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Dalziel to: Special Schools Principals’ Conference

Dalziel to: Special Schools Principals’ Association Conference

Thank you for the opportunity to address this conference again, especially as it is in my home city of Christchurch – so a special welcome to those of you who have travelled here from different parts of New Zealand.

I want to begin by acknowledging the work that you do. I have visited many of your schools now, and seen first hand the way that you work with the range of students you have enrolled.

On most of these occasions I have had the opportunity to talk to parents, who talk to me about the holistic service you provide for them. You are clear that you are not only supporting children and young people but also their extended families and whanau.

We are in a new government term, and I know that you probably had mixed feelings about the prospect of having to break in a new Minister. However I did ask Helen if I could remain in the portfolio despite the addition of Commerce to my workload, because I had a sense of unfinished business. I have found the last three years hugely challenging, and more than occasionally frustrating but I do believe we have made and will continue to make progress.

After Helen and Trevor Mallard had agreed to my keeping this delegation, I immediately began talking to Trevor about expanding it. Not that I want to retain this level of workload, but rather to create a delegation, which I think makes much more sense. The portfolio now covers students at risk, including alternative education, truancy services and suspension reduction initiatives - all areas that provide for students who require extra support.

This ties back to the conclusion I reached in my first term that although SE2000 sat within a neat triangle, there was no real integration within the triangle and little with that which lay outside its scope. I have often said that I want to take the ‘special’ out of special education. I want all schools to have the capacity to provide for students in their local communities and to use the range of support that is available to meet the individual needs of their students at any one time. I believe that the market model of the last decade has locked us into boxes and we need to be much more responsive and flexible in using our resources in a shared manner, or as your Conference theme advises, we must start thinking outside the square. Special schools are part of a network of schools, and we must work collaboratively in order to ensure that resources flow across the sector to ensure equity of access.

Another point I often made is that children don’t live their lives in silos for the convenience of funding arrangements. They have whole lives, and yet we fund different parts of their lives in different ways, with different criteria and with little understanding of the effect of this approach. Children don’t come in parts – so why do we continue to provide our services as though they do? I want us to not only work collaboratively as part of the network of schools, but also to collaborate effectively with government and non-government agencies in the areas of health, disability and care and protection.

How will we get there? Those of you who have heard me speak before know of my commitment to evidence-based best practice.

It is hard to find conclusive research about what actually works. The question I am often asked is whether children and young people with special needs are better catered for in special schools, units or in regular classrooms. We know that the skills of the teacher and the quality of the teaching programme makes a difference for all students. But does setting make a difference to learning outcomes? Does setting make a difference to socialisation? We have seen evidence of non-institutional living environments making a radical difference. Is the same true in terms of the classroom? And what about other students in the regular classroom setting? Do they have anything to gain from sharing their learning environment with students with different learning needs? Everyone has a view but I want more than views - I want evidence.

I am really pleased at what I see coming out of the Physical Disabilities research. I believe that will give us a good steer on how to provide services to students with physical disabilities. In this year’s Budget we have also allocated $5 million over four years for outcome research and action research, which will simultaneously look at what is effective practice for students with special needs and build capability for both specialists and teachers.

As I said we already know that quality teaching makes a difference to every child. A skilled teacher can manage the needs of a diverse range of students at any level. But we cannot expect even the very best of teachers to have the high level of experience and skill in specific strategies for students with high and very high needs students that many of your teachers have.

And I have to ask myself - why are those skills kept within a special school? Why are your teachers not out assisting teachers in regular settings? Wouldn’t we get the best of both worlds that way?

Children and young people with high needs, would have the opportunity to be included with their peers, their teachers supported by specialist teaching skills and all children and young people, their families, teachers and principals learning to value difference. Is it possible? The philosophy of inclusion is embodied in the New Zealand Disability Strategy, and therefore it is something that you need to think about, because as I have said to some of you before, your role may change over time (as it already has) and it makes sense that you lead that change. But this must not be seen as a defensive strategy, but rather your opportunity to advance the contribution you can make with your expertise to the best possible support for all students who have special learning needs, regardless of setting.

You need to develop a strong working relationship with the regular schools in your area, and also with the disability groups and their advocacy networks, to ensure that you are able to meet the objectives of the NZ Disability Strategy.

I have also asked some of you to think about the expertise that you have developed with 18-21 year olds, who are not the usual age range for the mainstream. Can you play a particular role in transitioning students from all educational backgrounds – mainstream, units and special schools – to the workforce and the wider community?

But that’s just a thought I have in mind. I want your feedback. I want to know what you think you can contribute to the enhancement of opportunity to children with additional learning needs. My challenge for you is to help us think that through. How do we get the maximum benefit from your skills and expertise? Already you are starting to look different – I don’t think there are many special schools that don’t have satellite units within the mainstream, and some of you have students fully participating in the mainstream with itinerant teachers providing support.

There is strength in difference - but we all need to be sharing the same goals. If it is our collective goal that we want young people to become participating adults in society to the best of their ability, then how do we prepare them and the community for that? Are we doing it as well as we can? How do you link with the other schools in your area, with employers, with groups in your communities, with advocacy networks to ensure transitions are successful and seamless, and can you help us all do it better?

I am really excited at the concept of learning support networks. Much of what I have already said is embodied within the concept of a network of learning support. Learning support networks won’t be something that will be imposed - they will grow, some already exist. I have noted some schools establishing learning support centres within their schools, signalling their desire to be an integral part of the network as it evolves.

These networks will look different from community to community. There will be different ways of achieving what we want to achieve, that is, a network of learning support that encompasses children and young people, their families and whanau, schools and early childhood centres, other agencies, community groups. Learning support networks will be developed to include the voice of people with disabilities and their advocacy networks, to include the voice of parents and to build from the grass roots a system that is locally responsive, works for those within it and makes a difference for all.

I want you to be an integral part of the thinking and developing of learning support networks. It doesn’t necessarily mean radical change, but it does mean taking some risks, being proactive, and sharing your skills. I want regular schools to grow in their ability to meet the needs of the wide range of learners in their schools, and I believe you can help make that happen. Along with Group Special Education I believe that should you take up the challenge, many of you can be change managers to influence and support many more people than you currently do.

There is still much to do, but we have already come a long way. There is no doubt that in three years time things will not look the same as they are now. Having two parallel providers of specialist expertise does not make sense. It is hard for families, it is divisive and it is costly. I want us to build bridges, to work together to build collaborative networks that demonstrate a real difference for children, young people and their families.

So I leave you with three challenges: How do you see yourselves working with Group Special Education, with regular schools and with your communities to build networks of learning support that are collaborative, integrated and focussed on supporting all involved with children and young people with additional support needs? How do you see yourselves working with your local community, employers and regular schools to ensure transitions for young adults into adulthood are seamless and result in successful outcomes? How are you going to build and support the capability of families and your staff to take the opportunities that change will bring and at the same time retain the very best of all that you do, while sharing that expertise with the learning support networks?

On that note, which is intended to be challenging, can I express the hope that your conference goes well, and that you see in my address the real opportunity to be part of what is an exciting opportunity in shaping the learning support networks that will shape the lives of the children and the families that we are all here for.

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