Choosing a school for our precious children to attend can be an unnerving experience no matter what. Add to that angst a child with special educational needs and suddenly the decision becomes a much bigger deal.

If you have a child with special needs and you live in an area in which you are lucky enough to have schooling options then there are a few things you may need to know more about or consider.

It is important for you, as a parent of a child with special needs to plan your educational ‘attack’. You need to begin planning as soon as possible so that systems are set in place well in advance of your child attending school.

Our schools are obliged to ensure that all students have a safe physical and emotional environment. If this means the school needs to modify property or making specialist services available, then they work with the Ministry of Education, Special Education (GSE) or other agencies to ensure these needs are met. The school should also work with parents and caregivers to develop a plan and timeframe outlining when the support will be in place. This is why it is vital for you to get this process underway as soon as possible.

How do I choose the right school for my child?

No one knows your child like you. There are many people you can talk to and questions you can ask on your track to choosing the right school for your child with special education needs. If you have several options available to you then you should consider them all.

Obviously, you will be thinking about the specific needs of your child. Talk to those who may also have involved in the preschool education of your child to determine exactly what it is you need a school to be able to cater to your child. These people may be support specialists who have already been working with your child, disability groups and, probably most importantly, other parents of students with special needs.

Considering a school

Meet with the school’s principal to discuss the needs of your child. Be sure to be clear about what you need for your child. When considering a school consider the following –

  • does the school have an enrolment scheme? If it does, then your child can attend the school if you live in the area, otherwise your child’s name may go into a ballot;
  • how far your child will have to travel to school, how they will get there and whether it will be safe for them to walk, to and from the school;
  • the school’s philosophy on special education – ask the school for a copy of their charter, special education policies and their latest Education Review Office (ERO) report;
  • what range of support is available to meet your child’s needs;
  • whether the school’s physical environment would suit your child, for example, will there be any issues with access to classrooms, toilet facilities, or steep or uneven grounds.

All of these practical things need to be considered, but we all know that when we are making decisions for our children the emotional issues also need to be considered.

When you are visiting potential schools ask yourself –

  • How do I feel about the school grounds?
  • Do the children seem friendly?
  • How do the teachers react towards the children?
  • Are ‘different’ children excluded, included?

Ask of the school:

  • Ask the school if there are other children with special needs at the school. Ask to see them in the classroom, chat to them and try to gauge how they feel about being at that school.
  • Ask the school if they are prepared to put you in contact with parents of any of the other special needs children. See how they feel about the school, how it treats their child, how their child is treated by the other children.

So what are some education options?

In New Zealand there are to different types of schools children with special needs can attend. These are mainstream schools and special schools.

Mainstream Schooling

A mainstream school is a regular school environment where a student with special education needs is taught within a general classroom. This means he or she is taught alongside students without special needs.

Special Schools

These are types of schools that cater for students who have high special education needs. There are enrolment criteria for special schools that you’ll need to fill. For more information about the criteria you can phone your local GSE office.

There are 28 special day schools in New Zealand at present. A special day school is one that students attend during the day only.

There are also mainstream schools that have special units within them. This is a combination, for want of a better word, of both mainstream and special school. Your child would be attending school with mainstream students, but be taught in an environment in which his or her educational needs are being met.

You have the right to choose which school your child attends

As your child’s parent or caregiver, you have the right to choose which school you wish your child to attend. The only reason there may be a ‘glitch’ in this process is if the school has an enrolment scheme in place. (For more information on enrolment schemes see Enrolment and Zoning). A school in NZ cannot exclude children because of their special education needs alone.

If you are having difficulties and you cannot resolve them by talking to your child’s classroom teacher, the school principal, or by going through the school’s complaints policy and procedures, contact your local Ministry of Education, National Operations Support Manager. Your local GSE office will be able to provide you with their contact details.


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This information was compiled by the Kiwi Families team.

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You advise on your homepage; “As your child’s parent or caregiver, you have the right to choose which school you wish your child to attend.” This is not true with beneficiaries, apparently, as my daughter is a DPB Mum to her son (11 yrs). Last year she applied to WINZ to move to another suburb in Hamilton (approx. 7km.’s from where she currently lives) so that her son could attend a particular school of his and her choosing. This move would have meant a rent increase as she is paying a very low rent where she is currently living because… Read more »


I guess it depends on your childs personality and interests to choose which school suits them best; but if you can afford it, it pays to invest in your childs education if possible – we have chosen Kristin to give our daughter the best education possible all round.

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