Creating inclusion – Where to turn for leadership?

By Catia Malaquias

In my Submission to the current Australia Senate Inquiry into the education of students with disability I argued that maintaining the “special” segregated education system in Australia (comprised of separate “special” schools or “special” units co-located within regular schools) stunts the development of a well-resourced and genuinely inclusive general education system.  This is because the existence and maintenance of an alternate (and better resourced) “special” system:

  1. encourages “leakage” of students from a general education system that has never been required to structure itself to educate all kinds of learners;
  2. obscures the current limitations of the general education system in delivering education to students with disability, by relieving the pressure on Governments to address those limitations;
  3. ties up valuable skills and consumes valuable resources, denying their transfer to the general education system; and
  4. reinforces the continued entrenchment of historic cultural attitudes – that it is acceptable for students with disability, particularly intellectual disability, to be educated separately from their non-disabled peers.

This is all against the background that over 40 years of research has overwhelmingly established that inclusive education produces better academic and social outcomes for students with disability – with academic and socio-emotional benefits for all students.

So when I sat down to read the submissions of the “special” schools/units associations I was not surprised to see that there was no reference to any research supporting the separate provision of education to students with disability. Nor was I surprised to see their emphasis on the need for “choice” for parents of students with disability – a choice that, in the absence of full and fair information, including about fundamental rights, and against the context of a deficient general education system, is far from a genuine and informed choice.

One of the special education association submissions recognised that “many families [that enrol their children in special schools] report to us that they are dissatisfied with the level of provision [in general education schools]”. That submission continues:

“Parents report to us that when they present for enrolment at their local primary school, they are often informed that Education Departments have an obligation to educate every child in the local area, but they go on to say that they are lacking resources and expertise. Families feel that they are being given ‘lip-service’ and that there is not a genuine desire to truly include children with disability in local schools.”

This is systemic segregating leakage at work – dressed up as “parental choice” – more in the nature of Hobson’s choice for many – boosting by default demand for special school places, whilst alleviating pressure on Governments to act to address mainstream system deficiencies. All creating the illusion of continuing strong demand for segregated “special” schooling. An illusion “capitalised” upon in another submission by a peak “special” education association in drawing a misguided self-justifying inference:

“For example in the UK over the past 25 years there has been no significant shift in choice of special education placement for parents despite a major focus on inclusive schooling choices. In fact what this demonstrates is that Special Schools and facilities are centres of excellence where quality educational opportunities occur.”

At stated in this second submission, I don’t doubt that many parents are happy and satisfied with “special” schooling for their children. But I think that is often a rarefied assessment – the relative question that should be asked and answered is whether those same parents and their children would remain happy with segregated “special” schooling if a genuinely inclusive education was widely available.

Our Australian education system needs systemic and structured transformation for that question to be more than largely hypothetical – a transformation that I believe requires a number of things, including:

  1. the transfer of valuable expertise and resources from the “special” alternate system to the general education system and the “skilling up” of the general education system;
  2. the redirection of focus from students with diagnosed disability to more broadly addressing the functional learning needs of all students, with or without disability; and
  3. the progressive development, in a phased and structured manner, of truly inclusive school cultures, starting with and guided by school and departmental leaders.

In my view, school leadership and school culture are critical components to the successful delivery of genuinely inclusive general education education – without this “oxygen” the mere investment of financial and teaching resources is unlikely to deliver genuine inclusive education in any reasonable timeframe – the friction posed by lingering historic cultural attitudes is a subtle but pervasive barrier.

The investigation findings of the ACT Education and Training Directorate into the installation of a metal cage in a Canberra primary school as a “withdrawal” space for a 10 year-old student with autism were released yesterday. They suggest the limitations on inclusive mainstream education posed by historic attitudes. Although the inappropriate decision to install the structure was attributed to the principal alone, a significant finding was that a number of other officers both within the school and the Directorate did not meet “Directorate or public expectations” – that points to, at least in part, a “cultural” issue.

The submission of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training appreciates the need to build inclusive learning environments and cultures and refers to two projects that will be made available to schools in 2016 to enhance inclusive attitudes and practices in schools – both projects are said to be under the leadership of the peak special education association referred to above. As the submission to the Inquiry of Children with Disability Australia notes, perhaps with some diplomacy, “[s]pecial schools are segregated settings by definition and there is a legitimate question about whether they can realistically be said to be part of an education system that is fully inclusive.”

I would query the wisdom of engaging a special education association with experience primarily in the delivery of education services in largely segregated settings to “lead” the development of inclusive education resources for general education schools. It is a step in generally the right direction in recognising the significance of school cultures – but the step needs to be bigger, firmer and guided by expertise in implementing “inclusion” effectively in truly general education settings.

[Cover photo © Nick Amoscato]

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