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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Schools should be open to all

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The online consensus is that it was Mahatma Gandhi who said "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members", though the sentiment has been attributed to many others.

It chimes with one of the cornerstone values that New Zealanders hold dear - a pragmatic, no-nonsense belief that everybody deserves a fair go provided they do their bit to the best of their ability.

Granted, the idea has taken a bit of a battering in the last generation of economic "reform", in which glib mantras like "user-pays" have replaced care for others, and the income gap has increased to the extent that ours is now one of the most unequal societies in the OECD. And now another dent is delivered by the disturbing stories we have uncovered about parents of disabled children who have been denied the right to attend local schools.

Hamilton mum Maxine Jeffery tried to enrol her 6-year-old blind and autistic son Levi in two Hamilton primary schools before they were accepted by a third: one said Levi "would be better" elsewhere - a mealy-mouthed wording calculated to create the impression that the school had the child's interests at heart.

The other school had the decency to admit that "if you bring your child to this school a lot of parents will remove their children".

In sad point of fact, that last statement is probably correct, but schools, which are in the business of dispelling ignorance, not kowtowing to it, have no business offering it as an excuse for slamming the door.

Advancing the idea of tolerance and respect for diversity is their core business, but they also have quite specific legal obligations: the Education Act prescribes the right of "every person" - a conspicuously unambiguous choice of words - to "free education at any state school" and the relevant UN Convention, to which this country is a signatory, obliges us to "promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity". It is difficult to see how telling someone they're not welcome at your school is consistent with that.

Once contacted by our reporter, the schools all said they were open to enrolments from disabled children. But the sheer number of parents who swamped this newspaper with stories of similar experiences strongly suggests that official policy and common practice are barely on speaking terms. Many say that their children were effectively turned away from schools, or treated unreasonably in class. One English-born couple who had lived here for 20 years returned to the UK "very bitter and let down by the education system in New Zealand" after their New Zealand-born autistic daughters, aged 8 and 9, had been "turned away or discouraged" from a dozen Auckland schools.

Teachers have remarked that schools were reluctant to take on children with such disabilities because they were a strain on already stretched resources, which were not adequately supplemented when children with special needs enrolled. There is some justice in that and Education Minister Hekia Parata and her associates, Craig Foss, John Banks and Pita Sharples, all need to acknowledge it. But it is a matter between the education sector and the Government - and not one for which the children, to whom life has already dealt a bad hand, should carry the can.

In any case, budgetary matters alone won't explain schools' reluctance to take on such pupils. The parents who would have removed their kids if Levi Jeffery had enrolled would not have been doing so in protest at the strain on the school's budget but out of distaste for the idea of having their child educated alongside somebody conspicuously - and unacceptably - different.

Nor does the idea that disabled kids should be taught in "special" schools - a euphemism for "out of sight" - cut any ice in 2012. The age of the asylum is gone and for more than half a century, integration has been the educational orthodoxy; it benefits not just the disabled, but also the more fortunate children who learn something of tolerance and inclusivity.

The lobby group IHC and the Human Rights Commission have weighed into the discussion now and it is unlikely to go away. Legal action is being mentioned. But wider public support for the cause would not go amiss. We are not in the business of creating more ghettos. It's not the New Zealand way.

- Herald on Sunday

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