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Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu – Though small, it is precious

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #12

By Jude MacArthur, PhD

Māori whakatauki (proverb) that is a reminder of the uniqueness and preciousness of each child/tamaiti

12.JudeMacArthur1Thank you to Inclusive Education Canada for this opportunity to offer a perspective from Aotearoa/New Zealand. Your principles, values and beliefs about inclusive education are familiar and comfortable. Inclusive education has the capacity to enhance the learning and lives of all children and young people, and to act as a catalyst for social justice and equity in society. It’s great to part of this discussion.

I recently heard leading paediatrician at Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, Professor Innes Asher in a radio interview. She said that Māori and Pasifika children are not held in high regard (at policy level) in New Zealand. She was upset, and her perspective made me think about the political context in which some of us work for inclusion. Innes was commenting on research that shows there is a much higher risk of hospitalisation or death for respiratory disease for people of Māori and Pacific ethnicity. Rates of bronchiectasis and bronchiolitis in children are going up; asthma rates remain high despite better treatments and lower smoking rates. The heart of the problem, she said, is discrimination and poverty:

“If the New Zealand European rates were as high as the Māori and Pacific rates, and if the Māori and Pacific rates were as low as the New Zealand European rates – in other words if we switched them around – I bet there would be a lot more action in this country.”

She voiced her outrage that this has been going on for so long and that so little has been done to ensure that all children live in adequate homes, where families have the resources they need to access healthcare and support their children’s learning:

“More attention is being paid to it but not actually policies that are making a difference… We do need to do a lot more and it’s of course a shame for our country and we should be quite ashamed that we have such marked disparities”

In New Zealand, with a population of about 4.5 million:
• About 230 000 children in New Zealand – more than one in five – live in measurable poverty.
• A recent survey in Auckland found 30 children were living in cars.
• More than 136 000 children under 15 live in overcrowded housing.
• Disabled children are more likely to live in poverty, and they continue to experience barriers to their inclusion and full participation in schools and the wider community.

12.JudeMacArthur2Children living in crowded houses are twice as likely to be hospitalised with pneumonia and are at increased risk of contracting respiratory and cardio-vascular illnesses, rheumatic fever and meningococcal diseases. Their learning is compromised. Regularly moving house in search of work and/or better living conditions can interfere with children’s learning and friendships, and their families’ support networks. On the other hand, children living in decent homes with decent resources and supports for their families learn better, and have a better chance at life through education. Professor of Education at Massey University, John O’Neil asks, “Why wouldn’t any government commit itself to ensuring that children are housed adequately at the beginning of their lives?”

In 1993, the New Zealand government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, declaring a responsibility to recognise and respond to the rights of every child to a standard of living that is adequate for children’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. John O’Neil points out that we do actually know how to provide long-term housing and financial support for families in need so that children have good lives. We just don’t do enough of it – it is a matter of political will and fiscal priority, about what and who is valued… and not valued… and where money will be spent. We don’t yet have policies that make a difference to the lives of children who live in poverty. One in four children are suffering unnecessarily because of these things.

What is the connection with inclusive education? There are some outstanding school communities in New Zealand that welcome and include all children and young people and teach them well. We have much to learn from the children and adults who make up these communities. But there is also a wider political context in this country that excludes some children, that seems to lack a fundamental level of care and regard for some children – this is a context that needs to be understood, critiqued and challenged as part of the quest for a democratic, fair and equitable school system. There is a need for more care when it comes to our precious children, to hold all children and young people in high regard at every level of society. Care extends to a better appreciation of children’s rights and rights in practice. Perhaps in our journey towards inclusive education we could be more alert to exclusion at the level of politics and policy; be more knowledgeable about children’s and young people’s rights; and be prepared to speak out when it comes to the policies and practices that support these rights.

Dr. Jude MacArthur, is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University, Manawatu Campus, based in Dunedin. She is involved in distance teaching and learning programmes that are primarily focused on the area of education and disability and inclusive education. Dr MacArthur’s research interests are in childhood studies and disability studies as frameworks for understanding how early childhood services; primary and secondary schools can develop as socially just, inclusive communities.

Dr. Jude MacArthur
Senior Lecturer Institute of Education Massey University

Endnotes/ References

  • Māori are indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand; Pasifika peoples are people from the Pacific region and their descendants, who now call Aotearoa/New Zealand home
  • Maori, Pasifika respiratory disease rates a scandal – doctors http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/293637/maori,-pasifika-respiratory-disease-rates-a-scandal-doctors 
  • ‘It shouldn’t be this hard’: children, poverty and disability. http://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/150317ChildDisability.pdf  
  • Why are New Zealand children living in cars? http://www.cpag.org.nz/why-are-new-zealand-children-living-in-cars/ 
  • The links between mould, cold and children’s learning http://www.cpag.org.nz/the-links-between-mould-cold-and-childrens/