Starting school is a right of passage, a milestone for not just the learner, but the family as well. Getting the school uniform ready, hair cut, shoes shined and bag packed and heading through the gates to their first day of school. Loved ones waving goodbye as they hold up their phones capturing the moment, children nervously waving back, but excited to make friends and show off their new cool backpack. It’s a time of mixed emotions for all those involved. As a parent of a child with a disability, there is another layer to the first day of school; advocating - and lots of it.
Since my son’s autism diagnosis when he was three, school has been at the front of my mind. What skills does he need to know? What school will best suit his needs? How will he handle the change? Will the school be understanding of his needs? These are just a few of the questions I have asked myself often for quite some time. Now, he’s five, and as the first day nears the questions have become anxiety inducing. We have been planning his start to school for over a year. Researching the best local school, speaking to other parents, all while advocating for him to get the support he needs at daycare.
“The reality is a neurodivergent learner, like my son, is up to 3 times more likely to be stood down at school than a neurotypical student.”
The reasons for such a high stand down rate is almost always due to the lack of an accessible, understanding and supportive environment and the difficulty neurodivergent students face to be embraced as part of the classroom environment.
I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to other parents of neurodivergent children, posting in my local grapevine to get insight into local schools. There’s been lots of talking; lots and lots of talking! To the Ministry of Education and other agencies. Knowledge is power, and it is essential for us to work towards a successful transition to school for our son; I know that having the ability and capacity to advocate like this is a privilege that many aren’t afforded. In the 2022 ERO Report, it was found many disabled learners were discouraged to enrol at their local school.
“The reality is that school remains an inequitable environment for disabled learners.”
Six months ago I booked a visit to the school we are in zone for. Many in the community love the school. I came to find the school lacked any disability understanding and willingness to make accommodations. They said ‘if he doesn’t conform to our expectations we suggest he be put on medication’. I was aghast at this. I quickly corrected the disablist deputy principal that autism is not a condition that is medicated. Trying my best to educate her (nicely I swear!), it was clear this was not the right school for him. Every student is different, and requires different things. The lesson: a “good school” is not necessarily good for everyone.
I decided to delve deeper into the 2022 ERO Report, and found some shocking statistics about disabled learners. These are some of the points that really stood out to me;
Disabled learners are more than twice as likely to leave school with no qualifications.
Nearly 43% of principals and school boards do not yet have a full understanding of legal obligations and not all schools’ policies support disabled learners. Nationally, there is no tracking of progress for disabled learners
More than half of teachers lack confidence in teaching disabled learners.
My question when reading the report was, if nearly half of principals and boards don’t understand their legal obligations for disabled learners, how can we trust schools to provide an environment for our disabled learners that allows them to thrive? It’s simple, we can’t.
“An estimated 25% of the NZ population identifies as disabled - so why the lack of education and understanding for our educators, in an area that affects a quarter of our population?”
So, back to the rollercoaster journey we were on! After our visit to the school I felt like I had hit a brick wall, this was the only one we were in-zone for. Getting into a school out of zone is incredibly hard, and even more so now with the population growth in Auckland. After even more discussion and hours of research we came to a list of three schools near us that would be better suited and understanding for our son’s needs. We spoke to other parents and felt confident the schools we had shortlisted were an improved option from our in zone school. We filled in the various forms, and his name was put in the ballot.
It was a waiting game. I had planned so early, that we had another four months to wait to know if he would be accepted into any of the schools. Four months of worrying, anxiety, and lots of nightmares that he wouldn’t get into any.
Come November, an email pops up in my notifications ‘...has been accepted as part of our out of zone ballot’. I screamed, literally screamed. All of the research, discussions, advocating and forms was worth it. He got into the school on the top of our list! This was in all honesty, a miracle, and I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that our son has got into this school. I know others in our area that should have been allowed to go to a school that is understanding of their needs, and instead, their parents are getting themselves ready for the battle ahead of them.
“Any parent of a disabled child will tell you that the advocating doesn’t suddenly end when they start school, or when they get support.”
There will be things that come up, changes in the school, teachers, and also a child's needs, that need to have accommodations considered. We have been lucky in this instance, but I have already had to battle with the school about some of his needs, and he hasn’t even started yet. This isn’t any one individual at fault, it's systemic. We need accessible education because education is freedom. Until we get this right, disabled people will continue to be cast aside.
Parents shouldn’t have to advocate this hard for something that is a right. Many parents do not have the ability to navigate complex advocacy systems, or even get a diagnosis (which is often required for support.) Until every person and family can access quality education we have work to do.
It’s time to break the cycle, break the mould, and embrace each child with open arms.