Mary Rogers gets upset when she thinks about two students in particular. They were both intelligent kids and both identified in year 1 with high dyslexic needs, the RTLB (Resource Teacher: Learning & Behaviour) recalls. Upon catching up on their progress years later, Rogers was saddened to learn they were both in prison.

There is much we don’t know about the lives of these two students, and there are likely many factors impacting their respective outcomes – but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that two priority learners did not emerge successful from their education.

Interestingly, about 10 per cent of children in the general population have dyslexia, while for their counterparts caught up in the justice system it’s as high as 32 per cent. Where are we going wrong?

New Zealand has one of the most inclusive education systems in the world. Professor Garry Hornby’s 2014 research, as published in Advances in Special Education (Vol 28), outlines how New Zealand has gone further with the inclusion of students with special educational needs in mainstream classrooms than most other countries.

However, Hornby points out that the New Zealand system hasn’t kept pace with developing provision for these children, which means many children with special educational needs are not getting the specialist help they need.

International assessment rankings confirm that we’re not getting it right. The recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings showed that inequality in learning outcomes is still very problematic for New Zealand.  A wider gap between the top 10 per cent and bottom 10 per cent of New Zealand students exists than in most other OECD countries. The TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) results paint a similar story.

Changes underway

Since Hornby’s research, the Ministry of Education has taken steps to update our special education system with the Learning Support Update. A pilot was launched last year in the Bay of Plenty introducing more streamlined procedures to the system, including learning support teams to assess each learner’s needs and devise an appropriate programme of support. Once the pilot has been evaluated, it will then be rolled out nationwide if deemed successful.

Change can’t come fast enough. Prior to the election and his appointment as Education Minister, Chris Hipkins described special education as “the most unmet need” in New Zealand education.

In a recent Radio New Zealand interview, Hipkins said special education, or learning support, was “right at the front of the queue”.

He has canned the previous Government’s plans to redirect learning support funding from secondary to early childhood, but acknowledges this means “putting more money into the learning support system”.

Systemic issues

This year the Education Review Office (ERO) is conducting a national review into how effectively schools are responding to students with special educational needs.

However many say what schools really need is more funding for special education, and not another report. NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart, Principals’ Federation president Whetu Cormick, Berhampore School principal Mark Potter and IHC director of advocacy Trish Grant all told Radio New Zealand that more funding was desperately needed for special education.

Insufficient funding is an important part of the problem, but there appear to be a number of other contributing systemic issues as well.

For one, we shouldn’t downplay the effect of socioeconomic status on educational achievement. The PISA results indicate that we expect and tolerate a bigger range of achievement in New Zealand than do teachers and administrators in other countries. New OECD research shows that unlike many other countries, the percentage of New Zealand’s most disadvantaged students who are doing okay academically has significantly declined over the last ten years. If we could reach a better understanding of the reasons underpinning the link between socioeconomic status and educational achievement, we might be in a better position to improve the educational success of students who sit within our infamous and oft-mentioned “tail of underachievement”.

Hornby points to some deficiencies with New Zealand’s SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) system. New Zealand has no requirement to have SENCOs in schools and no requirement for SENCO training. Of course many schools have them, but the role is often added on to a senior leadership team member’s remit with limited time allocation.

Additionally, there is no statutory requirement for mainstream teachers to have training in working with students with special educational needs either through their initial teacher education or professional development.

Last year, inclusive education advocacy group VIPS – Equity in Education collated experiences of parents, students, staff and specialists. Among the common themes to emerge was insufficient specialist support being available, insufficient staff training, staff ignoring specialist advice, students excluded, bullied and mistreated, and prioritising staff over students.

There were concerns raised about the way some boards of trustees handled incidents involving students with special educational needs and how some failed to advocate for additional support to meet these needs. VIPS is also sceptical about the lack of independent scrutiny placed on boards’ handling of inclusive education.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft agrees. He shared with Newsroom last year his concerns that, short of going to the High Court, there is no realistic way of challenging a board’s decision. He is eager to see the creation of an appeal system from suspension or exclusion decisions that will help children remain engaged
in education.

VIPS says the collective impact of limited government funding, modern learning environments, narrow teacher education, and the emphasis on academic success means many schools are steered towards the exclusion of some students rather than meeting the rights to safe inclusive education that are enshrined in international conventions and domestic legislation.

Not making the most of EPs and RTLBs

One of these concerns worth noting is that of staff ignoring specialist advice. Recently it has become clear that we need to look at how schools work with educational psychologists (EPs) and Resource Teachers: Learning & Behaviour (RTLBs).

The Ministry currently employs 172 full-time equivalent psychologists, but many say this is nowhere near enough.

This year, the New Zealand Psychological Society (NZPsS), NZEI Te Riu Roa and the Institute of Educational and Developmental Psychology (IEDP) issued a call to the Government to double the number of educational psychologists in order to meet current needs of our student population. The IEDP wants to see policies and programmes in place that ensure all learners can access the support they need. They want to see the Ministry supporting educational psychologists in delivering evidence-based interventions that are relevant to New Zealand schools.

Part of the problem is that there is no requirement for schools to act on the recommendations of EPs and RTLBs. The other part is that there is often not enough funding for schools to implement their interventions.

RTLB Mary Rogers has worked in clusters across the country from Waikato to Otago and Southland. She has observed many instances where specialist advice has been sought but not put effectively into practice.

She gives the example of a school she worked at, that acknowledged they had a lack of understanding about the needs of its Māori students. They got a specialist in who conducted some excellent work, but none of it was acted upon in the classroom.

An educational psychologist (EP), who does not wish to be named, shared similar concerns. Upon introducing a simple document to break classroom activities into steps for teachers of a girl with complex needs, including organisational and memory difficulties, the SENCO responded, “We can’t expect teachers to do this for every lesson”.

In another example, in Auckland, the EP recommended an intelligent but vulnerable Māori boy from a gang-affiliated whānau be seated near the teacher with a high level of monitoring and praise. Upon observing him off-task at the back of the class, the EP later asked if the teacher had read his report. The teacher responded, “Yes, but if he wants to sit at the back doing nothing with his mates, that’s his choice”. The EP has since heard that the student sits firmly within the youth offending system.

In a third instance, a primary school teacher failed to adopt the EP’s recommendations for a primary school student because, according to a colleague, “She likes to get back to her lifestyle section by 3.15pm”.

Are such responses due to the embedded Kiwi cultural norm of having an aversion to being told what to do? Certainly, there is an apparent reluctance on the part of teachers, sector leaders, government agencies and policy makers to inflict anything mandatory or compulsory upon the sector. Responding to calls for all schools to include Māori Land Wars in the curriculum, former Education Minister Hekia Parata said that it is “not the
New Zealand way” to compel specific things.

Virtues of a high trust model

Current minister Chris Hipkins is eager to see New Zealand teachers working within a high trust system. A high trust model essentially gives teachers more autonomy, more freedom to try new things and take risks. It is a model that allows teachers to flourish.

Principal at St Mary’s School in Gore, Annie Nelson, is a fan of a high trust model and of “people who take a risk on behalf of the learner”. She believes teachers are not trusted as much as they could be. Nelson says there is a tendency for teachers to wait for extra support but she thinks they should be trusted to rely on their instincts and do what needs to be done.

If a teacher has been burned before, they won’t take those risks, she says. Nelson says she’s had teachers who have been teaching for over 20 years say they’re nervous at the prospect of a quick teaching observation.

By contrast, other countries, including the US, UK and many European countries, place their teachers under greater scrutiny and hold them more accountable than teachers in
New Zealand. In the UK, for example, OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) – the UK’s version of ERO – reduced their warning time for a school inspection from three weeks to zero, meaning schools could be subject to unannounced inspections.

As a result, most schools are said to operate on a heightened state of vigilance and competence. The negative side of this is that teachers are ever-mindful of being scrutinised and fearful of taking risks. It isn’t hard to see how OFSTED earned its nickname, ‘The Gestapo’.

Nelson, who originally taught in the UK, isn’t a fan of OFSTED’s approach.

“I once heard someone from OFSTED say, ‘If staff morale is at an all-time low, you know you’re doing something right’,” she says.

Nelson says she wouldn’t return to teaching in the UK.

Nelson believes teachers shouldn’t live in fear of ERO. She supports the notion of unannounced visits but only if they are conducted as a reassurance to teachers, rather than a big event every few years that schools plan for.

“Teachers are often exhausted after ERO,” she says.

The UK’s approach

The UK’s stricter regime has had a positive impact on inclusive education, however. Hot on the heels of the 2010 Equalities Act, OFSTED announced in 2012 that a school could only be rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ if good progress had been made by special education students and other priority learners. Two years later the 2014 SEND Code of Practice came into play, introducing more checks and balances into the system.

The overall result of these changes has been that all teachers are not only more aware of the importance of catering to the needs of their priority learners, but actively take on board the suggestions of their SENCO, in keeping with expectations and, indeed, the legislative requirements. Further, all newly appointed SENCOs in the UK must gain a mandatory master’s-level qualification and adhere to a framework.

“Now, I would say most teachers are on board with the inclusion message,” says Maggie Morgan, a SENCO at a school in the UK. “I get emails every day from teachers who want advice on strategies to use with individual students, and I get an impressive turnout at voluntary after-school SEND training events that I deliver for my colleagues.”

It is prudent to point out, however, that Morgan is nervous about the future of inclusive education under the current British government. The decision to introduce cuts to schools’ budgets will likely result in fewer teaching support staff and increased class sizes, to the detriment of children with special educational needs.

Morgan is also fearful that the current government’s push for selective education – currently on hold following objections by the teaching unions – will reverse the whole inclusion agenda. Furthermore, the damaging cuts to support services such as speech and language therapists and educational psychologists have resulted in schools being unable to fulfil their statutory SEND obligations.

“Inclusion as a philosophy is in a very fragile place and all the advances made over the past three decades could be suddenly reversed,” she says.

Inclusive education within a high trust model

Despite the UK’s success with raising the bar for inclusive education, implementing such an approach here is hard to fathom. Mandatory frameworks and unannounced audits fly in the face of all that is cherished by the New Zealand system.

But does our approach to inclusive education expose a weakness in our high trust model? In the absence of unpopular and restrictive mandatory measures of accountability, it is possible for schools and teachers to neglect the educational needs of their priority learners.

Schools that exhibit excellent practice typically have a high level of structure, expectations and programmes of support. Schools with poor practice don’t. Both types of schools exist within our communities.

A 2016 Radio New Zealand report on special education confirmed this, with parents of children with special educational needs saying that while some schools went out of their way to be inclusive, others did not. Those that didn’t tended to take this stance because they were inadequately resourced to cope with children with learning differences.

Mother-of-two Glenda Reed recently moved to Te Kopuru, near Dargaville, for a fresh start, after years of struggling to get the appropriate support for her son. After noticing her son’s “concerning behaviour” when he was about eight-and-a-half, Reed tried to seek help, suspecting her son was autistic. She was offered various solutions ranging from the Incredible Years parenting programme to Child Youth & Family’s decision for her son to live with his father for a year. Help arrived three years later when she was finally referred to a child psychologist who assessed her son and diagnosed him with ADHD and anxiety. However, Reed feels her son’s needs were not adequately supported at his previous school.

“I was told by staff, ‘Oh, we’ve had kids like him before, we know how to manage him’.”

She felt little effort was taken by the school to get to know his specific needs and or how to cater for them. His behaviour worsened, bullying worsened, and he nearly faced expulsion.

“I’m at the point where if I could homeschool, I would,” she says.

Importance of strong leadership

Rogers believes the effectiveness of a school’s leadership team (SLT) also plays a major role.

“Having worked with over 80 principals and as many DPs, three characteristics stand out as effective leadership: people skills, possessing and imparting knowledge of effective pedagogy, and being able to have the hard conversations with both students and staff.”

Rogers believes leadership teams who use Band-aid strategies to manage priority learners fail to develop teacher practice and core issues remain, resulting in poor outcomes for this group of learners.

By contrast, the leadership team at another school at which Rogers worked, took a lot on board – and consequently the RTLB service had a 78 per cent reduction in referrals.

Being a principal or a deputy principal is not a popularity contest, she says. It’s about professional respect, not being liked.

“It’s a fine line. At another school I’ve worked at they are completely over-managed and the teachers are scared to do anything.”

Are we truly focused on the learner?

All of this begs the uncomfortable question of whether New Zealand’s education system is truly designed to meet the needs of learners or those of the adults working within it. This is reflected in the updated Education Act, which has been criticised for its lack of focus on children and learners.

If we are ultimately concerned with whether our priority learners succeed, perhaps we need to take a long hard look at our current systems so that the advice of specialist experts doesn’t go unheeded?

It will be interesting to see what ERO finds in its national review into how effectively schools are responding to students with special educational needs. It is likely to conclude that schools require more resourcing and expertise to effectively provide for students with learning differences. It might also address the need for schools to have robust systems in place, driven and overseen by school leadership, to carry out recommended interventions.

Ultimately, “the most unmet need” in education needs to be met, and fast.


  1. A well researched and informative article. Many points raised have been in my own personal thoughts for a long time. It will be interesting to see how the pilot school project shows results. As a retired RTLB I can remember how the best practice teachers were overloaded with special needs children especially those with diagnosed ADHD and often had a Downes Syndrome or Foetal Alcohol child in their class as well. No wonder these teachers got ” burn out” and often left the profession. Additional support was from a small pool of money and had to be prioritised and only available for a restricted timeframe. These children had conditions that were not going to change but we’re there for life, but the support was not. Only in very significant cases for severe intellectual disabilities where the child was usually in a “Special Unit” not in a classroom. Will be looking forward to see how Chris Hipkins tackles these needs. Mary Rogers is correct in saying that some teachers do not take advantage of advice and guidance offered to them. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. But the majority do try but are so overloaded with ” difficult ” children that they can become quite overwhelmed with the additional work load required for a few, to the detriment of their main classroom work. Good to hear on tonight’s need that psychologists are going to be available in Christchurch at a radio of 1:500. Good luck with finding that many. Will this just be like the mid wife crisis we currently have?

  2. The Early Childhood sector has great support in our area from SES. However a continuing problem arises for the children with additional needs who continues to be enrolled at an early childhood centre until they are six. These children are not funded for additional support once they turn five.

    The majority of these children are more suited to the Early Childhood environment; but without the funding being available for them we are unanable to have and ESW to support them. This policy is failing these children. This has happened many times within our centre, much to the frustration of the whanau, teachers and SES. This policy must change NOW.


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