European Commissioner: Lack of resources does not excuse Segregated Education – A Message for Australia

By Catia Malaquias

The European Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks has recently commented upon the failure of many European countries to understand their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – including in relation to the right to inclusive education under Article 24.

Many of the comments of the Commissioner are equally applicable beyond Europe – including to Australia.

On the role of the CRPD generally, the Commissioner said:

“… [The CRPD] is an invaluable instrument because it embodies the paradigm shift in attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities, without which their rights cannot be effectively protected.  This paradigm shift entails a move from the medical model to the social model of disability i.e. viewing persons with disabilities as active subjects with equal rights, capable of taking their own decisions and contributing to societies rather than objects of charity and medical treatment.”

As to the achievement of the necessary paradigm shift, the Commissioner highlighted that European countries have had a propensity  to “tinker” rather than to “change” – again, an observation equally applicable to the education system in Australia:

“… [A]fter five years of examining these questions on the ground, I am convinced that many Council of Europe member states are still a long way from internalising the paradigm shift they endorsed by ratifying the CRPD.  On the whole … their priority has been on adjusting existing systems which are fundamentally non-compliant with the CRPD rather than reforming those systems from the ground up.  Our societies still seem to consider that some people … are simply too impaired to … benefit from a decent education alongside their non-disabled peers.  It is this attitude that we need to overcome to bring about the necessary transformation.”

On specific deficiencies with implementing inclusive education, the Commissioner stated:

Separate education is at variance with the right of children with disabilities to quality education on the basis of equal opportunity, as it is often characterised by low-expectations, sub-standard teaching and worse material conditions.  It also reinforces and validates the marginalisation of students with disabilities in the later stages of their lives, including their access to the labour market … . For their non-disabled peers, teachers and others in the community, separate education means being deprived of knowledge about human diversity and essential life skills.

… In Belgium and the Czech Republic, a high number of children with disabilities are still segregated in specialised schools with little prospect of being reintegrated into mainstream education.  Similarly in France, almost 80% of children with autism do not have access to mainstream education [for which France has been repeatedly sanctioned] … . Even in countries like Spain which accomplished a high rate of inclusion, austerity measures have led to existing individualised supports being withdrawn.”

The Commissioner also noted the cosmetic rebranding of segregated education:

 “In other instances, countries appear to be willing to settle for some form of segregation and rename segregated forms of education under a more acceptable brand (such as ‘appropriate education’ in the Netherlands) or even as inclusive education (for instance ‘inclusive education centres’ in Romania).”

On the usual governmental justification for failing to properly implement inclusive education – lack of resources – the Commissioner was clear:

“Often these shortcomings are justified by education authorities on grounds of lack of resources to ensure accessibility or individualised supports.  However, lack of resources should never serve as an excuse for sub-standard or separate education for children with disabilities.”

In Australia the decade following its ratification of the CRPD has seen a proportionate increase in the number of students being placed into segregated settings, and the numbers are continuing to rise.  Since 2000 the number of segregated settings nationwide have increased by 13% while the number of schools in total has fallen by 1.3%.  Running counter to these numbers, the Australian Commonwealth and State Governments have publicly supported moving to more inclusive education: (See Anderson, J. and Boyle, C. (2015), Inclusive education in Australia: rhetoric, reality and the road ahead, Support for Learning, 30: 4–22, pp11-12).  There is a mismatch between public policy and what is happening on the ground – in the education system – in schools themselves.

Special schools in Australia are being rebranded – they are increasingly being referred to in government documents as “centres of excellence”.  But one thing is clear – ideas developed in the context and within the walls of segregated education do not naturally translate to regular classrooms. The mentality of separateness should not guide the path to more inclusive regular classrooms.

The paradigm shift that the CRPD calls for, and that Australia signed up to achieve, needs cultural and educational systemic change from the “ground up” – it needs what the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described as an immediate obligation in its General Comment No. 4 (2016) on Article 24 of the CRPD:

“State parties must adopt and implement a national education strategy which includes provision of education at all levels for all learners, on the basis of inclusion and the equality of opportunity.” [para 40]

Precisely what Australia submitted in 2015 that it was not obligated to do in its submission on the draft General Comment:

“Nor does Australia agree that Article 24 contains an obligation to adopt and implement a national education strategy as stated in the draft General Comment.” [para 7]

It is hoped that the slide back to segregated settings is recognised for what it is – evidence of the limited and protective response of the status quo – in other words evidence of the existing education system – comprised of parallel regular and segregated settings – resisting the necessary paradigm shift for their merger into one well-resourced inclusive education system.

It is time for the Australian Government – in partnership with the Australian States – to show real leadership, arrest the slide to segregation and reverse it.  That will not happen under the advice or guidance of administrators practiced in and trapped by segregated education – it needs to be driven by those fully committed to the vision of a single education system that is inclusive of all.

Watch Mr Jorge Cardona, member of the United Nations Committee of the Rights of the Child,  speaking at the Day of General Discussion on the Right to Inclusive Education (Article 24 CRPD) about the need for a paradigm shift for inclusive education.

[Cover photo © Alamy ]

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