An inclusive society begins at school

The University of Auckland's Missy Morton wants a New Zealand where schools see diversity as a resource rather than a problem to be managed

Schools are a microcosm of society – they reflect the society that we currently have, and they are one of the important ways we can prepare ourselves for the society that we want to have. If we want a truly inclusive society, we need a truly inclusive education system.

So what do we mean by ‘inclusive education’? In terms of schools, we are talking about environments that make all of us familiar and comfortable with the range of diversities that we experience in our society. Inclusive education isn’t just about children with disabilities, but about the full range of diversities – our genders, our sexualities, our languages, our cultures.

At the same time we must be aware of the way we use the term ‘diversity’. It is a bit of a worry when people talk about ‘diverse students’ when what they are really saying is ‘someone not like me’. We have to remember that we are all diverse: we are all part of the range of ways in which we can be diverse. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore our differences – instead, we need to achieve a balancing act where on the one hand everyone belongs, and on the other hand, we recognise that people have different interests, strengths and needs. This is the work we are doing now, exploring the complexities of belonging.

New Zealand has one of the most inclusive education systems in the world. We’ve achieved a lot since the 1989 Education Act. Many people are surprised to learn that before this Act, there were a number of children who didn’t go to school. Some of these children lived in large institutions, some lived in group homes or with their families. Some of these children went to centres initially set up by parents and then run by voluntary organisations. 

In the early 1980s I helped set up one centre, Project MESH, a collaboration between IHC, the Otago Hospital Board, Otago Board of Education and the University of Otago. Project MESH (model education for students with severe handicaps) was on the University of Otago campus, and the students came by bus from Cherry Farm Hospital. The 1989 Education Act made it possible for every child to enrol at their local school. It was very exciting for us when our students moved out of Project MESH and onto secondary schools in Dunedin. Even more exciting was when they moved out of Cherry Farm Hospital and into their new homes and, where possible, closer to their families. As a society, New Zealand was welcoming these children and young people back into our communities and our lives. We were telling their families and whānau that they and their disabled children and young people were valued and valuable.

Unfortunately, and despite provisions in the Education Act 1989 designed specifically to provide a level playing field for all, this ideal remains out of reach for far too many children and young people with disabilities. For example, there are still schools that advise parents that their disabled son or daughter will be better off elsewhere – unfortunately, there is plenty of research in New Zealand to show this is happening all too often. 

There are reports of schools that will only look at a child if he or she comes as a package with ORS (Ongoing Resourcing Scheme) funding – and that system is hard to negotiate and success depends on painting a very negative picture of your child and their needs. And then there are the cases where a child has ORS funding but the school rules it only covers help for, say, a teacher’s aide for three hours a day so the child can only attend for a limited time. So instead of ‘inclusivity’, we have the person who needs the most input, getting the least hours and their differences emphasised – in effect a message to students and their families: “Your minder isn’t here so you have to go home”.

We have to acknowledge that there are many schools up and down New Zealand where the changes over the last 30 years have been successful. These are the schools where disabled youngsters are participating in the New Zealand Curriculum; where their classmates learn about how different individuals make their way through the world; teachers are learning new skills to meet special needs – and those skills turn out to be useful for everybody. 

This is what inclusive education looks like when it is going well.

These schools are meeting the goal of accepting everyone who arrives to enrol and the seeing it through with participation, achievement and belonging for all. The news gets out that disabled students are welcomed and they become magnet schools, in sharp contrast to those schools where they are very clearly unwelcome, usually because they might make the school look less successful.

Inclusive schools use their resources in different ways – it’s not just about how much resource get they get, but how they can be resourceful. For example, teacher aid is used to support the whole classroom not just individual children; funding is used to help teachers with professional development around inclusive practices.

And we see this success in rural schools and urban schools, in low decile and high decile schools. The one common denominator is these schools are more likely to have a culture of belonging. This culture extends beyond the students to the teachers, the student teachers, the new teachers, the school families and, the community. These schools don’t exist as a separate entities, they are part of the community, and have a clear vision that all the teachers have responsibility for all the students. 

This inclusivity is played out in situations like who is visible in school celebrations; what kind of things are celebrated and recognised. Teachers in these schools see diversity as a resource rather than a problem to be managed; that they themselves can be learners and students can be the teachers. This is an expression of the Māori concept of ako, which means we are all both teachers and learners. 

And let’s acknowledge this: A school that is capable of welcoming those children who may seem challenging will be doing it better for all students. Of course, even schools with strong cultures of belonging will have moments of tensions. But as long as there is a willingness to use those moments to think about what is going on, then people will feel more welcome than not, that their interest, needs and strengths are being taken into account and there is give and take from everyone.  

This is what I wish for every school in New Zealand.

Professor Morton is a founding member of the Inclusive Education Action Group which launched the Voices Project at the University of Auckland in July. The project has made films of 10 young disabled people talking about how school was for them. Associate Minister of Education Tracey Martin spoke at the launch and complemented the project as a “powerful piece of work bringing forward voices that aren’t always heard.”

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