progress in inclusive education.

The report is interesting, but it is not actually evidence of progress. This is because the 2015 report cannot be compared to the 2010 report. The Education Review Office broadened the focus of the 2015 report to cover all students with special education needs, rather than just students with high needs. The sample size is also over 30 per cent smaller than the 2010 report and there is significantly fewer rural schools.

As the report itself says:

“The information may not be strictly comparable across the years, as the 2010 rating referred to students with high needs while the 2014 rating referred to students with special education needs.”

The report also notes that it is difficult to determine which schools may have turned students away. The Education Review Office found that some families had to try several schools before their children were enrolled. This mirrors the findings of our previous Families Choices research.

Then we get to the biggest issue, what inclusive education actually means in the report. All three reports have been clear that it does not necessarily mean students with disabilities learning in the same classroom as non-disabled students.

To be inclusive, schools just need to include students with disabilities in regular classes alongside their peers, as much as is possible. It is up to the school and the Education Review Office assessor to determine how much is possible. A school could have its disabled students spend most, or even all, of their time in special units and still be considered a mostly inclusive school by the Education Review Office.

Both the Education Review Office and the Ministry of Education say they have moved on from focusing on whether a student is in a regular class or not, to a focus on achievement and participation. While achievement and participation are both really important, there are still big questions about the practical effects of withdrawing children to special classes, both for academic performance and for their social life.

At the same time that the report claims that schools have been getting more inclusive, enrolments in special schools have increased and we continue to hear concerns from disabled children and their families about discrimination and unequal treatment in schools.

Another big weakness of the report is its failure to mention that students with disabilities have a right to good education at their local school. As a result, people may get the impression that including disabled students is just a praiseworthy or charitable act for a school, rather than an essential part of a school’s job.

While it is great to celebrate the positive work of schools, every student has a right to a good education at their local school. For disabled student this right is both a Civil Right from the Education Act and a Human Right from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office still seem reluctant to enforce the right to education. Sometimes schools need to be challenged and too many schools are still unaware that students with disabilities have rights.

Although the report has some good information, I cannot help feeling that this is a large missed opportunity. Unfortunately, the Education Review Office does not have any further national reports on inclusive education planned and there is a risk of momentum being lost. It will be up to individuals and organisations, like us, to keep the pressure on.

Sam Murray

National Policy Coordinator