The government’s education review is a welcome opportunity to reverse 30 years of neo-liberalism in New Zealand’s education policy and transform the whole system, says the University of Auckland’s Professor of Disability Studies and Inclusive Education, Missy Morton.

Professor Morton says the system has not best served students with disabilities. “Now is the time to ask: What kind of world do we want to live in? And what is the role of education in building that world?”

For a whole generation of students and their parents, we’ve successfully sold the idea of education as focusing only on gaining a qualification as a meal ticket or a commodity to be marketed, Professor Morton says. “The idea was that the market would weed out schools that aren’t performing well.”

This model of competition didn’t foster the idea of inclusive education. Professor Morton’s research shows that with kids with disabilities, the notion of choice has mainly been a fiction. “It’s mostly schools that do the choosing.” And for those schools that actually do welcome all students, the demand can be overwhelming.

She believes it’s time to go beyond the limited idea that inclusive education is achieved simply by placing young people with special educational needs into mainstream settings. “Arguably, New Zealand has one of the most inclusive education systems in the world. There is a low proportion of children outside of regular schools. But even so, there are still children and families that do not have positive experiences of education.”

Instead of looking at problems experienced by individual children, we need to look at what tools in the system perpetuate exclusion and what the opportunities are for changing them. We have examples of early childhood centres, primary and secondary schools, and rural and urban schools that see inclusive education as the core of their everyday practice. For these schools and centres “inclusive education is what we mean by good education. These are staffed by teachers who actively work everyday to realise the aims of our New Zealand Curriculum and Te Whāriki.”

Professor Morton believes seeing schools as places which develop people as active and critical citizens in our democracy could be a start. Also, the way we measure whether learning is occurring needs an overhaul. “Research shows that when you focus on what children are doing, rather than what you expect them to be doing, there’s much more evidence of learning.” A narrative (or story-based) approach to assessment highlights learning that isn’t captured in traditional assessment, particularly for children seen as outside the mainstream.

Professor Morton also believes that teaching pedagogies need to focus on the quality of relationships – involving families and communities as active participants in education. A good place to start would be focusing on the importance of belonging – building a culture of belonging that includes the whole community. She’s working on a research project with colleagues at schools and universities in New Zealand, Belgium and the United States. “We’re supporting a variety of schools to see how belonging is understood in their school, particularly by excluded groups such as disabled children, children who speak languages other than the dominant language, and children from minority ethnic groups.”

One of the most difficult things to change, Professor Morton says, is traditional “deficit discourses” – seeing a “problem” as being within certain groups of children; for example, focusing on why children with disabilities, or children from low socio-economic backgrounds or particular cultures, are not achieving.

Instead of seeing categories of difference, she advocates focusing on common interests and strategies, and identifying and responding to exclusionary pressures.

Part of the answer, she believes, is shifting the model from competition to one of collaboration and co-creation of knowledge and skills. “We need to build opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn from each other. The same is true for teacher education; we also need to build opportunities for teacher educators to collaborate and learn from each other.”

However, Professor Morton believes there is cause for optimism. “The Minister is genuinely asking for a conversation about different ideas. It’s not just about going back to the ‘good old days’. We need transformation, not just tinkering around the edges.”


  1. Can we also please respect and recognise what teachers with disabilities or learning difficulties bring to the classroom. Quite often those of us (in the profession) with some form of disability face discrimination on a daily basis. More often that not it is the kids we teach who identify with our struggles a lot more that our colleagues do. Such a shame, and an attitude that needs to change.


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