Curriculum policy and special education report

Publication Details

The purpose of this report was to assess how well national curriculum policy in New Zealand articulates learning outcomes for students who have special education needs. The report reviews national and international literature relating to curriculum policy and special education. The project also included interviews with five schools that support students with special education needs.

Author(s): Trish McMenamin, Ruth Millar, Missy Morton, Carol Mutch, Joce Nuttal and Gaye Tyler-Merrick, Research Team, School of Professional Development, Christchurch College of Education.

Date Published: 25 March 2004

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Executive Summary

The purpose of this project was to assess how well national curriculum policy in New Zealand articulates learning outcomes for students who have special educational needs. The project addressed five questions that demanded descriptive responses:

  1. What general learning (knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values) outcomes are particularly important for students who require adapted or specialist learning support?
  2. How have overseas education systems provided curriculum support for these students?
  3. How does the early childhood curriculum and national curriculum support student's transitions between early childhood and schooling?
  4. What particular policy issues or opportunities arise from the work completed to date for the Curriculum Stocktake Report?
  5. What is the relationship between curriculum and assessment for the students in question?

This final question was not signalled in the original project brief but emerged as a key issue during the first phase of the project.

A sixth question required an evaluative response:

  1. How well does the New Zealand National Curriculum articulate the learning outcomes for the students in question?

The lack of research evaluating the effectiveness of different curriculum policies means that this report is focused on description.

The project addressed a further four questions which, on the basis of the first six questions (above), generated the recommendations of this report:

  1. Should particular provision be made vertically through the learning/skill achievement levels, or horizontally across the learning and skill areas, or both?
  2. Should a foundational achievement level be developed for students who may not progress to level 1 learning objectives?
  3. What principles should underpin curriculum support materials?
  4. What are the implications of the above for teacher education, professional development and specialist support?

Project Methodology

The project was conducted in two interwoven phases: first, a review of the national and international literature pertinent to curriculum policy and special educational needs, with a particular emphasis on empirical studies demonstrating the link between policy and outcomes; second, structured interviews were carried out in five schools that accommodate students with special educational needs. These schools were selected to provide a range of demographic characteristics and a variety of arrangements for students with special educational needs but, in all cases, the interviews included discussion of curriculum arrangements (including assessment) for students and the schools' use of the New Zealand Curriculum Framework.

Structure of report

The report describes the context for the project, including: the cultural context in which schools operate in New Zealand, the regulatory context in which schools operate in New Zealand; growing recognition of the importance of community involvement in curriculum determination for all students (particularly for Māori and Pasifika students and students with special education needs); tensions surrounding the place of functional skills in a predominantly academic curriculum milieu; the relationship between curriculum and assessment; and debates about inclusion.


A characteristic of the literature reviewed was the dearth of studies that have explored the link between curriculum policy and the impacts of such policy on outcomes for students. Much of the literature reviewed regarding students with special educational needs focused on practical aspects of provision, particularly processes to support participation in educational settings, rather than the outcomes of educational participation per se, and on structural arrangements (particularly resourcing).

The other significant gap in the literature is investigation of outcomes for Māori and Pasifika students who also have special educational needs.

No strong signals were identified regarding the benefits or implications of vertical versus horizontal provision of curriculum policy or learning outcomes. Overseas authorities that have made such provisions have used various models but the efficacy of one model versus another has not been explored. Nor did the school personnel participating in the interviews have strong feelings about these options.

There was some support amongst the participating interviewees for the development of a foundational achievement level for students who may not progress to level 1 learning objectives. It was evident from the interviews that, in effect, such foundation levels already exist, albeit on a school-by-school basis as some schools have responded to what they perceive as the lack of suitable achievement objectives within existing curriculum policy documents.

Perspectives on the usefulness of current national curriculum documents, particularly the NZCF and Te Whāriki, showed enormous variation across the participating schools. In one setting, detailed curriculum planning for students with special educational needs had been carefully identified on the basis of the NZCF; in another setting, the national curriculum framework had been, in effect, set aside several years ago (although whole school reporting still conformed to the requirements of the NAGs). In all cases, however, the IEP formed the cornerstone of curriculum planning and reporting for students with special educational needs.

For students with moderately high to high needs, the participating interviewees identified functional curriculum outcomes (principally life skills) as particularly important.

As with the literature overall, investigation of the transition to school for students with special educational needs has tended to focus on processes and resourcing, rather than on the relationship between the transition and specified curriculum outcomes. Participants in the interviews had a wide range of views about the general usefulness of Te Whāriki. The small amount of literature (including commentary) that investigates the relationship between early childhood curriculum policy and schools curriculum policy concurs with the current thrust of the Curriculum Stocktake Report, that of the need for better integration between the two sectors.

Suggested principles

The principles suggested for curriculum policy in this area are that a curriculum to support students with special education needs should:

  • Enable students with special education needs to access the regular curriculum but not be constrained by it;
  • Require wide consultation and active partnership between educational agencies, schools, parents, students and communities;
  • Enable students with special education needs to reach a level of skill and knowledge to allow them to participate fully in society;
  • Take account of and attend to the specialised teaching, material or access needs of these students;
  • Offer a range of opportunities, challenges and choices that are appropriate to students with special education needs' physical, social, emotional, intellectual and age-related needs;
  • Recognise the differing levels of pace, concentration, time and effort as well as the alternative routes to experience success in the curriculum; and
  • Recognise, record and celebrate the achievements and value of students with special education needs.

The report concludes with recommendations for future directions in the areas of curriculum policy, teacher development, and research.

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