On 21 March 2018 the NSW Government provided its Response to the report of the NSW Legislative Council Portfolio Committee No.3 into “Education of students with a disability or special needs in New South Wales” (Report).
At that time All Means All noted that the Report was:
“… highly problematic as it reveals a fundamental inconsistency between the principles of inclusive education, which it purports to support, and the recommendations that it makes, ostensibly in pursuit of those principles.”
While Recommendation 1 of the Report was that “the NSW Government formalise a presumption applicable to all New South Wales schools that a child is to be educated in an inclusive mainstream setting”, Recommendation 10 sought that “the NSW Department of Education increase [segregated] support classes in mainstream schools to adequately meet student need.”
As expected, the NSW Government’s Response unequivocally “supports” Recommendation 10:
“Support class establishments will increase in 2018 at a greater rate than general enrolment growth, consistent with trends in recent years. The trend since 2012 is for the majority of new support classes to be established in mainstream schools.”
This means the continuation of the accelerating increase in students with disability being placed in segregated classes and settings, rather than in inclusive general education classes. It is accordingly not surprising that the NSW Government could only suggest that its support for Recommendation 1, the presumption that students with disability were to be educated in an inclusive mainstream setting, would be “in principle”. Further, the response to Recommendations 11 and 12 which provide for the collection of data of the number of students denied enrollment in segregated support classes, appears to be tailor-made to justify future growth of segregation on the basis of “demand” and notwithstanding the complex factors that drive such demand being based on poor implementation of inclusive education, including discriminatory gate-keeping, poor practices and denial of reasonable accommodation, lack of training and support for teachers, school culture, etc.
While there are some steps in the right direction and the sentiment of the Report and the Response to advance the educational experience of students with disability is welcomed, as we previously noted, at its core the Report invited, and has now received, a NSW Government response for the “entrenchment of the status quo and a direction away from human rights and best evidence”.
As defined in the UN’s General Comment No. 4 (the guidance instrument for Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, released in 2016 and not even acknowledged in the Report):
“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.” [para 11]
The fundamental issue with Recommendation 10 is that the Parliamentary Committee appears to have accepted, contrary to the clear definition of “inclusive education” in international human rights instruments, the submissions of disability advocacy organisations and basic logic, the position advanced by some groups that segregated education settings for students with disability are not incompatible with inclusion. We note for example, the statement from the NSW Primary Principals Association stating that “there is in fact a place – and a need – for support units and special schools, and that the presence of such settings can be reconciled with an inclusive approach to education”. Similarly, the Committee reported that “many representatives of the special education sector, maintained that students with disabilities should not be subject to a ‘one-size fits all’ approach and need access to the educational setting that can draw the best learning outcomes”.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding and convenient distortion of the principles of inclusive education and the adoption of universal design for learning frameworks in general education schools. Fundamentally, inclusive education is about ensuring that the general education system itself is not built on a “one size fits all” assumption and instead, through appropriate design, differentiation and individual adjustments where necessary at the general education classroom level, equitable access and authentic participation by every student in general education classrooms can be achieved. As noted by NSW inclusive education academic expert and researcher Dr. Ilektra Spandagou “The aim is to take decisive step to restructure the education system to be inclusive for all students. Support classes is a Trojan horse.”
It is particularly disappointing that the Committee, and now the NSW Government have chosen to give weight to the views of vested interests over the moral and human rights imperative of inclusive education. It is worth noting the recent candid comments from the European Human Rights Commissioner in the context of European countries that identified the role that “vested interests” play in the entrenchment of segregated education and the resistance to inclusive education:
“Strong vested interests in the area of education can explain a certain passivity on the part of states in tackling segregated education. Decision-makers and political leaders, school administrations, teachers and families can sometimes actively resist changes that may alter situations of relative privilege in education. The capacity of these actors to articulate their demands and to raise their criticism of government policies is much higher than the ability of vulnerable families to fight for the right of their children to education.”
Inclusive education is a human rights matter defined under a UN Convention that has been ratified by Australia; its character is not a matter to be determined by individual Principals associations or parent advocates or political representatives.
The rise of segregated education for students with disability in Australia has already been raised by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the context of its review of Australia’s report on its compliance with the International Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:
“As for persons with disabilities and inclusive education, there was evidence of a rise in segregated education. What measures … [is] the Government taking to ensure inclusive education across the country?”
As Australia’s most populous State, the NSW Government Response threatens to further compromise any national attempt to arrest the systemic growth in segregated education in Australia.
In that regard it is noted with interest that the Introduction to the NSW Government’s Response states:
“Enrolment [as to setting] should primarily be a matter of well-informed parental choice.”
All Means All acknowledges that within Australia this is a positive shift in governmental position – for too long parents have been left to “choose” without proper information, without regard to the research evidence and without any understanding that their child, over and above Australian and State statutory rights, has a human right at international law to receive an inclusive education alongside and together with their same-age non-disabled peers.
On that point, it is a convenient coincidence that on the same day that the NSW Government Response was tabled, All Means All, together with a number of associations in Australia and around the world, and with the support of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, released an international video campaign to promote the human right to an inclusive education and the impact of segregated education on life-long outcomes.
You can read our Media Release about the “Lea Goes to School” video and the #IncludeUsFromTheStart campaign. The campaign website www.includeusfromthestart.com provides further information about the global effort for the promotion of inclusive education.
[Cover photo © Sacha Styles]