17 May 2019

Changes to Education Act to protect a child's right to attend school proposed

8:41 am on 17 May 2019

A proposed law change protecting children's right to attend school is being welcomed by disability advocacy groups.

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The Education Ministry has proposed a change to the education act. Photo: PIXABAY

The Education Ministry suggested the change because the Education Act gave children the right to enrol in a free education, but did not specifically include the right to attendance whenever their school was open.

"The lack of an explicit right to attendance can result in situations where a student is enrolled in a school, but their attendance is restricted. For example, when a student with learning support needs is enrolled in a school, but they are told they can only attend for three days a week when a teacher aide is available," a consultation document said.

The ministry said a law change including the right to attendance would help New Zealand meet international obligations and ensure students could access the education they were entitled to.

IHC director of advocacy Tish Grant said too many children were not being allowed to attend school full-time.

"Many children, although enrolled, have restricted attendance. So they might be at school till 10 o'clock or 12 o'clock or whenever their school feels that they cannot resource their attendance. So, this will signal to schools that they must guarantee full-time attendance at school on the same basis as other children," she said.

Ms Grant said the proposed law change was a step forward, but it needed to be enforced by the ministry so schools could not get away with breaching a child's right to attend.

"We want established an enforcement mechanism. There's no point having a right if there's no mechanism to ensure that that right is upheld."

Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan said his organisation often heard of situations where children with autism were prevented or discouraged from attending parts of the school day.

"We're seeing a lot of our community being excluded from school, whether that's formally being excluded or whether it's being told not to come in on certain days because certain things are happening," he said.

"It's just not right because everyone deserves a right to education."

Mr Dougan said a formal right to attend school would give families more power to push back against schools.

"The intent of it, as I understand it, is we can point to the law and say 'you can't do this'," he said.

Whetu Cormick, president of the NZ Principals' Federation.

Whetu Cormick. Photo: Supplied

Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick said there may be some schools that were not as open to children with disabilities as others.

However, he said special education was underfunded and if the law changed, schools would need more resources so they could comply with it.

"If we haven't got the funding, it's going to make no difference at all," he said.

The Education Ministry's deputy secretary education system policy, Andrea Schollmann, said it was aware of schools' complaints about lack of support for children with learning needs.

"Anecdotally, we have heard from students and their families and whānau that their rights to education are not always recognised. On the other side of this, we have heard from schools that they sometimes do not have the resources to properly meet the needs of students with additional learning support needs to attend school fulltime. The consultation process will enable us to find out more about these issues," Dr Schollman said.

She said the proposed law change would address concerns about students not attending school full-time, ensure the law was clear and help New Zealand meet international obligations about the right to education.

Dr Schollmann said the ministry already had enforcement powers relating to some aspects of a person's right to education.

However, the ministry's consultation document said a right to attend would be backed up by building understanding and awareness.

Consultation closes on 14 June.

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