A Chance for Significant Cultural Change – Federal Labor’s Call for a Royal Commission on Treatment of Students with Disability

By Catia Malaquias

The federal Deputy Labor leader and shadow Minister for Education, the Hon. Tanya Plibersek MP, has called for a Royal Commission into the “very wide-spread problem” of the treatment of students with disability in Australian schools and other educational settings.

“I’ve heard from so many parents and so many young people who have experienced abuse in schools or in educational settings that inevitably I’ve come to understand this is a very widespread problem.”

“Royal Commissions give an opportunity for people who have been voiceless or too frightened to have their stories heard.  The second thing you hope for is systemic changes that prevent further abuse and the third thing is for people to know they are believed when they disclose.”

We know that the adverse and abusive experience of students, both physical and mental, is often a function of a combination of factors including:

  • poor school or classroom culture that devalues and discriminates against students with disability – often permeating from broader historic social attitudes to disability;
  • inadequate teacher and staff training and support; and
  • insufficient financial and teaching resources to accommodate and support students with disability.

The latter two issues, although debated as to significance, magnify attudinal or cultural resistance to students with disability.  Teacher and staff training is important – it no doubt helps “empower” staff to feel that they have the skills to include and support a student with disability.  The funding and resourcing of students with disability is opaque – and how and the extent to which funding is used to support students with disability is even more opaque.

However, the three issues in combination allow the entrenchment of historic cultural attitudes in educational leadership and settings – the devaluation of students with disability as “learners” (i.e. “low expectations” remains the norm) and their characterisation as “undue burdens” on the mainstream system (i.e. their support in the mainstream system comes from its goodwill and charity rather than any legal right or obligation to ensure the education system is accessible to all Australian children).

In its 2015 submission to the federal Senate inquiry into the education of students with disability, the Australian Primary Principals Association, advocating for more resources, stated:

“The current success of these students [with disability in mainstream classes] is more often than not the product of teacher and principal goodwill and commitment, a resource that is being stretched under the tension of limited resourcing and growing demand.”

The core mainstream systemic issue that operates to deny students with disability their right to an inclusive education alongside their same-age peers is the lack of a cultural will to include and support the student.

A Royal Commission looking at the current and historic treatment of students with disability will open (or force open) the eyes of governments, education administrations, schools, teachers, parents and most importantly the broader community to the systemic injustice, abuse and unfair treatment of students with disability and their families. As the Hon. Ms Plibersek noted in calling for the Royal Commission:

“The NDIS can’t solve historic issues of abuse and we shouldn’t expect it to.”

Cultural attitudes change when society acknowledges a need for them to change.  The attempt to date to discharge Australia’s obligation to implement inclusive education against and without addressing a resistant cultural headwind (recently confirmed by Senator Pauline Hanson’s biased and ill-informed comments) has led to a predictable outcome – a proportionate increase in the education of students with disability in segregated “special” settings.  It has resulted in proportionately less “inclusion” as governments have “responded” to the inevitable adverse experience of students with disability in unreceptive mainstream settings by funding more special school and special unit places – ostensibly to meet greater “parental choice” for segregated education – but effectively as a “pressure release valve” that facilitates the transfer of students to segregated settings and accordingly alleviates the need for mainstream settings to culturally adapt and include.

It is noteworthy that New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory chose not to make a submission to the 2015 Senate inquiry into the education of students with disability – notwithstanding that States provide approximately 80% of school funding and that approprimately two thirds of students with disability are enrolled in public schools.

A nation-wide Royal Commission will engage every Government in Australia.

A Royal Commission into, or including, the treatment of students with disability has a great capacity to drive, from opening up and allowing learning from our past, the necessary cultural change in our education system to deliver the superior evidence-based inclusive education outcomes for students with and without disability and to end the shameful growth in segregated education of our socially most vulnerable students.

[Cover photo © Ross Findon]

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