Response to Senate Report on Students With Disability: Some Positives but Weak

By Catia Malaquias

 The Australian Government has quietly tabled its Response dated March 2017 to the Senate Committee’s Report entitled “Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability” (released on 15 January 2016).

I commented upon the Senate’s report (click here to read my full comment).  In particular, I noted:

  • the importance of the Senate Committee’s recommendation that the Commonwealth Government should work with the States to establish a national strategy that recognises all students with disabilities as learners to “drive the cultural change required to achieve this, particularly at school leadership level” – this recommendation being in light of the Committee recognising the adverse impact on student outcomes of:
    • low (or no) expectations for students with disability;
    • informal and formal discouragement of enrolment of students with disability by local mainstream schools – in other words “gate-keeping” in favour of special schools and special units; and
    • lack of inclusive vision and values at the school leadership level; and
  • that the Committee recognised that the weight of evidence supported mainstream schooling over segregated special schools and units in maximising outcomes for students with disabilities.

Since the Senate Committee’s report was released, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities released General Comment No. 4 on Article 24 (Inclusive Education) of the  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Convention).  The General Comment, which clarifies the right to inclusive education, firmly endorses education of students with disabilities in regular mainstream settings with appropriate accommodations and assistance and curricular adjustments and calls for State parties, including Australia, to develop a specific national inclusive education strategy and to transfer resources from segregated special units and schools to regular mainstream settings.

The Australian Government Response to the Senate Committee report makes some predictable points:

  • The Response confirms the Australian Government’s commitment to needs based funding and growth in its total annual funding of schools – it reflects the Government-Opposition debate as to whether that additional funding amounts to a cut in funding compared to the Gonski reform targets.
  • It repeatedly notes that education funding and administration (including professional development of teachers and school staff) are primarily matters for the State governments.
  • It criticises the Senate Committee for focussing “on the barriers faced by students with disability” and not seeking out examples of “good education practices providing for the specific needs of students with disability”.

However, the Response does confirm some positive steps.

  • It notes the appointment in July 2016 of a dedicated Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Alastair McEwin – an appointment recommended by the Senate Committee report – and recognises that complaints may be made in relation to breaches of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005.
  • It refers to positive initiatives including to:
    • improve the quality of school leadership and teaching – including the priority reforms in the Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes (released by the Australian Government in May 2016) directed at schooling generally;
    • update Australian professional accreditation standards for teachers and principals;
    • improve accessibility of the Australian Curriculum for all students including in particular students with intellectual disability through work currently being undertaken by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA); and
    • develop national resources by funding the Australian Special Education Principal’s Association to support schools to foster inclusive learning environments (for example, the recently released Leading Learning 4 All website).

The Australian Government Response is deficient in several keys respects:

  1. It makes no reference to Article 24 of the Convention or General Comment No. 4 – it does not acknowledge the primary obligations of the Australian Government (vis-à-vis the States) to ensure that Australian students with disability can fully realise their right to an inclusive education.
  2. It maintains the Australian Government view that the right to an inclusive education is a right “to participate in an inclusive and high quality education system” – rather than a right to be educated in an inclusive regular classroom setting – as endorsed by General Comment No. 4. The difference in emphasis reflects the Australian Government’s position on parental “choice” of educational settings and the maintenance of a “dual” system of “special” segregated and mainstream education.  This position is at odds with the General Comment’s express recognition that the right to inclusive education is a fundamental human right of all learners and parental responsibilities in regard to the education of their child are subordinate to the child’s fundamental human rights and best interests (paragraph 10), as well as the call for governments to transfer resources from segregated [special schools and special units within mainstream schools] to inclusive education environments (paragraph 68).
  3. The Response discloses an unwillingness to show the national and moral leadership necessary to drive the systemic and cultural change required to realise, in any timely fashion, inclusive education.
    • There is no acknowledgement of the need to prioritise and advance policy promoting inclusive education in regular mainstream schools vis-à-vis segregated settings – as supported by evidence-based research and General Comment No.4.
    • There is no strong willingness to develop a detailed and dedicated national strategy for inclusive education for students with disability. The National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 and the Learning and Skills policy direction are too general to drive the necessary change.
    • There is no strong willingness to take responsibility for the prompt formulation and collection of nationally consistent data relating to school students with disability.
    • There is no willingness to demonstrate the necessary moral leadership – to drive the necessary social change.

A Committee of the Legislative Council of the New South Wales Parliament is currently inquiring into the education of students with disabilities in New South Wales – as is a Committee of the Legislative Council of the South Australian Parliament.  Numerous other States and Territories have also recently initiated or completed their own governmental inquiries into aspects of the education of students with disabilities.

The recent avalanche of inquiries and investigations follow two decades peppered with inquiries into the same basic matter.

There will no doubt be other inquiries and investigations in the future.

In the meantime – the steady stream of exclusionary schooling experiences of Australian families with children with disability continues to hit the media – ABC Adelaide just published a story of a family that approached 12 mainstream schools about enrolling their son with cerebral palsy – one principal is alleged to have said that there were “[special] places for children of his kind”.  The article reports that the student is now thriving in a mainstream class at a public school which he attends with his younger brother – albeit the family has found it necessary to be proactive in advancing the inclusive culture of the school – and through their advocacy and example, the education system generally. You can read the article in full here.

[Cover photo © Rob Warde]

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