The Opportunities Party (TOP) acknowledges that children are neuro-diverse, meaning children’s brains are different and those differences need to be accommodated, supported and celebrated. Disability needs are also diverse. What works for the deaf community does not work for the physically disabled and an intellectual disability needs different support again. Our current one-size-fits-all education system does not value this diversity. TOP’s fundamental position is to dismantle the Education Review Office and put more funding into quality professional development for teachers.
There are currently no teacher training agencies that focus on disabilities or neuro-diversity. Practicums in special schools are largely non-existent. Yet, special schools offer a diversity of educational opportunities to students, which the mainstream system could learn from.
Around 15% of students in NZ need learning support. TOP’s priority is to catch learning needs early, with better integration between families and early childhood education services and healthcare providers. TOP advocates taking a holistic approach to child development. Finland invests heavily in quality learning support for those in their first few years of learning. Evidence shows this approach pays off in the long run.
Defining ‘disability’ in education
Like they do in Ontario, TOPs approach to disability in education covers a range of needs in children, including behavioural, communicational, intellectual, physical, social/emotional or multiple exceptionalities. In NZ, we talk about Inclusive Education, meaning people who have special educational needs (whether because of disability or otherwise) have the same rights to enrol and receive education in state schools as people who do not. Inclusivity also means children feel accepted, enjoying positive relationships and being active members of a learning community. TOP’s community-oriented approach to education, mental health and well-being is integral to the concept of inclusivity.
What’s happening at the moment?
At the moment, special support in mainstream schooling tends to go to those who shout the loudest, have the capacity to undertake the paperwork, or can pay for private assessments. The verification process excludes many children in need, leaving families desperate and demoralised. The Tomorrow's Schools review report identified that urgent priority needs to be given to decreasing wait times, increasing teacher/ kaiako confidence and capability, growing the pool of qualified specialist staff and paraprofessionals, and providing additional funding to ensure every child is supported to participate and flourish in their chosen school/kura, whether that is a mainstream school/kura or a more specialised environment.
A new community-oriented learning support model has been trialled in some regions successfully. Work is ongoing to improve the education system for children who need additional learning. TOP agrees that by working together, it is expected that parents will have a greater voice, and resources will be used to strengthen how schools/ kura are able to provide support to learners/ākonga. Certainly, TOP believes families should be offered choice and freedom to move between mainstream and special schools systems as their child's needs change.
In 2018, the Government also announced funding for an additional 600 learning support co-ordinators in schools/kura from 2020. It is too early to tell how effective these new roles are, with some professionals calling the initiative a band-aid approach, because "you can't coordinate something that's not there". In some classrooms children with additional learning needs are ‘babysat’ so the teacher can focus on the rest of the children without the disruption. National would move these children out to specialised schools, a solution that is impractical at best and elitist at worst. TOP believes the learning support funding would be better spent in quality professional development of our teachers, to better equip them to address diverse learning needs within the classroom.
What would TOP do differently?
TOP's approach is to invest in the profession of teaching to ensure all schools are able to cater to all students. Rather than taking a compliance approach to inclusivity in schools, TOP would encourage quality professional development for teachers. This includes training in, or drawing in expertise from, psychology, neuro-development, neuro-diversity, neuro-plasticity, healthcare, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy and many other fields. Professional development would include, but is not limited to, critical reflection on unconscious bias, developing co-constructed Individual Education Plans, taking an early intervention approach to ensure students get the support when they need it, running half-yearly national forums, so that practice knowledge, learner/ākonga and parent experiences, and policy can come together to review progress and identify priorities for improving the learning and outcomes for learners/ākonga with additional learning needs.
TOP will ensure that special learning needs assessments have more equitable entry criteria and students receive better funding to support them. Our fundamental changes to the education system will also accommodate neuro-diversity among children, by focussing on soft skills like communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, to prepare children for a disrupted future. The traditional gate-keepers to success in education, literacy and numeracy, will still be taught, but with a life-long learning approach, so that learning is more meaningful, motivational and “natural” for students.
TOP would also encourage connection and collaboration between schools to create efficiencies and best-practice approaches within the profession. Connection between schools / ECE and community would also grow relationships with families of children with disabilities, reduce any stigma that may exist, and create greater levels of understanding and empathy between families. It is time for fundamental change in our education system and TOP is the party to bring it.
Overall, TOP would follow the advice of the Office for Disability Issues to ensure:
- Disabled people are consulted on and actively involved in the development and implementation of legislation and policies concerning education, including early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary education.
- Access to mainstream education is inclusive (including policy, practice and pedagogy).
- Services that are specific to disabled people are high quality, available and accessible.
- Inclusive education is a core competency for all teachers and educators.
- Decision-making on issues regarding education of disabled people is informed by robust data and evidence.
Dr Naomi Pocock is TOP’s Education Spokesperson and Hamilton East Candidate.
TOP’s other education blogs include: