By Catia Malaquias
In its role as Convenor of the Australian Child Rights Taskforce, UNICEF Australia conducted a national consultation with children and young people to inform the content of a landmark report (UNICEF Australia Report) submitted in November 2018 to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the state of the rights of all children and young people in Australia.
The UNICEF Australia Report, launched by UNICEF Australia Chair, high profile business leader Ann Sherry, at the National Press Club, was compiled in close association with non-government organisations and subject matter experts and canvassed the views of children and young people across Australia. The Report made some damning observations and strong recommendations.
On Australia’s performance in relation to the rights and well-being of its children, the UNICEF Australia Report concluded the following.
“[D]espite its relative economic prosperity and growth, Australia is not making sufficient progress for all children and young people and has regressed in areas of critical importance […] at best, Australia ranks average or ‘middle of the pack’ when compared to the other 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including most of Europe, North America, and advanced Asian, Latin American and Oceanic economies”.
It also identified that children from certain groups are particularly being left behind.
“We have regressed in areas of critical importance and systems designed to protect children are in crisis. […] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, LGBTIQ children, asylum seeker and refugee children, children living in regional and remote areas and children in out of home care are particularly being left behind.”
The UNICEF Australia Report also examined key areas of child rights, including in relation to education rights and the rights of children with disabilities.
Notably, Chapter 7 (Disability, Health and Welfare) recognised the particular discrimination and disadvantage faced by children with disabilities.
“As discussed throughout this report, children with disability and their families face entrenched rights abuses, including structural barriers to inclusion, high risks of violence and abuse, high rates of removal from families, poorer educational outcomes, and high risk of contact with the youth justice system. This situation is both amplified and facilitated by barriers to receiving adequate disability services and mainstream support.”
Chapter 8 (Education) specifically considered the education of students with disabilities and called for protection of the right to quality and inclusive education for all children.
“There is evidence of a rise in segregated delivery of education, including specialist schools and specialist classes where children with disability are isolated from their peers. From 1999 to 2013, the number of schools in Australia increased by 3%, while the number of special schools increased by 17% over the same period. This is contrary to international practice, where there is a clear shift in favour of mainstreaming education, and against the recommendations of the Children’s Committee; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities.”
The Report shared this reflection from a high school student in Mount Gambier, regional South Australia, during the national consultation:
“When it comes to people who do have disabilities, they’re put in whole different entire classes. They’re not with any of us other students. And they get bullied for it, because of the fact that they’re now away from us, and that they can’t be in the same rooms as us, and they’re now being shifted to another part of the school. A whole area to themselves where they can’t be with us”.
Another key issue identified in the UNICEF Australia Report in relation to education, was the lack of clarity among governments and stakeholders, as to the meaning of inclusive education. This concern has also resulted in the release in 2016 by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, of General Comment No. 4, a guidance document for governments to inform their understanding about the meaning and scope of the human right to inclusive education recognised under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities and applicable to State Parties (including Australia).
“While states and territories have developed policies that support inclusive practices, there is no single nationally accepted definition of inclusive education. Inconsistent practices between systems, sectors and individual schools impede the ability to track the academic progress of students with disabilities; in particular, those with intellectual or cognitive disabilities.”
Overall, poor practices and outcomes and lack of accountability for education of students with disabilities were recognised as critical factors.
“The education system been described as ‘awash with low expectations and standards’ that limit opportunities for students with disabilities. As a child living with chronic illness and disability explained during the national consultation: ‘It is often the attitudes of people and the assumptions they make that hold you back, more than it is the actual illness or disability.’
Under-education of students with disability ‘leads to unemployment, lower levels of health, social isolation and a lifetime of disadvantage’. In Australia, 30% of people with disability do not go beyond Year 10, compared to 20% of people without disability and in 2013, only 15% of people aged 15–64 with disability had completed tertiary study, compared to 26% of people without disability.
There is limited ability to assess the extent of adjustments to typical teaching practices to accommodate variability in the needs of all students, and the unique and specific barriers confronting children with disability.”
The UNICEF Australia Report also condemned the exclusion and restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities, especially students with intellectual or cognitive disabilities.
“Recent reviews by the New South Wales and Victorian Ombudsmen found that students with cognitive and learning impairments and students with disability are overrepresented in the numbers of students subject to school suspensions, despite the evidence that suspension may exacerbate challenging behaviour for students with disability or trauma. There are similar concerns about reports of the use of restrictive practices in both specialist and mainstream schools, including children with disability being tied to chairs, locked in isolation rooms, and physically restrained under the guise of ‘behaviour management’.”
Among its extensive recommendations (Appendix 3), the UNICEF Australia Report recommended that the Australian Government adopt the following measures:
“80. ensure the right to quality and inclusive education for all children is legally protected across all Australian jurisdictions;
81. resource a national study to better understand the drivers of student disengagement and how it can be effectively and systematically measured in schools;
84. commission research to examine the rates, trends and characteristics of students subject to exclusion from education (suspensions and expulsions), and update policies and school practices to minimise resort to school exclusion.
87. ensure the adoption of a standard definition of inclusive education, and develop a system for consistently measuring and reporting academic progress and outcomes for students with [disabilities] across all Australian jurisdictions.
88. develop a National Inclusive Education Action Plan that specifically identifies current inadequacies in funding, allocates sufficient funding, sets appropriate benchmarks, targets and goals, and increases school accountability for the academic progress of children with disabilities.”
We welcome the recommendations in the UNICEF Australia Report and congratulate the Australian Child Rights Taskforce and UNICEF Australia on this important work to highlight these critical areas of concern for Australian children, including children with disabilities. We hope that Governments around Australia recognise the urgent need for action and commit to implementing the changes that are so urgently needed.
[Cover photo © UNICEF Australia]