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Communtity Law Manual | Disability rights | Common problems at school: Information for parents and whānau

Education: Access and learning support for disabled and Deaf students

Common problems at school: Information for parents and whānau

This section is addressed to parents, whānau and adult caregivers, who may need to write letters or ask for reviews of decisions, on behalf of a disabled child or young person.

Overview: My child’s needs aren’t being met at school – what can I do?

If you’re concerned about your child’s learning, talk to your child’s teacher or the school principal. It is important that your child’s needs are assessed, so support can be provided, and the most suitable programme can be developed.

An Individual Education Programme (IEP) is a programme for students with learning support needs, which can be developed by you, your child, your child’s teacher and specialists as appropriate. If you have an IEP, it should be reviewed at least twice a year, in a meeting with all those who developed it.

Schools are obliged to meet the needs of all students, and a range of support is available to them. All schools receive a Special Education Grant (SEG) to help students with moderate behavioural and learning needs, and they can also get funding for Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCOs, sometimes called Learning Support Coordinators or LSCs) to help the school staff meet all students’ needs. Schools can also call on specially trained teachers, school-based resource teachers of learning and behaviour (RTLBs), who support and work within schools to assist staff and parents to meet the needs of students with moderate learning and/or behavioural difficulties. If your child has high social, behavioural or educational needs, you should talk to someone from learning support services at the Ministry of Education.

If problems arise, you should consider taking your issue to the principal and then the board of trustees.

My child’s teacher aide hours are too low for them to be at school all day safely

Some children have teacher aide funding to keep them safe. Examples include young children with life-threatening allergies, or children whose learning disabilities or physical impairments mean they need to be supervised at all times. (This funding is through the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) or the School High Health Needs Fund (SHHNF) scheme: find out more

If these children don’t receive enough teacher aide funding to cover all the school hours, parents may feel that they have to choose between their child not attending school for all the regular hours, or paying personally for more teacher aide hours. Schools sometimes even suggest these options as a plan for a disabled student.

Parents and students shouldn’t have to accept either of these options. All children have the right to be safe at school, for all the hours they are there. So what can you do?

  • Talk to the school:
    • start with asking for a face-to-face meeting with the principal or the appropriate senior member of staff. Lay out your concerns, and ask how the school plans to meet your child’s needs
    • if you’re not happy with their response, write to the school’s board of trustees, explaining the problem and asking how they propose to solve it. Be sure to mention that your child has the legal right to participate fully in school life, under section 8 of the Education Act 1989).
  • Go to the Ministry of Education
    • if your child receives ORS or SHHNF funding for a teacher aide, you can ask for an informal or formal review of the case. You can start with an informal review (just asking over the phone or in person) then go to a formal one (by asking in writing), or you can skip straight to a formal one. The process is laid out on the Ministry of Education website.
    • if your child was denied ORS funding, or if they’re part of the ORS scheme but something has changed since they started, you can go through the review and appeal process described above
    • if you still don’t have enough funding for your child to participate fully, there are two other places you can go – the Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman.
  • Go to the Human Rights Commission:
    • if your child isn’t getting full and free access to education, you can complain to the Human Rights Commission
    • start by contacting them directly by phone, or by filling out the complaint form on their website. One of their staff will then contact you to talk about the situation, and most likely arrange mediation between you and the school, or between you and the Ministry of Education, to solve the problem
    • see the HRC website for more information:
  • Go to the Ombudsman:

My local school doesn’t want to enrol my child

These are your main options:

  • Talk to the school – Ask for a meeting with the principal. Remind them that:
    • the Education Act 1989 (in section 8) says your child should have the same access to education as any other local child
    • the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (in section 19) says that public institutions, like state schools, can’t discriminate against children on the grounds of disability
    • the Ministry of Education provides funding for students with learning support needs.

    Ask the school to arrange a meeting between you, the school, and someone from the Ministry of Education to solve the problem. If this doesn’t help, write a letter to the school board of trustees, saying the same things. They will have to respond to you. Keep copies of all the letters.

  • Go to the Ministry of Education:
    • there’s a Learning Support section of the Ministry of Education that should be able to help you. (They used to be called the “Special Education” section.)
    • for information or to ask for support, contact your local Ministry of Education office – phone 0800 622 222 or email
    • if you think the staff member you’re dealing with at the Ministry isn’t doing enough to give your child full access to education, ask to speak to their manager. Keep doing that until you get an acceptable result.
  • Go to the Human Rights Commission or the Ombudsman:
    • if the school and the Ministry of Education don’t solve the problem, your next step is to go to the Human Rights Commission or the Ombudsman or both. See information about this under the last heading.

My child has been disciplined for behaviour that’s a symptom of their disability

Education Act 1989, s 14

The most serious disciplinary steps a school can take against a student are to stand them down (for a maximum five days at a time, and for no more than 10 days in a year), or suspend them (this can be for longer) or exclude or expel them (which is permanent). But the school can only do this because of either:

  • “gross misconduct or continual disobedience” that is “a harmful or dangerous example to other students at the school”, or
  • behaviour that’s likely to cause “serious harm” to the student or to other students.

These are meant to be last resort options, after the school has tried everything else to improve the situation.

“Continual disobedience” is when a student regularly and deliberately disobeys the school rules. Behavioural problems caused by recognised medical conditions shouldn’t usually be considered deliberate, and so shouldn’t be categorised as “continual disobedience”. There has to be deliberate non-cooperation or defiance.

Before standing down a student for being continually disobedient, the school should be able to show it has made every reasonable effort to find ways to address the student’s behaviour.

If your child has been stood down, suspended or excluded, you can call one of these numbers for legal advice and help:

  • Student Rights Service: 0800 499 488
  • Youth Law: 0800 884 529
  • Children’s Commissioner: 0800 224 453

You can get more information on the legal process the school has to follow at the Ministry of Education’s website:

The school doesn’t want my child to sit NCEA

Students with disabilities have the same rights as other students to all parts of education, including sitting national qualifications, like NCEA.

Students doing NCEA can apply for a range of “Special Assessment Conditions”, like exam papers in Braille, or large print, extra time for rest breaks, a reader or writer, and so on.

Read more at the NZQA website:

The school says my child can’t go on the school camp because of their learning disability

The school can’t do this – the camp is generally seen as part of the school curriculum.

Schools can access extra staff and extra funding for children with high or very high needs. Parents should argue that this extra funding could assist a child to go on camp.

Think about these questions:

  • what extra assistance or resources does your child need to go on camp?
  • how could that extra support be provided?
  • who could help you to get extra support? (IHC, for example, provides services to people with learning disabilities and their families.)

My child uses a wheelchair – does the school have to be physically accessible for them?

Ministry of Education Health and Safety Code of Practice for State afnd State Integrated Schools, reg 3

Yes. The school is responsible for making sure all students, including disabled students, can get around safely. They can get help from the Property and Learning Support teams at the Ministry of Education.

It’s a good idea to tell the school about your child’s needs before they start, to give the school time to make any changes.

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