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100,000 children short-changed in NZ schools

More that one in every ten children in New Zealand is currently being systemically underserved in education and the Minister and the Ministry is unable or unwilling to do anything about it.  This amounts to institutionalised discrimination and it would be completely unacceptable by society if it applied on a racial, gender or religious basis.  It seems that Neurodiversity/Dyslexia/Dyscalculia is the area of diversity that is invisible.  The media is guilty of selective attention – with some diverse conditions receiving copious media attention and others being casually ignored.

Internationally, 10% of the population have dyslexia (related to text) a figure that is mirrored by those with dyscalculia (related to numbers).  In addition, there are conditions like ADD, ADHD, Irlen’s Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder that are regularly ignored and/or unsupported in the classrooms of New Zealand schools. All the conditions mentioned come under the umbrella term Neurodiversity. Initial research conducted in New Zealand indicate that the numbers here are very similar to global figures.

Unaddressed neurodiverse conditions are the leading cause of New Zealand’s embarrassingly poor rankings on the international comparators for literacy and numeracy.

The majority of the blame must be directed to the system that teachers work in, as opposed to the teachers themselves.  Most have been given no training or support to meet the needs of neurodiverse children.  Resources for children who learn differently are scarce or non-existent. The Ministry of Education denied the existence of dyslexia until 2007, and the legacy of that denial has permeated the New Zealand education system and beyond that into the workplace and society in general.  To this day the Ministry has no stated position on Dyscalculia.

The impacts of this discrimination are extensive and flow into all aspects of education and beyond. Children with neurodiverse conditions are much more likely to drop out of school or underachieve.  Many neurodiverse children misbehave or truant because the education system does not meet their needs. Neurodiverse children are often unfairly mocked by their peers because they struggle with spelling or with numeracy skills. It seems that discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or culture is frowned on, but mocking children because of their neurodiverse conditions is fair game.  Qualifications systems like NCEA add to the disadvantage, as only the children with wealthy parents can afford a private assessment that is required to access reader-writer support in external examinations. Similarly with the general lack of knowledge of dyscalculia, the learner is labelled ‘just needs to try harder’ a difficult message for the dyscalculic who, in many cases, has had little specific support in their learning.

A neurodiverse child grows up to be a neurodiverse adult.

The impacts of undiagnosed and unsupported neurodiverse conditions extend well beyond the classroom. New Zealand research has shown that over 50% of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) show up as positive for dyslexia and research conducted in New Zealand prisons showed 50% of inmates have dyslexia. Neurodiversity is associated with Anxiety, Depression, other mental health conditions and with suicide. It should be easy to join the dots and determine the sad link between a sad school experience and the adult results of that.

The modern workplace is not kind for neurodiverse people either.  Entering the workforce can be a major challenge.  Job applications and interviews are particularly difficult for neurodiverse people.

The ultimate irony is that many neurodiverse people have skills are talents that would be valuable in the workplace.  Accompanying the challenges of neurodiversity are many positive skills and talents that any enlightened workplace would value and put to good use.  Sadly, most recruitment practices disadvantage neurodiverse people.

The saddest part of this very sad story is that it is not overly expensive to address the challenges of neurodiversity. Different strategies by teachers can make a significant difference.  A good start would be for New Zealand to admit we have an issue.


  • Mike Styles.  Dyslexia Researcher and Consultant
  • Gary Sharpe.  Dyscalculia Researcher and Consultant
  • Related Tag: Dyslexia Consultant