The Queensland Department of Education and Training (DET) has made a commitment “to inclusive education and continuous improvement to maximise education outcomes for students with disability.”
It is a welcome commitment especially in light of recent findings that segregated education in Australia is on the rise, and that the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) ranks our education system 39 out of 41 when compared with other high and middle income countries.
However, does that commitment accord with the reality of the delivery of education services to students with disability in Queensland? If it did then the State of Queensland could rightly claim to be the stand out performer when it comes to the education of students with disability in Australia, with its head well above the murky waters of national education performance.
A recent review of education for students with disability in Queensland State schools by Deloitte Access Economics (2017) suggests that this is not the case, with key adverse findings and recommendations in relation to inclusion, improvement, and maximised outcomes for students with disability.
Notably, the report identified widespread equivocal understanding of the term “inclusive education” and the characteristics, goals and practices of inclusion, with the term being commonly used as a synonym for special education in general, including segregated delivery of education to students with disability.
Such a finding was perhaps more readily explicable a decade ago, when the United Nations Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities was first established, which includes the first legally binding international human rights obligation to ensure an inclusive education system. But today, the matter of the definition of “inclusive education” has been settled. In October 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRP Committee) issued a clear and authoritative definition of inclusive education (in General Comment No. 4) which includes the following statement:
“Inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences.”
It also states that “Segregation occurs when the education of students with disabilities is provided in separate environments designed or used to respond to a particular or various impairments, in isolation from students without disabilities” and that “Integration is a process of placing persons with disabilities in existing mainstream educational institutions, as long as the former can adjust to the standardized requirements of such institutions.”
For those working within the system and needing to develop clear understanding and practice of inclusive education, the challenges faced were starkly illustrated when, in that same year, a Queensland State Special School, which is by its very nature providing segregated education within the meaning of the UNCRP Committee’s definition, won the prestigious “Showcase Award for Excellence in Inclusive Education“.
Unfortunately the concerns identified by the report do not stop with definitions and categorisations. The review further identified significant system-wide shortcomings in delivery of education to students with disability.
Some of these findings include:
- a lack of awareness and understanding of the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (DSE) and their implications for school leadership and practice;
- a lack of inclusive vision, and direction resulting in weak signals to schools around the expectation and implementation of inclusive schooling practices;
- a lack of a specific reporting framework allowing the outcomes of students with disability to be monitored and measured appropriately and explicitly included in performance, accountability and reporting mechanisms;
- a lack of sector-wide evaluation of programs, initiatives, and systematic activity;
- a lack of research on evidence-based educational practice and review of what works in schools;
- a lack of effective governance and leadership in the space of inclusion;
- a lack of understanding around what successful outcomes for students with a disability are, and how they can be achieved; and
- a lack of effective engagement with parents.
The report deliberates that, in general, Queensland State schools are not currently universally equipped to educate all students with disability to a contemporary standard, and as a result parents are subjected to a range of influences to discourage their child’s enrollment in regular schools and classrooms, whilst students with disability endure greater use of school disciplinary actions as well as the use of restrictive practices – with no centralised data collection or analysis.
It is then not surprising to read that many schools and teachers struggle to implement practice in line with a whole school approach, or that there is a lack of teacher capability and time to appropriately differentiate lessons. All this results in defaulting to the old practice – “special teachers” delivering “special services” in “special settings” to “special students” – a practice that actually goes against the overwhelming research evidence of the last 40 years that establishes that inclusion of students with disability produces better social, academic and lifelong economic participation outcomes than segregation.
It is clear that school Principals, leadership teams and teaching staff are in desperate need of support to build knowledge and skills in inclusive education, to pursue cultural transformation, and to develop and deliver pedagogical frameworks that support the effective education of all students.
It is hoped that the DET will take concrete measures to address these shortcomings in the system and ensure that its commitment to an inclusive education system can be realised. It is concerning however that the DET’s newly released response plan fails to address core issues such as clarity around the meaning of “inclusive education” and the need to ensure that measures and practices to support students with disability are compliant with the goal of inclusive education as defined by the UNCRPD Committee.
Without strong commitment and measures to eliminate widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes inclusive education and the practices that are aligned to it, remediating inclusion out of the trenches of segregation will not be realised – and the outcomes for students with disability will continue coming up short under a “feel good blanket” of “don’t we already do inclusion?” and frequently repeated platitudes like “inclusion is not a one-size fits all” – each masking poor and dissonant practices.