By Catia Malaquias

On 15 January 2016 the Education and Employment References Committee of the Australian Senate delivered a scathing report into the education experience of Australian students with disability.

At the same time the Australian Government lodged its submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding the proposed General Comment on Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the scope of its obligations to provide inclusive education under Article 24.

In essence, contrary to the view of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Australia contends that it is under no immediate obligation to implement inclusive education or the educational objectives of Article 24.  Further, Australia disputes that it is under an obligation to implement a national education strategy to advance inclusive education.

However, again contrary to the UN Committee’s call for the transfer of resources to inclusive education, the Australian Government’s submission mounts a dogged defence of segregated education for students with disability (ie. the placement of students with disability in special schools and special units within mainstream schools).

“… the Australian Government’s submission mounts a dogged defence of segregated education for students with disability.”

The Australian Government points to Articles 13(3) and (4) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as providing “liberty of parents and guardians to choose schools for their children provided that educational institutions meet certain minimum standards” and argues that by providing segregated schooling as an option “the best interests of the student are a primary consideration”.

However, the Australian Government’s submission in defence of the maintenance of segregated schooling as part of the Australian education system must be seen in light of the following:

  • The parental choice recognised in Article 13(3) and (4) of the ICESCR depends on minimum schooling standards that are determined by Australia, including in light of its obligations under Article 24 to provide inclusive education.
  • The principle of “parental choice” must be applied within, and not in spite of, the human rights framework – a framework that recognises that it is through the right to an inclusive education that the fundamental right to education is realised by people with disability.  In this context, an inclusive education is not merely an education philosophy, in the nature of say a Catholic or Montessori education, the right of access to which is preserved by Article 13 of the ICESCR.  Rather, inclusive education is a mode of education delivery  – the means by which an education is to be delivered under Article 24 – i.e. in an “inclusive” way.
  • As a matter of broader principle, for parental choice to operate in the interests of the child, the choice must at least be both fully informed and freely made.
  • The proposed General Comment prepared by the UN Committee and the Australian Senate Committee’s report recognise that the research evidence supports better educational and social outcomes for all students, with and without disability, in inclusive regular/mainstream schooling environments.
  • Many (if not all) Australian parents are not provided with up-to-date evidence-based information regarding the benefits of inclusive education in a regular classroom and are left exposed to the natural assumption that a child with “special needs” is best educated in some form of segregated “special” environment. As stated above, the research suggests that the “special” path generally leads to inferior outcomes.
  • As the Australian Senate Committee recognised, the existence of a wide-spread practice of “gatekeeping” – the usually informal discouragement by mainstream school administrators of enrolment of students with disability in regular classrooms. “Gatekeeping” is an unconscionable practice, whether deliberate or not, that is designed to influence a parents’ “informed and free” choice as to enrolment and in many cases amounts to, at least, a breach of parental trust placed in school administrators for their “expert” advice as to the best schooling option for the child.  A separate issue may also arise about the potential duties and liabilities arising in connection with the giving of “expert” advice by professionals and the basis for such advice.
  • Again as recognised by the Australian Senate Committee, the widespread absence of inclusive school culture in regular/mainstream schools being in key measure due to the absence of the embracing of inclusive values by mainstream school leadership – resulting in a school culture of little or no expectations, discrimination of and inadequate accommodations for students with disability.

As a combination of (i) a lack of information as to the relative education, social and independence outcomes of segregated versus regular schooling, (ii) “gatekeeping” in favour of segregation and (iii) a failure to advance the development of inclusive cultures within regular/mainstream schools to embrace and support students with disability, there remains a significant leakage of students with disability from the mainstream schooling system to the alternate segregated “special” system – and that systemic leakage is dressed as self-sustaining parent-driven “demand” for segregated schooling.

The maintenance of a parallel segregated “special” schooling system and the leakage of students with disability that it systemically facilitates effectively alleviates the pressure on a government to invest in transitioning mainstream schooling systems to genuinely inclusive education systems – whilst consuming and tying up valuable resources in maintaining a parallel segregated system.

In essence, the failure to transfer resources from segregated “special” schooling to regular/mainstream inclusive schooling stunts the development of a genuinely inclusive system … and that failure is being effectively attributed by the Australian government to a need to respect “parental choice” – albeit a choice that parents are frequently asked to make without regard to the applicable human rights framework, in the absence of proper “evidence-based” information, on biased “gatekeeping” advice and without any faith that their child will be “included” by the mainstream system … that is not a basis for informed or free parental choice upon which any government should be able to sleep peacefully.

[Cover photo © Got Credit]

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