Disability Commission’s final report highlights key issues in student education

Nov 18, 2023
Source: Getty Images.

The tabling of the Disability Commission’s final report has brought the education of students with a disability into the spotlight. A major problem highlighted in the report is the segregation of students with a disability in special schools or support units. While there is some disagreement, commissioners would like special schools to be phased out and all students with a disability to be included in mainstream schools/classes, instead.

If you were the parent or grandparent of a child with a disability, would you insist they attend a mainstream school? Many parents do and, it seems to me, for good reason. After all, children with a disability have the same right to education as all other Australian children and parents of students with disabilities want them to be sitting in a mainstream classroom alongside their able-bodied peers, but what would that look like and do we all agree that education should be inclusive? One look at education in New South Wales suggests otherwise.

In New South Wales, where we are obsessed with separating our children into discrete groups for their schooling, segregation is god. Schooling in New South Wales is not inclusive – it is exclusive. We have schools for high academic achievers only. We have schools specifically for those students who are talented in sports or the arts. We have schools just for boys. We have schools just for girls. We have prosperous-looking schools just for the wealthy and neglected schools for the poor. Unsurprisingly, we also have schools specifically for students with disabilities.

As for me, I dislike the divisive model of schooling in New South Wales with its “schools for them” and “schools for us” structure. I believe that our communities (and society) would be stronger if all children attended their local schools, learning and playing with “all sorts” instead of in homogenised groups. With that in mind, it must be said that If it’s wrong to segregate students with a disability from the mainstream, then it’s also wrong to segregate the rich from the poor, boys from girls, Anglicans from Catholics, the fastest learners from the slowest, and so on.

Inclusive education promotes cooperative, collaborative activities and increases positive attitudes towards disability (and diversity), thereby reducing discrimination and leading to inclusive societies. However, I digress.

Getting back to what might be the best model of education for students with a disability and the plan to include them in mainstream classes, it is useful to look at schools where students with a disability are already enrolled in mainstream classes.

Currently in New South Wales, 72 percent of all students with a disability are enrolled in public schools in accordance with Every Child, Every School, a mandated policy facilitating the inclusion of students with a disability into mainstream schools/classes. Note here that unlike their public counterparts, private schools are not obliged to enrol all-comers.

Consequently, and partly because educating students with a disability incurs significantly higher costs, their enrolment in mainstream classes in the private sector is minimal. Supports, resources and accommodations routinely required by students with a disability range from individual learning plans and assistance from teacher aides to the use of assistive technology, such as literacy software or built in settings that allow text to be read aloud to a student, adaptive equipment, such frames and/or stabilizers, and access to specialists, such as speech therapists. The list of disability aids is long and modifications to buildings to accommodate students with disabilities may also be required.

In New South Wales, increasing the number of students with a disability in mainstreams classes in accordance with Every Child, Every School has been challenging. Disability advocacy groups have expressed concern about the high rate of school suspensions for students with disabilities. For example, among students with a disability, there was an annual average of 15,435 suspensions for aggressive behaviour, almost 10,000 for continued disobedience, and 4220 for persistent or serious misbehaviour in the four years to 2018, according to NSW Department of Education figures. In 2021, students identified as receiving adjustments due to a disability accounted for approximately 18% of all government school student enrolments. 8.4% of students identified as receiving adjustments due to a disability received a suspension in Semester 1 2021, 7.1% received a short suspension, while 2.7% received a long suspension.

The suspension statistics are revealing. They tell the tale of system under stress, one in which placing high needs students with disabilities into settings where their needs could not possibly be met has produced negative outcomes. That the implementation of Every Child, Every School was not accompanied by increased funding, staffing or resourcing goes a long way towards explaining the problems. Including high needs students with a disability in crowded, under-resourced mainstream classrooms where the ratio of students to teacher is already 30:1 (as opposed to 6:1 in a properly resourced special school) sounds as problematic as it turned out to be. In addition, while the social ideal of mainstreaming students with disabilities is attractive, the educational reality for their able bodied classmates, many of whom may also be hard-to-teach students, is often negative.

What needs to be remembered is that in recent years mainstream educators have experienced an exponential rise in students presenting with psychosocial disabilities. Statistically, six students in every contemporary classroom (of thirty students) are receiving some sort of treatment (generally drug medication) for autism, depression, oppositional defiant order (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. Contemporary mainstream classrooms in public schools can be chaotic settings.

If inclusion for students with disabilities will guarantee them a place in a mainstream class in an elite private school with generous staffing, small class sizes and access to all the educational whistles and bells upon which a disabled student must rely to support their learning, then I will back closing all special schools and support units tomorrow. However, if inclusion for students with a disability means (as it surely will) placement in under-resourced and inadequately staffed mainstream classrooms in public schools, then forget about it. Governments may embrace the notion of closing special schools and support units but rhetoric is not action. Governments will never fully fund public schools to fill the void – never ever!

Specialised schools were established to address the needs of particular students. I am guessing that if your child is a talented athlete, you would be thrilled for them to secure a place in a sport high. The same would apply if your child is a talented musician gaining a place at the Conservatorium High School, a budding thespian gaining a place at the Newtown School of Performing Arts, or a high academic achiever gaining a place in a selective high school. So, what educational setting would you prefer for your disabled son or daughter? Given a choice, would you opt for mainstreaming in a neglected public school or placement in a special school (or support unit) designed, staffed and resourced for students with a disability?

There is no right or wrong answer because students with a disability are as diverse as any other group of children. Some students with a disability will thrive in a mainstream educational environment and some will not. However, whether special schools and support units remain part of the educational landscape or not, so long as mainstream public schools are understaffed, inadequately funded and under-resourced, their high needs and hard-to-teach students will continue to flounder.


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