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National Standards and the threat to autistic creativity (a little bit of history)

by Hilary Stace

The documentary ‘The HeART of the matter’ screened in the recent NZ Film Festival. Archival clips show New Zealand schoolchildren in the 1950 and 60s doing all sorts of glorious creating ‒ making art and music and dancing. The equipment, resources and classrooms are pretty basic: clay, newsprint, pots of paint, crayons, dye, scissors and string and cheap musical instruments. But it’s all very passionate and vibrant.

The documentary contains rare footage of a 1980s interview with Clarence Beeby, the right hand man of Minister of Education Peter Fraser, and the writer of those famous 1939 words about education for all[1].

The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system.

Soon after Peter Fraser took on the education portfolio following the election of the first Labour Government, leading overseas educationalists were invited to New Zealand for the 1937 New Education Fellowship conference . People were given a day off work to indulge in this education talkfest across the country. Educational enthusiasm gripped the county. After years of Depression, lifelong learning and investment in the educational potential of the nation’s citizens became everyone’s business.

This month the annual Peter Fraser lecture in Wellington recognised the educational legacy of the former Prime Minister. Clips from the documentary were shown, demonstrating the centrality of creativity to this vision.

However, the panelists’ stories which followed revealed how far we have drifted from this vision. We now have a regime subsumed to the constant assessment of National Standards and NCEA. Arts and crafts have largely been tossed aside. Education is now a limited commodity measured by box-ticking. All students have to do National Standards yet the schools’ reports must not mention that there are students with diverse educational needs in the aggregated data. Uniformity, not creativity is the aim.

Where did it go wrong? This National Standards regime which started immediately after the 2008 General Election is one negative landmark.

Before this Access blog we had a website with an autism focus called Humans, run by our Russell of Public Address. Humans has now gone to internet heaven, but fortunately much of it has been archived. Our autism community’s prescient wariness of National Standards for autistic kids led to a select committee hearing, and a report just before the 2011 election.

We were assured that National Standards would be optional for autistic students. Temple Grandin famously said most of the inventions in the world have come from the creativity of autistic people. Yet now we are stifling that creativity and our young autistic children risk being labelled as failures. So much for the Beeby/Fraser vision for an education system extending students to the ‘the fullest extent of their powers’.

As we wait for the latest Parliamentary education select committee report on students with dyslexia and autism, it is interesting to reflect on this recent history (and a shout out to Green MP Catherine Delahunty who has been our ally throughout).

For the autism nerds and to acknowledge our history, the Humans post and committee’s 2011 report are republished below in full.


National Standards – an update (from the Humans blog 7 October 2011)

Just before Christmas 2008, the act establishing National Standards testing in education (as well as bigger fines for truancy) was rushed through all its stages in parliament by the newly elected National Government, without any scrutiny from the select committee process.

Soon after that I was in the local supermarket when I saw the Member of Parliament, Allan Peachey, who was the new chair of the Education and Science Select Committee – the committee that should have been given the job of examining the bill and hearing public submissions. As happens in New Zealand, where politicians are seen as ordinary citizens, I introduced myself and expressed my concern about the impact of national standards on autistic students. He suggested that Autism NZ (I was then on the board) contact the select committee. Which I did, and the concerns were covered in an early post on this humans blog. We visited the committee twice before my term on the board finished. Both the Ministry of Education and current Autism NZ CEO and staff have subsequently briefed the committee on progress.

However, in three years, nothing much has been resolved, and it seems schools are more or less deciding for themselves whether their autistic students are required to participate in National Standards. The National Standards regime itself remains very unpopular, divisive and largely resisted by schools. It is a pity the initial bill did not go through the select committee process as many of the difficulties in implementation would have become obvious then (and may have been resolved). Meanwhile the US has largely abandoned the No Child Left Behind Policy on which our standards regime was largely based.

As the current session of parliament comes to an end, the Education and Science Committee of the New Zealand House of Representatives has issued a report on the briefings it has had over the last three years from Autism NZ over the vexed question of the National Government’s new national standards regime and its impact on and appropriateness for students with autism. That such a report has been published is a victory for citizenship democracy. But this won’t be the last time we need to stand up for people with autism in the formal political processes. The text is reproduced here in full.



The Education and Science Select Committee received briefings from Autism New Zealand, from the Ministry of Education on the educational needs of students with autism spectrum disorders, and from the Ministry of Education on the arrangements for assessing students with autism against the National Standards. We recommend that the House take note of our report.


We received a letter from Autism New Zealand Incorporated, dated 29 January 2009, which expressed concern that they had not been able to make a submission on the Education (National Standards) Amendment Act 2008 as it had been passed under urgency. The letter also set out their view of the implications of this legislation for students with autism spectrum conditions and their families. We initiated a briefing from Autism New Zealand on these issues (and invited the Ministry of Education to attend); subsequently, we initiated briefings from the Ministry of Education on the educational needs of students with autism spectrum disorders, and on the arrangements for assessing students with autism against the National Standards.

Hearings of Evidence

29 April 2009

We heard from Autism New Zealand that their main concerns about the Education (National Standards) Amendment Act 2008 were that it provided for higher fines for parents who do not ensure their children attend school and that it introduced formal testing against literacy and numeracy standards for all primary-age pupils. When a student with an autism spectrum disorder does not attend school it is much more likely to be because of a negative school environment than a lack of effort on the parents’ part.

Students with ASD are likely to have different learning styles, and educational strengths that do not line up with formal definitions of literacy and numeracy. They noted the negative effect on the teaching and learning of ASD students of the No Child Left Behind policy in the United States.

Autism New Zealand also noted the publication by the Ministry of Health (co-authored by the Ministry of Education) in March 2008 of the Guideline for practitioners; recommends complementary, coordinated responses; raises awareness; and seeks to improve practice, knowledge, skills and confidence in services. They would like the Government to follow the guidelines when designing and implementing policy. Autism New Zealand had not been invited to contribute to consultation on the implementation of the National Standards; the Ministry of Education noted that the consultation had not yet started.

3 June 2009

We heard from the ministry about resources it has developed for the education of students with ASD. It noted that a majority of students with ASD could be classed as high-functioning and did very well in the school system; and many of the remainder qualified for support from the ongoing and reviewable resourcing schemes. The ministry’s response to the recommendations in the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline dealing with education has been to compile an Autism Spectrum Disorder Action Plan, which focuses on early recognition and intervention, and building a national network of expertise in dealing with ASD.

The ministry has been considering support for ASD students’ transitions between classes or schools, and is developing policy based on individual education plans. Awareness of ASD in the community has improved since the ministry released a DVD called In My Shoes.

We noted that the ministry’s consultation on the National Standards had now begun, and expressed a wish that the ministry not conclude the consultation without reference to the issues raised by Autism New Zealand and the views expressed in the “Education for learners with ASD” section of the New Zealand Autism Spectrum Disorder Guideline.

4 August 2010

We heard from the ministry that about one percent of the population is likely to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. It has established a training programme for teachers, called “Tips for Autism”, and has introduced a post-graduate diploma in special education. There is an expectation that the national curriculum will be delivered to every child in the education system; the National Standards are used to measure achievement under the curriculum and to report the level of achievement against it.

For students on an individual education plan, progress towards the individual goals set out in the IEP will be reported, and the IEP is expected to include any part of the National Standards that are achievable by each student. The ministry believes that the way the National Standards are assessed should be tailored to the needs of every child, not only special needs children with IEPs.

10 November 2010

We heard from the ministry that the Government’s response to the review of special education had been released, and included further resources to support students with ASD, particularly those receiving ongoing and reviewable resourcing scheme funding. Further work will be done on itinerant teachers operating out of special schools to support the ORRS programme. The graduating teacher standards now include specific requirements concerning special education. The ministry confirmed the policy mentioned in the previous hearing on reporting to parents for students on IEPs, and the ministry’s new guidelines for IEPs was ready to be released to schools. The ministry noted that students receiving ORRS funding, students whose schools have placed them on IEPs, and students with ASD are separate, although overlapping, categories. Students whose progress will not be reported to parents against the National Standards are likely to be only those who are both on an IEP and receive ORRS funding because of high cognitive needs. Reporting against the National Standards to boards on all students will still be required.

23 March 2011

We heard that Autism New Zealand remains concerned about the level of awareness in schools of ASD and its interaction with the application of the National Standards. They are also concerned that many ASD students are not on IEPs, and that most ASD students do not attract ORRS funding, with the consequence that many who in their view are unlikely to ever reach the National Standards will be measured against them, and will have nothing but failure to be reported. A third area of concern is the model answers supplied for assessing student work against the National Standards. A related issue is students with a wide divergence of ability in different parts of the curriculum; students may, for example, excel in reading comprehension but be unable to reach the standard for writing. Autism New Zealand is also concerned that many ASD students, particularly at primary level, have difficulty enrolling at a school; we heard about one student who had been turned away by five schools. They did not believe that schools’ concerns about their National Standards performance was exacerbating this problem.

7 September 2011

We heard from Autism New Zealand that they have had further meetings with the ministry and have been developing resources and tools for use in schools, as has the ministry. An area of concern is that a significant number of teachers still do not have the skills necessary to work with special needs children, particularly ASD children, in the context of the National Standards. Most of their concerns previously expressed to the committee remain.

We heard from the ministry that the implementation of the National Standards is a three-year programme with at least another year to run. The response to the review of special education has prompted further professional development, some for all teachers about the National Standards, and some about special education as needed. The ministry did not believe that the requirement for schools to have targets for the National Standards in their charters would discourage schools from enrolling children with special needs. The ministry considered that the information gathered from reporting against the National Standards would help bring potential problems to their notice, which the ministry would then act on.


We would like the incoming Education and Science Committee to note the progress that has been made on these issues, and to continue to monitor the way the National Standards are applied to students with autism spectrum disorders, particularly in the light of the recommendations from the review of special education.


Committee procedure

We received briefings from Autism New Zealand on 29 April 2009, and 23 March and 7 September 2011, and briefings from the Ministry of Education on 3 June 2009, 4 August and 10 November 2010, and 7 September 2011. We considered the briefings on 28 September and 5 October 2011.

Committee members

Allan Peachey (Chairperson)

Kelvin Davis

Catherine Delahunty

Jo Goodhew

Colin King

Sue Moroney

Hon Heather Roy

David Shearer

Louise Upston

[1] Updated for gender neutrality. 

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