Australian Senate Inquiry Report into Education of Students with Disability – A Brief Review

By Catia Malaquias

The Education and Employment References Committee of the Australian Senate has delivered its report into “current levels of access and attainment for students with disability in the school system”. The title to the Committee’s report is significant in itself in recognising the difference between attending school and learning at school and the critical importance of school culture – “Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability”.

The recommendations of the report are welcomed but in the most not surprising:

  • the funding of schools and students with disability on the basis of need;
  • the use and improvement of the nationally consistent collection of data (including levels of access and attainment) on students with disability to assist decision-making;
  • the reinstatement of a dedicated Disability Discrimination Commissioner;
  • the improvement of training and support of principals, teachers and support staff in inclusive education practices (including universal design for learning, differentiated instruction and curriculum modification);
  • better definition of the goals and priorities for improving education outcomes for students with disability;
  • the ending of the use of restrictive practices in schools.

In my view a noteworthy recommendation is that the Commonwealth government should work with the States to establish a national strategy that recognises all students with disability as learners and to “drive the cultural change required to achieve this, particularly at school leadership level”. The importance of school culture to the effectiveness of inclusive education and inclusive strategies is often under-appreciated – but the Committee clearly recognised the adverse isolated and combined effect of numerous cultural limitations:

  • low (or no) expectations for students with disability – leading to ‘baby-sitting’ rather than learning;
  • informal and formal discouragement of enrolment of students with disability by local mainstream schools – ie. “gatekeeping” on the assumption that the student will be better served at a special school or within a special unit;
  • a lack of inclusive vision and values at the school principal/leadership level and its infection of the school culture.

The Committee noted “that school principals have an important role to play in establishing a culture of support and inclusion in their school”. I would say “critical” rather than merely “important”.

The report is also noteworthy in at least two other aspects.

First, the Committee recognised the “importance of a relationship between teachers (and schools more generally) and the families of students with disability” and referred to the development of resources to assist the formation of “collaborative” relationships with parents.  Again, this is a relationship that is under-appreciated and in my view is critical to the realisation of inclusive education outcomes.

Second, the Committee in acknowledging “the question of which sort of education produces the best outcomes for students: inclusion in ‘mainstream’ schools or classes or via special-purposes schools” also acknowledged that “the weight of evidence is firmly on the side of mainstream inclusion” and quoted the submission of Dr Kathy Cologon of Macquarie University:

“… inclusive education is important because it results in the best possible outcomes for everyone involved. As outlined in a recent extensive review of the literature, inclusive education results in more positive outcomes for all students – students who do and students who do not experience disability … Inclusive education also results in greater personal and professional satisfaction for educators and assists educators in becoming more skilled and flexible as they expand their ability to provide multiple forms and modes of engagement, thus leading to higher quality education for all students.”

But somewhat paradoxically, after recognising that “one of the primary drivers of families choosing to enrol their child in a special school is a consequence of … informal gatekeepers at mainstream schools discouraging the enrolment of students with disability”, the Committee stated that the choice of school (special versus mainstream) was “one of the main decisions that parents have to make” and differing views from parents “should always be respected”.

I would add that such an important decision needs to be made with full and up-to-date information as to the education, social and independence outcomes of the the two basic alternatives and in the absence of “gatekeeping” pressure to enrol in the special school system – the Commonwealth and State governments cannot rely on “freedom of choice” to operate in the interests of students with disability if it is neither properly informed or free.

On this second matter, although the Committee highlighted Australia’s obligations to provide, and each student’s human right to receive, an inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it is on one view effectively sanctioning parents make a decision contrary to the realisation of a fundamental human right to inclusive education for their child, a right the benefit of which is evidence-based.

The Senate Committee did not refer to the General Comment on Article 24 that is presently being finalised by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to provide guidance to countries as to their obligations under Article 24.  The draft General Comment:

  • notes that “special schools” and “special units” within mainstream schools are both forms of segregated environments and “cannot be defined as inclusive education” (paragraph 11);
  • recognises the greater academic, social and independence outcomes for students with disability in inclusive regular/mainstream classrooms (paragraph 3); and
  • calls for countries to transfer resources from segregated to inclusive environments (paragraph 71).

The Australian Senate Committee’s report moves in the right direction in calling for educational reform to address the crisis in education of students with disability in Australia but unless we work to a vision that recognises that “ALL means ALL” and commits to the reform required to build a single, properly resourced and culturally supported inclusive education system for all learners then we are only tip-toeing in the right direction … and our hesitance will continue to come at the cost of students with disability and their families.

[Cover photo © Steven Dopolo]

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