In its final report delivered in September, The royal commission into disability called for educational segregation to be phased out by 2051.
It is a call that has sparked a deep debate.
Even the six commissioners disagree. Only three of them – including two who live with a disability – recommended the phasing out of special schools. The other three do not think a complete abolition of special schools is necessary.
It is unclear what will follow the report. The federal government, which is establishing a Disability Commission working group to respond to the 222 recommendations, said it would not rush any decisions.
But one thing is clear. If special schools were to be phased out, mainstream education would need to become more inclusive.
David Armstrong is a government advisor on educational inclusion and neurodiversity, and a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability at RMIT University.
He tells ABC RN’s Life Matters that in every facet of the education system there are “parents who pull their children out of school, children who don’t go, children who are excluded”.
“It’s all escalated. It’s all out of control.”
But he thinks the commission’s report – which sets out “what needs to happen to improve mainstream schools (for students with disabilities) and support our teachers and families” – will be helpful.
“We have to change,” he says.
“We need to invest more in our (ordinary) education system. And this is the opportunity to do it, so that it is better for everyone.”
Dr Armstrong says students with disabilities have a wide range of needs, including high-level needs, temporary access needs (e.g. for a broken leg) or bereavement support.
He believes a mainstream school should be able to support students in all of these areas.
“I really welcome the report … because it defines the mechanisms and means for this to happen. »
Upskilling and more transparency
Recommendations for additional support for teachers feature prominently in the commission’s report.
“It talks about the professional knowledge and skills for workforce development of our existing teaching staff (and how) we can support, equip and develop them to be able to (work in inclusive environments) “, explains Dr. Armstrong.
For example, The report discusses “reasonable adjustments” to meet the needs of students with disabilities, so that they can “access and participate in all aspects of their education.” And he recommends that teachers be better equipped with the information and knowledge they need to provide these adjustments and support.
Dr. Armstrong says such clarifications “will help our hard-working teachers.”
Transparency, including within schools, is another point that features prominently in the report, which Dr Armstrong considers “extremely positive”.
He says increased transparency will tackle and help extinguish the practice of “gatekeeping” whereby some mainstream schools “persuade” disabled students and their families not to attend by telling them: “We think you would be better served elsewhere “.
“These kinds of illegal and clandestine practices are happening – we are aware of this through research and discussions with affected families.”
To combat this phenomenon, the report recommends specific actions for schools, such as maintaining a central register of decisions to refuse and cancel registration and submitting an annual report on this subject to the Minister of Education. ‘Responsible education.
‘This can be done’
Nicole Lee, disability rights advocate and president of People with Disability Australia, says for mainstream education to be truly inclusive, it cannot take a “one-size-fits-all approach”.
And she says a model of flexible educational environments already exists in small, rural and remote schools, where classes often include a range of student ages, levels and abilities.
“This proves it can be done.
“We just need to think outside the box and start thinking about how we can reconceptualize what education looks like, in an inclusive way.
“We need to… be more creative and willing to imagine something other than what we have.”
Ms Lee would like to see schools with better-resourced and better-supported teachers, smaller class sizes and the inclusion of breakout spaces – smaller spaces where students can retreat, while still being part of the group wider.
She believes funding for special schools and mainstream schools could be brought together into “one big pool”, so that funding, resources and skilled staff for disability education are “integrated into mainstream schools where they work alongside teachers.”
The question of financing is recurrent in the debate on inclusive education.
According to the federal government 2020 revision of standards relating to disability in education“many educators…did not have sufficient funding to support their (disabled) students.”
And it’s a problem that’s becoming more and more pressing.
Since 2015, the number of students with disabilities enrolled in Australian public schools has increased by 29 percent, according to the Australian Education Union. 2023 Report For Every Child.
The Disability Commission report states that “inadequate funding can mean that disabled students do not receive the adjustments they need for an inclusive education”.
It recommended that federal and state governments “refine funding for students with disabilities” to ensure it “bears a close relationship to the true cost of supporting students with disabilities in the classroom.”
All-inclusive changes don’t cost much
Dr Armstrong says there are public schools in Australia that already support and include students with disabilities in the school community.
He cites Footscray High School in Melbourne’s west and Tagai State College in the Torres Strait as “models that we can use that really contribute to inclusion and help high-needs children stay in the mainstream.” ordinary education and to flourish.
“Many schools are already doing it (inclusive education),” he says.
“It can be done.”
He says there is “a whole ecology” of approaches to improving mainstream classrooms for people with disabilities – and not all of them cost money.
“A lot of it is an attitude thing,” he says.
“For example, talking to a child and asking them what they need and asking them to show you what they can do has no monetary value… It’s a simple thing. It costs nothing. This gives you a glimpse of what it can do. what are their functioning levels and you can then define appropriate (school) work.
Dr Armstrong believes the report of the Royal Commission on Disability presents an important opportunity for change.
“We can do it. But it needs support and buy-in from the sector, and obviously also political support,” he says.
Ms Lee agrees and says change must be led by the disability community.
“Let the disability community work and decide…on our terms, for our people.”
She says it is essential that people with disabilities are “in the driver’s seat,” determining how inclusive learning environments can and should work.
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