The text of the speech I gave at the forum on public education organised last week at Parliament by Metiria Turei and Catherine Delahunty.
Our daughter Lucia has what is sometimes referred to as classical autism. She’s verbal, although she has trouble using language to communicate beyond a very basic level. While she doesn’t present with some of the disruptive behaviours that other children at her end of the spectrum can exhibit, her learning and social needs are very significant. I want to talk about what it means for our local school to have her on its roll, and about the many incentives in our education system for excluding children like her.
Lucia gets targeted funding under the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS). The funding is now openly referred by the ministry as a contribution, as opposed to a provision, and leaves a shortfall of between $5,000 and $10,000 in the school budget for each child on the scheme. A school that does a good job with children with very high needs will often attract a disproportionate amount of students on the scheme, thereby increasing the strain on the school’s financial viability even further. This strain could potentially be alleviated by the other source of funding in this area, the Special Education Grant. This, however, is allocated to schools based on the roll alone, irrespective of the number of children with special needs they actually have. Given the lack of accountability on how the grant is spent (a case hit the news some years ago about a school that used it to build netball courts), this provides another significant incentive against enrolling children with high needs.
But the incentives are broader than the flawed funding model alone. When the National Government introduced National Standards, Lucia was initially exempt, but since 2011 the law says that she must be assessed against those standards every year, and of course she is always found to be failing. However, when the school reports those results to the Ministry and the community, it is not allowed to make a special allowance for her learning needs. Consequently, the school’s public National Standards data are dragged down by Lucia’s results without any explanation or context. Our child has become a blip.
The directive to measure children with special needs against the national norm is in direct contradiction with Section 16 of the Education Amendment Act, introduced in June of this year, which states that the function of school boards is ‘to ensure that every student at the school is able to attain his or her highest possible standard in educational achievement.’ Note: his or her standard. Not that of a typical child that faces none of her challenges. As an aside, parents and advocates are used to being told that it’s inescapable resource constraints that prevent our education system from being truly inclusive. Disinclined as I am to ever accept this excuse, it certainly doesn’t apply here: there is no fiscal motivation for using National Standards to brand our students with the highest needs as failures. It’s discrimination we get for free.
Consider again how schools that are good at inclusion tend to become magnets, thus compounding the effect on league tables without so much as a footnote alerting parents as to why the school appears to have such a high number of students well below the National Standards. In an education system like ours, which is predicated on competition between public schools, this is another very strong incentive not to enrol children like our daughter.
Competition and the myth of choice are the enemies of equity and inclusion. As a parent of a child with special needs, you come against it even before enrolment at primary school. As soon as it becomes apparent that admission into the scheme is the outcome of a competition, you have no choice but to try to win. It is a demoralising and humiliating process (I’ve described our experience in detail here) in which you have to focus on all the things that are wrong with your child, and none of her qualities. Each application takes on average 35 hours to complete – you may want to think of the resources that this entails – and we’ve known since a Victoria University School of Law review made in 2000 that it discriminates against families who lack the cultural and economic means to compete.
The Ongoing Resourcing Scheme is the blueprint for school inclusion in New Zealand: it is distributed arbitrarily, capped under a strict budget and moderated so that children won’t receive too much.
The moderation process is another demoralising feature of the scheme. We happen to have a younger son with diabetes and he goes to clinics periodically to review his care package. If they find that his haemoglobin levels are good, they don’t suggest cutting down on his very expensive insulin, on the grounds that it would be, you know, utterly deranged. Yet this is precisely how the ORS moderation process works. If a child on the scheme has made progress because of supports that were put in place, that support will be cut. This highlights how intellectually as well as ethically bankrupt the provision is: for there is in fact no direct, straightforward relationship between the severity of a student’s disability and the level of learning support that she needs. What might have happened since the previous review is that you finally got the child to a point where she can tolerate being in the classroom. She can now finally be taught. So naturally at this time the Ministry ensures her financial support is reduced even further.
All of these perverse incentives against inclusion have the effect of punishing the schools who work so hard to give a full education to children like Lucia. On this point, some people may not realise is how easy it is not to enrol children with special needs. You don’t need to refuse entrance, which is illegal and is sometimes reported to the Ministry. All you need to do is not do a very good job. Practice the art of benign neglect. Be less than totally welcoming at the pre-enrolment interview, or complain about the lack of funding. Parents of children with special needs are quick to pick up signals and will look someplace else. This is sold to us as choice, but it’s just the opposite. It’s the denial of a child’s right to attend their local school.
This being the case, the temptation would be to blame the schools that turn away children like Lucia or that don’t do a very good job with them, and conversely, to take the schools that do a good job and present them as the models for everyone else to follow. I suspect that this is what the Ministry thinks – that it can just take the good stories and replicate them. To be sure, we all have a lot to learn from successful programmes and educators. But the best schools are also likely to have characteristics that make them unique and difficult to imitate: a community that shares a very strong set of values, and prizes solidarity over achievement alone; a principal or leadership team driven by an uncommon personal commitment to inclusion; above all, the willingness and the strength to struggle in order to protect those values against the constant threat of an unsympathetic bureaucracy and a central administration that views the right to learn of some of our children as an extravagance to be contained or discouraged.
In other words, the problem is structural, and won’t be solved until the system of incentives that drive schools to exclude children with special needs – all of which we have known about for a number of years – are removed once and for all. Then and only then will the Ministry of Education be true to its often stated commitment to inclusion.
So here’s a provocative challenge: until we have solved school inclusion in this country, parents like us are the only ones who should be given the choice of where to send their children. Conversely, schools should fall over themselves to enrol children like Lucia, instead of the predictable high achievers. They should fall over themselves because they trust that the Ministry will reward them instead of punishing them, and that by becoming inclusive they will benefit all students. This is what our school has found is the reward you get for doing right by children like our daughter: you create an entire culture centred around everyone’s right to learn. We should settle for nothing less.