05 March 2019

Busting myths about Inclusive Education

Human Rights Disability Commissioner

Every parent has some anxiety about their child’s schooling. I know I do! We worry about how they will be treated at school by teachers and peers. We hope that they will receive quality education to prepare them for a fulfilling career and life. And we want them to make great friends and to thrive.

However, for readers of this column, these issues are sometimes all-consuming concerns. These are things you tell me when I am at public meetings and when I meet with different organisations. I also see these in your comments on Facebook and other social media forums.

It is clear to me that the default settings of the education system do not adequately meet the needs of disabled people and whānau.  I have stressed this through several forums over the past year, such as the Education Summits, submissions to the Learning and Support Action Plan, Tomorrow’s Schools Taskforce, meetings with Ministers, Education Sector Groups, the Ministry of Education and other government agencies.

As Disability Rights Commissioner I advocate for the rights of disabled people and inclusion in every area of life.  A key focus for me is ensuring that all New Zealand children have access to quality and inclusive education. The proposed reforms currently underway give us the opportunity to create an inclusive education system.

Inclusive education means every person, social and cultural group learns side by side, with equitable access to free, local, quality education.

Unfortunately, two clear indications that disabled children are not currently served well, are:

  • 43% of disabled young people are not in education, employment or training; and
  • disabled students are disproportionately excluded from schools.

I believe that an inclusive education approach will help to remedy some of those challenges.

However, inclusive education is not always well understood, and some even perceive it as too hard.

Therefore, in this column I offer four, evidence-based, myth busting tips about inclusive education. These are not new ideas for you but hopefully you will find them as  useful as I do, to prompt more discussion, particularly with  decision makers.

Myth buster 1 – Inclusive education is not new, it is overdue. By three decades! The Education Act of 1989 (the Act) states that people with special educational needs (disabled and non-disabled) have the same rights to enrol and receive education in our schools as people who do not. It also includes an explicit legal obligation on schools to be inclusive. This 30-year-old Act is consistent with international human rights conventions like Article 24 of The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007).

Myth buster 2 – Inclusive education is not a luxury, it is a human right. This graphic [1] based on the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, shows the types of educational environments available for disabled students. As far as I am concerned, and as the evidence shows, an inclusive education system is the only fair option.

Myth buster 3 – Inclusive education has no measurable negative effect on non-disabled children. A 2016 research report that reviewed 280 research studies from 25 countries [2], found that there was no negative effect on non-disabled children’s learning in inclusive education environments, when compared with their peers in traditional classrooms. In fact, inclusive teaching practice benefits all children. There were also social benefits for nondisabled students. They had increased self-esteem, tolerance and acceptance of people different from them. [3]

Education is so important because it is a critical platform for the rest of life.  It also extends beyond education to the whole of society, because research also confirms, that negative stereotypes about disabled people, are changed  by contact with disabled people.

Myth buster 4 – Inclusive education is not just about school, it is also about the future. The same research found because of inclusive education, disabled students benefit by “stronger skills in reading and mathematics, have higher rates of attendance, are less likely to have behavioural problems, and are more likely to complete secondary school than students who have not been included. As adults, students with disabilities who have been included are more likely to be enrolled in postsecondary education, and to be employed or living independently”.

With a current employment rate of only 25% for disabled people, inclusive education is a way of future proofing an equitable and prosperous Aotearoa for all.

If you are also passionate about inclusive education, then please speak up. Use your voice to influence the conversation.

One way is to provide feedback on the Tomorrow’s School Report. The survey is open until late March. I encourage you to test the recommendations, through some key questions:

  • Do the recommendations demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to, and an understanding of, what is needed for all students to be included and valued in education (i.e. an inclusive education)?
  • Will these recommendations deliver a system that supports schools to do the best for every child?

Lastly, I also acknowledge that inclusive education is not just a hot topic for you. This is real life and unnecessary barriers greatly impact our lives. Among your parenting moments of joy are also moments of frustration and hardship that could be significantly reduced by some overdue reform to our system.

So, share your stories too. Educate others on the real-life impact and examples associated with an inclusive education system. They will be better off for it.

[1] “A Summary of the Evidence on Inclusive Education“ – https://alana.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/A_Summary_of_the_evidence_on_inclusive_education.pdf

[2] See image report

[3] These benefits do not happen organically though, they must be supported by an adult supervisor or instructor.

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