Students with special needs

In this questionnaire ERO focused on gathering information about students with moderate to high levels of need. The three percent of students with the highest level of needs have individually allocated resources provided through the Ongoing and Reviewable Resourcing Schemes (ORRS), speech language, severe behaviour, or High Health Needs. The next four‑to‑six percent of students are defined as moderate needs and are resourced through a mix of resources allocated individually or through schools.

Questionnaire responses show schools considered the needs of a wide range of students, not just those with moderate to high needs. For example, schools discussed the needs of a diverse range of students including gifted and talented students, English language learners and boys.

A substantial majority of schools reported having students with identified special needs (85 percent) and/or with Individual Education Plans (92 percent). Half the schools identified at least seven percent of their students as having special needs. One in eight schools reported that a quarter or more of their students had special needs.

Schools most often noted special needs related to communication, behaviour, and ORRS students, and less often, to well-being, dyslexia, hearing, low vision, high and complex needs, and attendance.

School’s rating of their inclusiveness

The questionnaire asked schools how inclusive they thought they were, and referred them to ERO’s report, Including Students with High Needs. Self-review questions and evaluation indicators in this report can be used by schools to identify strengths and weaknesses.

A substantial majority of schools (88 percent) rated themselves as mostly inclusive, and all but one of the remaining 31 schools said they had some inclusive practices.

Primary schools were more likely than secondary and composite schools to rate their practices as mostly inclusive (91 percent compared with 64 percent).

Comments made by schools to support their self rating of mostly inclusive included:

  • opportunities for students to participate in all school and class activities and events
  • relationships with families/whānau
  • high quality support and programmes
  • support from outside experts
  • inclusive school philosophy, values or culture and a commitment to meeting the needs of all students
  • a planned, coordinated approach
  • good transition into, within, and out of the school
  • PLD and support for teachers and teacher aides (TAs)
  • good management of funding, including additional funding from the Board
  • capable staff who understand how to meet the needs of students with special needs
  • accepting attitudes of teachers and students
  • regular monitoring of IEPs.

Schools rating themselves as having ‘some’ or a ‘few’ inclusive practices were more likely than ‘mostly inclusive’ schools to have few students with high needs.


ERO asked schools what policies they have to address the inclusion of students with disabilities and/or special education needs. Most schools had policies specifically on students with special needs and these students were also included in other policies such as curriculum delivery, learner assistance, teaching, assessment, learning and achievement, NAG 1, [4] resourcing, reading recovery, behaviour, English as a second language, equity (usually referring to physical disabilities), and property. Policy titles in a few schools referred specifically to inclusive education, inclusion or mainstreaming.

Policy content

School policies for students with special needs typically included a rationale, purposes, guidelines and a range of other specific details. The rationale was usually a philosophical statement that included the school’s commitment to meeting the needs of all students, or the rights of students with special needs to attend their local school and to have their educational needs identified and met so that they could achieve their full potential. Some policies referred to the Education Act 1989. Some referred to a commitment to meeting the students’ needs in regular classrooms as much as possible,

Policy guidelines listed actions or procedures for staff to follow. The amount of detail varied, with some schools having general one page policies, and some having several pages with a wide range of information.

Policies included various combinations of:

  • budget, equitable allocation, and use of funding
  • roles of key people, such as the SENCO, teachers and TAs
  • processes to identify and refer students with special needs, including flow charts
  • support available including programmes and resources
  • consulting, involving, communicating with regularly, and reporting to parents
  • liaising with external specialists and agencies
  • monitoring and reviewing provisions for special needs students
  • reporting to the Board.

There were a few policies that did not reflect a fully inclusive philosophy. For example, some policy statements indicated that students with special needs would be included if the school considered it had sufficient resources.

No child with special needs will be placed in a mainstream class until we are sure that the placement is in the best interests of the child and the school. … Our students’ needs are paramount and can best be met by assessing the needs of individual students and matching them with our school’s ability to meet identified needs. This will determine the enrolment decision.

Such a statement is contrary to the Education Act 1989, the Human Rights Act 1993, and the New Zealand Disability Strategy.

Professional learning development and support

ERO asked schools what professional learning and development (PLD) and/or support, for assisting students with special needs, had been received by school leaders, mainstream and specialist teachers, and TAs. A variety of information was provided including the type of special needs involved, the programme provided, and who provided the support.

All but seven schools reported they had received at least some PLD or support. Schools had most often received PLD or support related to dyslexia, behaviour, and autism/Aspergers. Other common areas included literacy, particularly Reading Recovery, for specialist teachers; literacy and working with deaf students for mainstream teachers; and literacy, numeracy and working with deaf students for TAs.

Teacher aides often received training in specific literacy programmes such as Rainbow Reading, Toe by Toe, Clicker 5, Steps to Literacy, and Perceptual Motor Programme. [5]

Approximately ten percent of schools reported that mainstream teachers had received PLD or support in effective teaching strategies such as differentiated programmes, English as a second language, speech and oral language, restorative practices, non-violent crisis intervention, and Incredible Years. [6]

Support was most often provided by Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB), Group Special Education (GSE) and Resource Teachers: Literacy (RT:Lit). These specialists ran workshops for school clusters, and provided advice, support, and help with funding applications and IEPs. Other providers included speech language therapists (SLTs), public health nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists (OTs), and psychologists.

Systems, initiatives and programmes

Schools were asked to describe systems, initiatives and programmes they used to support the achievement and/or inclusion of students with special education needs.

Overall intent of provisions

About one fifth of schools specifically referred to being inclusive, or to integrating students with special needs as much as possible. One quarter noted that they provided in-class support so that students could be fully mainstreamed, and some included students for most of the school day and withdrew individuals or small groups for periods of targeted teaching.

Teachers in some schools were expected to provide differentiated programmes through strategies such as establishing learning goals and activities that were appropriate for all students, adapting the curriculum, or scaffolding learning through cooperative teaching and learning.

Some schools included all students in school events such as musical productions, trips outside the school, and sporting events, while others encouraged students with special needs to participate as much as possible.

Other ways schools said they supported inclusion were through pastoral care where key staff regularly monitored students with special needs and discussed how to support them. Some schools said their school culture supported inclusion through restorative practices, and whole school programmes such as Positive Behaviour for Learning, [7] praise and reward strategies, and lunchtime programmes and supervision.


Schools identified many different systems they used to support students with special needs. The most commonly identified were:

  • assigning responsibility for students with special needs to a particular person such as the SENCO, the senior management team
  • documented roles and responsibilities for SENCO, teachers and TAs (this includes teachers, rather than TAs, being responsible for designing student learning programmes)
  • the use of processes and tools to identify students with special needs [8]
  • establishing IEPs
  • prioritising students with the greatest needs
  • allocating and coordinating resources such as TAs to support students
  • sharing information, ideas and strategies that are effective for individual students
  • providing or accessing PLD about effective teaching strategies and training in particular programmes
  • monitoring progress of individual students with special needs
  • reviewing the effectiveness of particular programmes and strategies.

Other strategies schools used included ability grouping within and across classes, streaming, home rooms, vertical form classes, learning support centres, dual enrolment with The Correspondence School, electives, assistive technology, information and communication technologies (ICT), community volunteers, community projects, and alternative education-type programmes.

Individual Education Plans (IEPs)

Over a quarter of schools said they developed IEPs to support students with special needs, such as behavioural, learning, sensory and communication needs. Schools commented on various aspects of developing and monitoring IEPs. Some developed IEPs for ORRS students, some for all students on their special needs register, and some for other students when schools considered there was a need.

The plans included identified strengths and specific learning needs, clear short-term and long-term goals, plans and strategies to meet identified needs, and support to be provided. RTLBs and other external specialists were involved in developing the plans and deciding on appropriate short-term and long‑term goals. Long-term goals set a direction for the student’s development, while short‑term goals allowed successes to be celebrated frequently.

IEP meetings were used to develop a shared understanding of the student’s needs and goals, to plan strategies, monitor progress, and decide on next steps. These meetings involved various combinations of SENCOs, teachers, specialists, parents, and support staff and helped foster regular communication between all parties so there were shared expectations of roles for all those involved, progress was reviewed, successes were celebrated, and any concerns were followed up. Some IEPs were reviewed twice a year and some each term.


A fifth of schools commented on transition processes used to support inclusion of students with special needs. These generally related to students enrolling at the school, although some also described processes to transition students within the school, to the next school, or into further education or employment.

The processes usually involved meetings with early childhood centre staff, parents, and relevant specialists such as Group Special Education (GSE) or RTLBs. These meetings were used to build relationships, share information, and decide on class placement, appropriate strategies and support for the student. Schools promoted continuity in a number of ways such as employing the TA that had worked with the student at the previous school, the SENCO attending the final IEP at the previous school and by continuing established relationships with professionals.

Some schools arranged school visits for the student and their parents, so they could meet the teachers and support staff they would be working with. Some SENCOs compiled resources and strategies for staff, and some prepared other students by discussing with them how they could help the student with special needs or by setting up a buddy system.

The senior management team interviews parents and students which helps to build up rapport. Being aware of expectations, previous history, and any problems enables us to place new students better. Getting the history and advice from parents enables us to know a lot of information about the new student which we can share with teachers. This makes the transition easier for the students and if help is required we are able to set this up quickly. (Area school response)

Teaching programmes

Over 80 percent of schools reported providing literacy programmes to support the achievement of students with special needs. Most schools provided a range of programmes for different groups of students. The programmes listed most often were: Reading Recovery, Rainbow Reading, Lexia, Toe by Toe, and various phonics programmes.

Around 40 percent of schools listed programmes to support numeracy, with most not naming the specific programme provided. A few schools said they used Mathletics, Numicon and COSDBRICS [9].

Thirty-five percent of schools said they provided programmes to support communication. These were mostly oral language programmes for junior children, but some involved New Zealand sign language for deaf students. Talk to Learn was the oral language programme named most often.

Twenty-nine percent of schools provided programmes for students with physical needs, including the Perceptual Motor Programme (PMP), Riding for the Disabled, Special Olympics, and swimming.

Twenty-eight percent of schools reported they had students with inappropriate behaviour and 17 percent said they provided social skills programmes to improve behaviour across the school. These programmes often involved specialists such as GSE or RTLB, and a TA working with one or more students.

We have a number of students who have poor social and behavioural skills, and we have programmes run by our social worker and our community liaison workers that aim to cater to that learning need.

Around ten percent of schools reported using ICT to support students with special needs. These included assistive technology, sound systems, and a range of software to develop skills, particularly in writing and numeracy.

Other programmes included life skills, work experience, mentoring, leadership, music therapy, programmes to build self esteem and confidence, art, kapa haka, and bilingual tutors. Some secondary schools had arranged reader-writers to support some students in external exams.


Each school involved a range of personnel in providing for students with special needs. Within the school, these included SENCOs, class teachers, specialist teachers, TAs, and other students. Specialists accessed from outside the school included RTLBs, GSE, RT:Lits, SLTs, social workers in schools, public health nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists.

SENCOs were involved in:

  • assessing students and identifying needs
  • establishing and maintaining a special needs register
  • developing IEPs
  • collecting and analysing school data
  • liaising with specialists, parents and school staff
  • allocating resources and coordinating programmes
  • facilitating staff meetings to share information and effective strategies
  • providing PLD
  • monitoring student progress and reviewing programme effectiveness.

Some TAs worked with students in the classroom, either individually or in small groups, while others withdrew them for particular programmes. Some TAs supported students to develop social skills by helping them learn with other students. In some cases, the TA worked with the rest of the class so that the teacher could teach the student with special needs. Some schools noted that TAs worked under the direction of a teacher or RTLB, and others that they received training or attended PLD.

One quarter of schools supported students with special needs through programmes involving other students. These usually related to social skills and friendships, and included buddy programmes in class and in the playground, peer tutoring (usually for reading), peer support and mentoring, tuakana-teina, [10] peer mediator programmes, and social skills groups. Two schools noted that other students were learning New Zealand sign language.

Schools involved parents/whānau in various ways. Schools noted that by involving parents in the transition process, they developed a relationship with the parents and student, and gathered information that helped them to better meet student needs. When parents attended IEP meetings with school staff and outside experts, it was easier for all to have a shared understanding and for parents to reinforce the school programme. Close and regular communication meant all worked together for the benefit of students.

Outcomes for students

ERO asked schools to describe outcomes for students as a result of their systems, initiatives and programmes. Schools usually described student outcomes in general terms by saying that there had been ‘progress’, ‘improvement’ or ‘higher achievement’. They noted general improvement for students most often in literacy, but also in numeracy, social skills, behaviour, communication, and life skills. Schools rarely provided information on the extent of student progress or the number of students involved.

Schools reported that students had also benefited in terms of improved attitudes. Some had developed confidence, self esteem, or a sense of belonging, while others were more motivated and engaged in their learning. Some secondary schools noted improved attendance and retention, or reduced stand-downs and suspensions.

Some schools wrote about initiatives or programmes that had resulted in increased participation and improved provision for students with special needs. These could be seen as interim or shorter term outcomes that would be expected to lead to improved outcomes for students.

Examples of comments:

  • Advice from outside experts and PLD resulted in more knowledgeable staff.
  • The staff provided individualised and differentiated programmes and resources that improved student access to the curriculum.
  • Programmes and support had increased the participation of students with special needs in many types of sporting, social and cultural events with other students.

Initiatives in some schools had improved acceptance of students with special needs, and increased empathy and understanding from other students. Some students benefited from working with students with special needs on particular programmes such as teaching sport skills.

Self-review data given to the Board of trustees

Schools were asked what self-review data had been given to the Board on the achievement and/or inclusion of students with special education needs. One quarter of schools provided a copy of reports received by the Board in the last twelve months. This section integrates information from schools’ responses and the reports they provided.

Boards in approximately 90 percent of schools had been given self-review information, including data on student achievement. Reports were usually from the SENCO or special needs department, or statements included in the principal’s report to the Board. They also included the annual report, reports of other departments or faculties, and reports from particular personnel such as RTLBs. Some SENCOs attended Board meetings to discuss their reports.

The reports varied in the amount of information provided. They were usually descriptive and focused more on what was done rather than specific outcomes for students. They included information about the types of programmes provided, school staffing (SENCO, TAs, class teachers), access to specialists such as RTLB or GSE, funding (usually categories of funding rather than amount), use of the special needs grant, resources and property, numbers and types of special needs, and reviews of programmes provided. Some reports covered only ORRS or students with high needs.

Most reports did not include a budget although a few reports presented data for programmes on number of students involved, student progress, cost and time.

Some described processes such as identifying students with special needs, IEPS, monitoring progress, involving parents and whānau, and transition. Small numbers described the role of the SENCO or special needs committee in deciding priorities and coordinating use of TAs, and PLD by teachers and TAs accessed. Some noted that staff meetings were held to share information about students and their progress and to discuss ways to meet their needs by differentiating the programme or modifying activities.

Some schools surveyed or interviewed staff and parents to inform their review of programmes and provisions for students with special needs. Some referred to trialling programmes, reflecting on their effectiveness, and modifying or discontinuing them. Some reports included annual plans and objectives or recommendations for the following year. These often related to PLD for staff, processes to identify students at risk and continuing to provide programmes for students with special needs.

Fifteen percent of schools said they included information about progress, outcomes, or student achievement. This information was based on a variety of assessment information, such as Reading Recovery reports, STAR, Rainbow Reading, Six Year Net, and asTTle. Some (usually small) schools said they did not report separately on students with special needs because they were concerned other parents could identify individual students. The examples below show how some schools described the data they gave to the Board.

The SENCO prepared a slideshow breakdown of types of programmes run in the year and graphs showing ‘value added’, beginning and end results. She also provided handouts and spreadsheet information on students’ achievement, and spoke to these at a Board meeting. (primary school)

The Board receives extensive Student Achievement Reports which include analysis of data (under year groups, gender, Māori/other). Within the analysis, a summary of current programmes, interventions and future recommendations is included. This allows the Board to make informed, critical and responsible decisions related to learning targets, priorities and funding etc. IEP goals are graphed to show the number of IEP goals achieved in 2010. (primary school)

Special educational needs coordinators

ERO asked whether the school had a SENCO, and if so, what relevant experience and background they had. Eighty-one percent of schools had a SENCO.

Secondary and intermediate schools were more likely to have a SENCO – 93 percent of each compared with 74 percent of full primary and 86 percent of contributing schools [11].

Most teachers holding SENCO positions had many years of teaching experience, with approximately 40 percent having taught for 20 or more years. Forty percent currently held a senior position or had done so previously.

Just over a quarter of schools reported their SENCO had a special education qualification such as a Diploma in Education of Students with Special Teaching Needs, a Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language, or Masters in Educational Psychology. Other qualifications included university papers in special education or second language teaching, Reading Recovery training, RTLB or RT:Lit training, and special education courses.

Of the 48 schools without a SENCO, 35 had five or fewer teachers, and eight had five‑to‑ten teachers. In the remaining five schools, responsibility for special needs was allocated to a person with management responsibility, and the fifth school was a special school.

Special building or property projects

Schools were asked what special building projects or hardware additions they had carried out since their last ERO review to support the achievement and/or inclusion of special education students. Two-thirds of schools provided information about such developments. The most common were:

  • improving access such as installing ramps or lifts
  • toilets, bathrooms, washrooms
  • classroom upgrades or modifications, decks, increased space
  • ICT hardware and software
  • speakers, sound systems
  • fencing, gates
  • assistive technology such as aids for low vision, hoists.


ERO asked schools to describe the challenges they faced in including students with special needs. The challenges identified most often related to funding, access to specialists, providing for students with behaviour and high needs, and finding appropriate staff.


Approximately half the schools considered the funding available was insufficient to meet the needs of all children who required additional support, or to provide the amount of support needed for some students with high needs.

The main challenges were:

  • funding for specialist staff/number of hours funded
  • funding for support staff/hours available for TAs
  • funding for resources, such as particular programmes
  • criteria that meant some students were not funded for the support they needed.

Some schools provided additional funding from the special education grant (SEG), operations grant or fundraising to meet the needs of students with high needs.

Some schools reported that limited funding meant they could provide TA support for only part of the week. Schools believed some high-needs students needed this support for most of the time so they could participate in the class programme with other students.

Access to specialist advice and support

Forty-three percent of schools said they had difficulty in accessing sufficient specialist advice and support. This included RTLBs, GSE, physiotherapists, OTs, RT:Lits, nurses, SLTs, and child and adolescent mental health services.

The main concerns were: services being short-staffed, waiting lists, delays in processing documentation between agencies, personnel changes in agencies delaying processes and the cost of testing.

Behavioural and high needs

The inclusion of students with behavioural needs and students with high needs had been challenging for one third of schools. Their responses referred to students whose behaviour was challenging but not extreme enough for specialist support, and having a disproportionate number of students with behaviour needs.

Appropriate staff

Finding staff with appropriate training, skills and attitudes had been a challenge for almost a quarter of schools. Some rural schools said travel time to the school made this an issue.


The other main challenges schools identified were: location or isolation, property issues such as ramps, space, lifts, parents of children with special needs having unrealistic expectations or not following through on agreed plans, organisation in the school, accessing appropriate PLD, time for liaison and planning, diagnostic information and programmes and resources.