According to the 2011 Inclusive Education Policy, inclusive education is defined as a process of change, within which schools recognize the diversity and different education needs of all children and all members of the school community. Inclusive education does not admit any discrimination or segregation on grounds of gender, geographical location, economic background, level of ability, religious beliefs, impairment or disability.
Special education needs
As defined in the 2011 Inclusive Education Policy, students with special learning needs are those learners who are not developing to their full education potential or are at risk of not being able to follow the Cook Islands curriculum. In particular, children with special education needs include learners with sensorial impairments (auditory or visual), intellectual impairments (ranging from those with cognitive delay to gifted students), physical impairments, behavioural differences and/or communication differences, chronic health ailments or injuries, or multiple disabilities. Students whose results are academically below their peers’ or who are geographically isolated are considered at risk.
The 2011 Inclusive Education Policy ensures that all school-aged children are educated with their peers in mainstream early childhood education centres, primary and secondary schools. No learner is to be exempted from school due to ability or lack of capacity. School principals are encouraged to organize tailored programmes catering for children’s individual learning needs. Schools are required to have intervention plans, including monitoring, evaluation and review of special needs and/or at-risk students’ progress.
There are 30 schools in the country, of which 12 are established on the permanently populated islands. Most schools are public with the exception of five church and three private schools.
So-called satellite schools have been established in isolated villages in small islands to offer early education, while older students commute to larger schools in a more central location on a daily basis.
There are education institutions providing education for adults, such as the Creative Centre, which functions as a private school for the education and rehabilitation of people with a medium to high level of disability.
Early identification, screening and assessment
To ensure accurate identification of special needs, the 2011 Inclusive Education Policy aims to implement a regular assessment across all schooling years. Procedures for early assessment and identification were expected to be implemented at preschool level by multiprofessional teams of health and education experts. The policy calls for formulating a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health to regulate the sharing of resources and of the personnel involved in the identification, assessment and diagnostic tests and processes.
The 1964 Constitution of the Cook Islands, as amended in 2004, prohibits any discrimination on grounds of race, national origin, colour, religion, opinion, belief or sex (Art. 64.1), but it does not explicitly recognize the right to education to all. The 2012 Education Act lays down the legal foundations of the education system. It ensures that everyone is treated with dignity, respect and understanding, consistent with the Convention on the Right of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Art. 3[f]). The act lays down the right to education for every resident in the country and admits exceptions for children with special needs who have not developed their potentials or are at risk of not achieving the curriculum objectives due to learning or behavioural difficulties (Art. 24.1). As part of the 2008–23 education master plan, the 2016 Equity, Access and Participation Policy also reaffirmed the right to access to and participation in ‘quality, appropriate and timely educational experiences’, regardless of social, cultural, economic, intellectual or physical status.
Acknowledging that certain children might be marginalized and/or segregated within and by the system, the 2011 Inclusive Education Policy introduced a new education system based on inclusiveness and the special education needs of some categories of learners, overriding the approach endorsed by the 2002 Special Needs Education Policy. The latter had rather a narrower view, only focusing on students with disabilities. The 2011 policy aims to create a fair and equitable school system based on acceptance and achieving beneficial education for all.
The 2008 Disability Act regulates the rights of persons with disabilities, defining the group and containing non-discrimination provisions in general and related to employment. It does not contain specific reference to education but does address the regulation of educational institutions’ accessibility. The need to address education buildings’ accessibility was also reiterated in the 2016 Equity, Access and Participation Policy.
In line with the international and regional commitments, such as the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action Towards a Barrier-free, Rights-based and Inclusive Society for All in Asia and the Pacific, endorsed in 2003, the Cook Islands adopted the 2003–08 National Policy on Disability and Action Plan. It provided an innovative definition of disability which departed from individual impairments to focus on the impact of environmental barriers and communities’ attitudes. It also recognized the need to develop and disseminate sign language, Braille, finger Braille and other forms of communication.
Following the annual Disability Action Team Conference, consisting of representatives of non-government organizations, people with disabilities and government agencies from New Zealand, and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, the policy document was reviewed. According to the review, education objectives were achieved thanks to the training of teacher aides and the promotion of inclusive education throughout the country. Based on the review, the 2008–12 National Policy on Disability and National Action Plan set out new priorities, including strengthening early intervention programmes, paying increasing attention to vulnerable groups, such as women and girls with disabilities, and encouraging collaboration among government agencies involved in the provision of integrated services.
The 2012 Education Act specifically states that a student cannot be exempt from compulsory education because of pregnancy. Against this backdrop, a certain level of flexibility is guaranteed to young mothers, while counselling services are made available to support them.
The 2011 National Policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment promotes gender responsibility in the government’s programmes and policies, including in the education sector. In line with the UNESCO Education 2030 mandate, the 2016 Equity, Access and Participation Policy aims to achieve greater gender equity in all forms of education in terms of resources as well as retention and achievement of young men in learning programmes.
While the Ministry of Education seeks to bridge the gap in girls’ access to technical and vocational education and training through its education master plan, the expansion of alternative learning opportunities intends to increase retention, in particular of boys.
In practice, the Women in Science and Technology programme is an example of an initiative implemented to create opportunities for exchange between young women at school to meet women working in science and technology. Likewise, the Boys Zone programme has been targeted at male students and involves male journalists, teachers and other social sector professionals.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
Cook Islands Maori was recognized as an official language in 2005. Considerable efforts have been made to develop dictionaries and printed materials in order to provide Maori reading resources and preserve the language.
A dedicated curriculum has been developed to teach Cook Islands Maori at education levels 1–8. In order to preserve the unique linguistic and cultural characteristics of small islands, a tool was introduced in 2007 to assess and identify literacy levels of learners in the use of dialects of Cook Islands Maori.
Within the 2008–23 education master plan, the Te Peu e te Akonoanga Maori policy aims to promote Cook Islands’ values, traditions and knowledge and to protect and transmit Te Peu e te Akonoanga Maori to future generations. Education providers need to recognize and value the importance of cultural diversity and implement relevant pedagogical methods to include Te Peu e te Akonoanga Maori. These principles are expected to inform learning and teaching approaches, language and identity integrity and preservation, social responsibility and participation.
People living in remote and rural areas
Correspondence school programmes from New Zealand have historically been utilized for isolated schools; however, limitations persist linked to availability of learning materials and the timeliness of transport. As alternative education option, an online e-learning programme, Te Kura Uira, provides the opportunity for teachers and tutors located on the main island to teach groups of students on multiple other islands simultaneously through the use of audio and video conferencing. During early childhood education and early school years, a satellite schools programme covers the needs of isolated communities.
To continue with senior secondary school on Rarotonga, students need to travel to another island. This is supported through the Outer Island Assistance Grant, a grant scheme paid to families who are willing to host students during the school term. Travel costs are covered and a small allowance provided.
The 2011 Inclusive Education Policy recognizes that some children in the Cook Islands have been disadvantaged by their geographical location, especially children in the outer islands and living in the northern group. They are considered learners with special education needs or at risk and addressed accordingly. The 2008–23 education master plan aims to improve education services and infrastructure, especially for those attending distance learning schools, such as students in the Pa Enua (outer islands) at secondary education level.
Early childhood education and primary education are free of charge from the ages of 3 and 5, respectively. Junior secondary education (years 7–10) is also free of charge and compulsory to the age of 16. Financial support is provided through a scholarship programme to access formal tertiary education. Scholarship and student assistance support schemes are implemented through Te Reinga Akatuanga’anga and the Cook Islands Tertiary Support Programme.
Coordination across sectors
According to the holistic approach to child development, a memorandum of understanding among the Ministry of Education and the ministries of Health and Internal Affairs, responsible for children and youth and for persons with disabilities, was planned to be drafted in order to provide a multidisciplinary approach to the inclusion of children with special learning needs.
An Inclusive Education Advisory Committee was expected to be set up to oversee and direct the implementation of the Inclusive Education Policy, while the Ministry of Education remains responsible for school accessibility, for the supply of trained teacher aides, for informing the community and for providing alternative education for learners who cannot be included in regular classrooms.
In line with the aspirations of collaboration in the 2008–23 education master plan, the 2016 policy dedicated to Governance, Management and Planning aims to make education governance more responsive, participatory and accountable. The 2011 Inclusive Education Policy calls for collaboration with relevant government departments, including the ministries of Health and Internal Affairs and non-government organizations and specialists, such as Punanga Tauturu, Disabled Persons International, deaf and blind societies and disabilities committees, to provide quality services and support to children with special learning needs.
Coordination across government levels
Within Cook Islands’ education system, each school has its own school committee, responsible for making decisions on individual school policy, strategic plans and annual goals.
The 2016 Governance, Management and Planning policy intends to make communication more effective and transparent, reviewing local and central roles in service provision and increasing community voice and participation in education governance.
Infrastructure accessibility for persons with disabilities was legally set out in Part 4 of the 2008 Disability Act and in the reviewed Cook Islands National Building Code. The 2003 disability policy also contained a specific section on improving access to buildings and public places, as inaccessibility was identified as one of the major barriers preventing people with disabilities from actively participating in social and economic activities.
The Cook Islands Curriculum supports the implementation of an inclusive curriculum in all schools, addressing the special needs, different abilities and disabilities of all students. Alternative or modified learning programmes are made available for students who may not be able to participate in mainstream classes. A thematic unit is responsible for the design of differentiated activities to cater for the special learning needs of all learners. Within the Curriculum Advisory Unit, an inclusive education adviser in Rarotonga and one in the northern group supervise the implementation of the Inclusive Education Policy in the unit’s activity.
Learning materials and ICT
Within the Curriculum Advisory Unit, a resource centre maintains up-to-date inclusive education materials on teaching pedagogies and related topics as well as other resources, including assistive devices and specific equipment. Assistive technologies, including netbooks and other devices, are also integrated as support into learning programmes.
Producing appropriate culturally sensitive, gender-inclusive and balanced resources and supporting inclusive education environments are also objectives of the 2008–23 education master plan.
The Teachers Training College is responsible for ensuring that inclusive education practices are an integral part and a special education course a compulsory module of the pre-service teacher training programme.
In-service teacher training opportunities are provided through mixed modalities, including distance learning and face-to-face intensive courses offered at University of the South Pacific, with funding from the Department of National Human Resource Development’s Tertiary Assistance Programme. Training on inclusive education practices and approaches is expected to be provided through school-based professional development sessions. In particular, the 2011 Inclusive Education Policy aims to integrate within in-service education programme training modules on, among other topics, focused observation and critical reflection, child development, early identification and intervention, remedial teaching strategies, and strategies for teaching children with disabilities.
Professional development programmes on disability are in place to address the education needs of children with disabilities in schools. For example, the training programme Towards Inclusive Education in the Cook Islands intended to provide training on the differences between special needs and inclusive education.
Under the supervision of a teacher, teacher aides support education provision at all education levels for students with special learning and teaching needs. Having received a specialized training, teacher aides assist teachers with the implementation of individual education programmes. As part of special education teams that include parents, caregivers and specialists, teacher aides may have a varying role according to the teaching setting.
Where necessary and possible, education psychologists and/or other professionals, such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists and doctors, are part of the special education teams supporting inclusive education.
Cook islands provide regular education statistical reports.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for collecting data on national enrolment and teacher qualification. The section on inclusive education reports data on teacher aides by gender and region.