By Catia Malaquias

Martin Luther King said:

“… old man segregation is on his death bed.  But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.” (10 April 1957)

Martin Luther King was speaking about racial segregation, but his comment is equally true of educational segregation of students with disabilities.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) calls the practice of educating students with disability in separate special schools and units for what it is – ‘segregation’:

Segregation occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities.” (Para 11, General Comment No. 4: Right to Inclusive Education; 2 September 2016 (GC4))

Senator Pauline Hanson – in saying that students with disability should be removed from mainstream classrooms to a “special classroom, looked after and given that special attention” – is calling for a whole-hearted return to segregation of people with disability.  She not only wants to give old man segregation more oxygen, she wants him to have a heart transplant.

There is nothing “special” about educational apartheid – the inferior educational and social outcomes and adverse economic and mental health effects of segregation are not overcome by sugar-coating segregated education by notions of “specialness”.  That is just window dressing a life-long low expectations pathway to exclusion from society.

While Labor and the Greens have been vocal in condemning the dangerous and damaging comments of Senator Hanson, the Turnbull Government has been silent.  The reality is that segregated education has been on the rise in recent years. Australia was asked last month by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to explain the recent proportionate rise in segregated education in Australia – to which the vague reponse was Australia would be increasing its education budget.

But it is not just about money. The Australian education system presently facilitates the systemic leakage of students with disability to segregated settings by:

  • not providing families with the research evidence of the relative academic and social benefits of inclusive education so that they can make a more informed decision in the best interests of their children;
  • not strengthening the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and in particular the Disability Standards for Education 2005 to curtail mainstream schools “gate-keeping” – the overt and subtle discouragement of enrolling and keeping students with disability in mainstream classes; and
  • overseeing an education funding system that allocates proportionately more resources to a student in “special” education than for the same student to be supported to attend a mainstream school.

Most parents do not “choose” segregated education for their child – they may sign the paperwork but the choice is effectively made for them – by a combination of the above factors.

Our Australian education funding system financially incentivises segregated education – it is the financial oxygen sustaining old man segregation.

Gonski 2.0 does not remove that financial incentivisation – if anything it may well increase it.

The UNCRPD GC4 calls for two matters critical to Australia building a genuinely inclusive and quality education system for students with disability:

  • “State parties must adopt an implement a national educational strategy which includes provision of education at all levels for all learners, on the basis of inclusion and equality of opportunity” [para 40]; and
  • “The Committee urges State parties to achieve a transfer of resources from segregated to inclusive environments” [para 68].

Money alone will not deliver a quality inclusive education system.  The lack of a national inclusive education strategy and the financial incentivising of “special” segregated education is a more subtle but effective oxygen supply for old man segregation.

Senator Hanson’s comments – from the high platform of our national Parliament and amplified by the media are very damaging – at a national, local community and playground level.  The response of the Government should have been even louder – not silence or a wimper.

However, Senator Hanson has presented an opportunity for Australia to ask itself why the segregation of its students is increasing.  Senator Hanson is calling loudly for something that has actually been happening – quietly.

The Turnbull Government should explain how they see Gonski 2.0, as modified in its negotiations with the Senate cross-bench, as furthering Australia’s obligations to implement inclusive education and reducing the accelerating systemic leakage to segregated education.

[Cover photo © Alexander Lam]

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