"... nowhere is education an uncomplicated 'good'; it produces both justice and injustice, equity and inequity and the issue is to understand why, when and how." (Walker, 2003, p. 169)
The compulsory education of a nation's children and young people is characterised by complexity. This article focuses on the experiences of disabled students, whose education is sometimes marked by injustice in terms of inequitable access to and participation in New Zealand state schools (IHC, 2008).
Given the central role of curriculum in ensuring that "all young New Zealanders are equipped with the knowledge, competencies, and values they will need to be successful citizens in the twenty-first century" (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 4), the purpose of this article is to examine the opportunities that disabled students have to access the body of knowledge deemed significant by and reflective of New Zealand society. This article begins with an examination of the legislative and policy context.
Legislative and policy context
Why is the right to education of such importance for all students? In a recent analysis of children's rights in New Zealand educational policy documents, Quennerstedt (2009) noted that, while education is a human and social right in and of itself, it is also a critical means of attaining civil and political rights as an adult. If a child's right to education is compromised, this also compromises their future opportunities for participation in and contribution to all aspects of community life, which in turn diminishes their opportunities to develop and exercise the civil and political rights that characterise citizenship in democratic societies. For some students whose human difference may diminish their humanity and educability in the eyes of others, the right to compulsory education can be conditional and contested (IHC, 2008).
It is encouraging, therefore, to note that over the last 20 years the rights of disabled children and adults in New Zealand society have been increasingly recognised in legislation (Education Act 1989; Human Rights Act 1993), in the commitment to United Nations conventions (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989; United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007) and in the implementation of The New Zealand Disability Strategy (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001). the strategy aims to develop an inclusive and socially just society in which the importance of quality education for disabled students is emphasised. It is underpinned by current thinking about disability that recognises cultural and structural barriers to participation and justice (see, for example, Priestley, 2003).
Interestingly, current Ministry of Education policy documents present a somewhat inconsistent interpretation of disabled students' right to education (Higgins, MacArthur, & Rietveld, 2006; Kearney & Kane, 2006). On the one hand, the ministry recognises its responsibility to implement The New Zealand Disability Strategy (see, for example, Ministry of Education, 2008), and to ensure that schools remove barriers to achievement for disabled students (see, for example, Ministry of Education, 2009); on the other hand, aspects of Special Education 2000 policy (Ministry of Education, 1996) impose barriers to students' participation and achievement. For example, although disabled students have a right to attend local schools, some are required to go through a contestable, deficit-focused, needs-based application process (through the Ongoing Reviewable Resourcing Scheme [ORRS]) in order to get the resourcing required to access the curriculum in meaningful ways. Should their application be declined, students, their families/whanau and schools have to find the required resources from other sources, including schools' Special Education Grant (intended to support students with so-called "moderate" rather than "very high" or "high" "needs") and/or charitable trusts or private funding. In some circumstances, students are asked to stay at home when teacher aide support is unavailable (IHC, 2008). It would be interesting to consider whether such alternatives would be contemplated for the majority of students for whom school structures and practices are more accommodating.
Furthermore, the kind of support provided may also inadvertently compromise students' access to education. Since the implementation of the 1989 Education Act amendments regarding disabled students' right to attend local state schools, the provision of teacher aide support has become the most common way in which schools respond to these students' needs (Meyer & Bevan-Brown, 2000; New Zealand Educational Institute, 2004). there is, however, no national requirement that teacher aides have any training for their role, nor is there a national policy regarding schools' appropriate use of aides.
It is also worth noting the omission of disabled students in the Ministry of Education's (2002) review of the national curriculum. Millar and Morton (2007) commented that the Curriculum Stocktake Report "was silent on the education of students with disabilities" (p. 174). A subsequent report noted a lack of consistency in terms of how schools utilised The New Zealand Curriculum Framework (Ministry of Education, 1993) in planning for students with "special needs" (McMenamin et al., 2004). The existence of such silences and inconsistencies at a macro or national level in the "intended curriculum" (Millar & Morton, 2007, p. 169) has implications for the enactment by teachers of the "operational curriculum" (p. 170) at the micro or local level. For example, how are the "two apparently separate worlds of special education and curriculum policy" (p. 163) interpreted by teachers who have a responsibility to teach all students?
Learning what the curriculum means to disabled students and teacher aides may illuminate our understanding of the extent to which the national …