Inclusion in our secondary schools: is policy at odds with practice?October 2016
With the Government poised to make dramatic changes to special education policy, Education Review looks at Dr Judith Selvaraj’s recent research, which investigates the mismatch between policy and practice when it comes to implementing inclusion in New Zealand’s secondary schools.
With a background in secondary teaching, special education and educational psychology, Dr Judith Selvaraj is well placed to cast scrutiny on the quality of services available for children with special educational needs in New Zealand.
Earlier research undertaken for her Master of Education found there were ongoing concerns among parents that the compulsory sector was not adequately catering for these children, with many students’ families being required to pay for their assessments to access Ministry of Education support.
Selvaraj wanted to delve deeper into the idea of inclusion and how it was implemented; this was to form the basis of her PhD, completed this year. Guided by expert supervisors in the School of Education at the University of Auckland, she set out to gain a comprehensive understanding of the divide between the policy rhetoric of inclusion and its experiential reality.
Three questions formed the basis of Selvaraj’s doctoral thesis, involving the development of special education policy in New Zealand; how teacher education looks at inclusion; and how secondary schools respond to their students’ additional needs in relation to current Special Education policy.
Selvaraj’s motivation for this topic grew from her earlier experiences as a secondary school teacher and polytechnic tutor in the mid-1980s. At this time neo-liberal reforms swept across the country; the Picot Report and Tomorrow’s Schools triggered huge administration changes in New Zealand education.
One significant change was that all students could be enrolled at their local schools. The word ‘inclusion’ was used for the first time in this context. However, critics of the notion of inclusion have also indicated this was a way to ‘manage disability’ within the notion of neo-liberalism and so began the debates amongst educators about the notions of inclusion, special education and disabilities.
In covering the history of inclusive policy development and implementation, the research also looked at the events following the Education Act 1989 and how the plethora of special education policies and changes took hold and created confusion for educators in the 1990s and 2000s.
Selvaraj used the multiple study model of thesis presentation as it encouraged a mixed methods approach and enabled careful triangulation to corroborate data from various sources. This enabled her to provide a context-specific snapshot of inclusion within teacher education, secondary schools and within national and school documents about inclusion. It was imperative that the study was able to make more explicit the typically messy intersection of policy and practice. The challenge was how to bring these three distinct aspects of the problem together in discussion and analysis.
In this complex examination of inclusion, Study One examined a large sample from the standard one-year graduate secondary teaching education programme to gather their attitudes about inclusion and experiences of inclusive education practices.
Study Two wanted to consider, by interview, the in-depth understandings about attitudes towards inclusion and how each secondary school approached their inclusive educational practices from principals, heads of learning support and classroom subject teachers.
Study Three used document analysis alongside the empirical data and was positioned as a frame against which the emerging findings of Study One and Two were considered.
Collectively the three studies made convincing claims concerned with forging inclusion and policy, inclusion and special education, inclusion and links between teacher education and secondary schools, and funding. Moreover, the research exposes a system that is underserved by policy and that relies on administrators and practitioners in schools to embrace their own strengths in making inclusion a reality.
Questions are raised about the role of pre-service teachers’ education; questions that are underscored by the less than favourable findings that suggest graduates of secondary pre-service teacher education are ill-equipped to operationalise the goals of inclusive educational practices.
The evidence generated by the pre-service teachers – and further supported by the voices of the secondary teachers – showed an alarming lack of awareness of how to construct, sustain and engage with students through inclusive educational practice.
Barriers to inclusion in secondary schools
Selvaraj believes that secondary education is ideally positioned to be a major site of social and educational inclusion. However, she notes several barriers to this.
There is a compromised funding system in place that does not support all students and strongly argues for a national commitment. There is a complacent and muddied understanding about how existing secondary school teachers would be upskilled and whether the Ministry of Education is committed to providing a funding mechanism, outside school’s operational grants, for the current secondary teaching sector and its educators.
Terminology is another barrier. The persistent use of the term ‘special education’ that arises from separatist logic of some educators creates barriers to securing broader educational and social changes. The overuse of the word ‘diversity’ as a synonym for inclusion is misleading and belies the use of the term special education and makes invisible precisely those students who have additional learning needs. Conversely, the term ‘special education needs’ has allowed attention to be drawn from a student’s disability since these students are not a homogenous group.
The Ministry of Education website that forges inclusion and inclusive educational practices is, in Selvaraj’s opinion, a generic plan only to assist schools. The use of words such as ‘diversity’, ‘disabilities’ and ‘special educational needs’ do little to clarify how school practitioners, families and educators can understand the definitions and operationalise these within schools. The use of these words also suggests that the Ministry itself is grappling with the terminology, despite the reality that the three secondary schools in Selvaraj’s thesis were getting on with the job of developing inclusive educational practices.
However, even though secondary school educators have embraced the notion of inclusion there remains a disconnection between the Ministry of Education policy and national guidelines for all schools. Selvaraj believes involvement is needed between ministry policymakers, government officials, schools, boards of trustees, secondary teachers and secondary teacher educators in promoting future inclusive policies that reflect a national commitment across New Zealand.
With regard to forging links between teacher education and secondary schools, there was evidence that the Ministry of Education is aware that teachers need support in this area. Yet findings suggest urgent action is needed for secondary pre-service teachers and tertiary education providers and their staff to debate how inclusive educational practices can become a core and compulsory part of the secondary teacher education programme.
“Secondary teacher education programmers are at the forefront of pedagogical change and they are ideally positioned to liaise with secondary schools to develop initial and ongoing practices of inclusion. They have the capacity to model the theories and practices of inclusion and are agents of change as the idea of just fostering inclusive practices is insufficient,” says Selvaraj.
“An inclusive society is the term for the 21st century and the pathway is not perfect. However, New Zealand policymakers, school educators and secondary teacher education programmers must get this right.”