The Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education (Committee) that was tasked to inquire into and report on the provision of education to students with a disability in government and non-government schools in New South Wales, has delivered its report into “Education of students with a disability or special needs in New South Wales” (Report).
Many of the findings are significant and some of the recommendations of the Report are welcomed, if for the most part expected:
- the NSW Government formalise a presumption that “a child is to be educated in an inclusive mainstream setting, unless there are compelling individual reasons for other arrangements” [Recommendation 1];
- educational progress of students with a disability be reported annually by the Minister for Education to the NSW Parliament [Recommendation 2];
- the NSW Government work with the Commonwealth Government to ensure that adequate needs-based funding is provided to meet the needs of students with disability [Recommendation 4];
- the NSW Government review its Education Disability Criteria to ensure it is in keeping with contemporary understandings of disability [Recommendation 7];
- the NSW Department of Education implement a system for gathering data about the school setting for students with a disability from each school district, with tracking that monitors the numbers who attend special and mainstream settings [Recommendation 13];
- School Learning and Support Teams are adequately trained, resourced, staffed and remunerated to provide support to students, teachers and their schools [Recommendation 14];
- programs in schools are supported by peer-reviewed evidence of change in the trajectories of student outcomes over time [Recommendation 18];
- clearer guidance be provided to parents and schools about making reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities [Recommendation 20];
- better and/or mandatory training in the legal obligations and Disability Standards for Education for teachers and Principals [Recommendations 28, 29 and 30];
- improvements to complaint procedures for complaints regarding allegations of misconduct or reportable conduct [Recommendations 37, 38, 39]
However, the Report itself is also highly problematic as it reveals a fundamental inconsistency between the principles of inclusive education, which it purports to support, and the recommendations it makes, ostensibly in pursuit of those principles.
While the Committee states, albeit in a qualified way, that it “supports the cultural, legislative and policy shift from segregating students with disabilities and special needs to including them in mainstream schooling in all systems”, there are many areas of the Report that are fundamentally inconsistent with the achievement of this objective, but perhaps none more glaringly so than Recommendation 10:
That the NSW Department of Education increase support classes in mainstream schools to adequately meet student need.
While the Committee recognised the “United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international instrument specifically dedicated to disability within the context of human rights” ratified by Australia, as an overarching legal instrument that imposes “an obligation to recognise the fundamental rights of individuals with disabilities” it would appear that the Committee has in fact failed to understand the nature and scope of those obligations in relation to the right of students with disability to an inclusive education and the obligation of governments to implement an inclusive education system.
Notably, the Committee makes no mention of Article 24 of the Convention or indeed General Comment No. 4 on Article 24 which was released last year by the UN to clarify the definition of inclusive education as guidance to countries as to their obligations in relation to inclusive education.
It is clear from General Comment No. 4 which defines concepts such as “exclusion” “segregation”, “integration” and “inclusion”, that “special schools” and “special units” or “special classrooms” within mainstream schools are forms of segregated environments and cannot be defined as inclusive education (paragraph 11). The Comment also expressly called for countries to transfer resources from segregated to inclusive environments as part of the process of progressive realisation of obligations in Article 24.
While the Report purports to call for educational reform to address the crisis in education of students with disability in New South Wales and criticises the “stark contrast between the principles of inclusion promoted in our education system and the reality experienced by these children and their families”, its recommendations, if implemented, would have the opposite effect.
It is not enough to say that “a deep cultural change is necessary if students with disabilities and special needs are to be genuinely provided with the opportunity to reach their fullest potential” and that “the presumption of inclusive education across New South Wales” ought to be promoted, when the “solutions” presented to address those issues are, squarely, to increase educational segregation of students with disability. Given that this is exactly what has been happening over the last decade, a recommendation of this nature is simply a call for entrenchment of the status quo and a direction away from human rights and best evidence.
In this regard research has demonstrated the following about special (segregated) education settings in NSW.
- Enrolments in separate segregated settings (including support classes in mainstream schools) are increasing faster than total enrolments in NSW government schools (Sweller, Graham & Van Bergen, 2012).
- Enrolment growth is being fuelled by enrolments in the behaviour disorder category (Graham & Sweller, 2011).
- One third of NSW government special schools now cater specifically to students labelled with emotional and behavioural disorders (Graham, 2012).
- Boys from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous students are significantly overrepresented (Graham, 2012) and their overrepresentation is increasing (Sweller, Graham & Van Bergen, 2012).
- Reintegration to mainstream is rare and enrolments of up to four years are not uncommon (Granite & Graham, 2012).
- Research has noted high rates of absenteeism, drop-out and graduation to juvenile justice (Graham, Sweller & Van Bergen, 2010).
Notwithstanding these factors, submissions from school leaders, teacher unions and some parents for students with disability to be placed in segregated settings appear to have been given the greatest weight by the Committee, despite clear research evidence that:
- Students with disabilities included in regular education settings outperform their segregated peers socially and academically, have higher rates of attendance, are less likely to have behavioural problems, and are more likely to complete secondary school than students who have not been included.
- Including students with disabilities in regular education classes does not harm non-disabled students and some academic and social benefits have been found.
- Segregating students with disability through placement in special units and special schools increases the likelihood of those students being trapped in a separate “special” low expectation pathway to a future of social and economic exclusion.
It should be appreciated that it is often students with intellectual disability or who are Autistic or labelled as having “behaviour” problems, who are the ones being increasingly segregated under current approaches that have failed to adapt to providing accommodation to students with these types of support needs in regular education settings. One must ask whether the segregating response is driven by the best interests of the student or a change-adverse regular schooling system.
It was disappointing to see 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 found 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” which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of inclusive education and the adoption of universal design for learning frameworks in general education schools as well as contrary to the research evidence outlined above. In fact, ensuring that we have an education system that is designed on the assumption that “one size doesn’t fit all” is at the very core of inclusive education and the universal design approach – that with appropriate design, differentiation and accommodations we can ensure equitable access and authentic participation by every student.
It is worth noting that Italy has not segregated its students since 1978 and that, since then, it has maintained a unified single education system for all students without special schools or segregated units or classrooms – that is over 40 years of educational practice on how this can be achieved. Similarly, in New Brunswick in Canada, a fully inclusive public educational model has been adopted and students, regardless of disability, do not attend segregated settings. In Australia we also find inclusive school models that welcome and accommodate all students in the same classrooms regardless of disability.
Importantly, the matter of what is inclusive education has been articulated clearly at the level of the United Nations, through an extensive consultative process over many years, led by human rights and education experts and people with disability, which has provided the most authoritative definition of the right to inclusive education. Put simply, it is not for the education sector – the school leaders, the teachers, the providers of education services – being the sector whose reform was in question in the first place, to determine what is and is not an inclusive approach to education and that segregated settings “can be reconciled with an inclusive approach to education”. That the Committee has done so given the clear human rights and evidence context, fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the Report.
There is no doubt that reform is needed, including urgently changing attitudes and mindset and up skilling teachers, education assistants and particularly school leaders, to educate the diverse body of learners comprising Australian school children but increasing segregation and separation of students with disability is not the way – not from a human rights perspective and not from a best evidence perspective.
It is deeply disappointing that the Report does not even attempt to move in the right direction towards inclusive education for all students in New South Wales. What is most concerning is that students with disability continue to pay the price of countless political and bureaucratic failures to understand the basic premise that inclusive education is incompatible with segregated educational provision for students with disability, and to commit to effective transition towards a single, properly resourced and culturally supported inclusive education system for all learners – a system where students with disability learn in the same classrooms, seated next to their non-disabled same-age peers and included in the same lesson.
All Means All is currently working on a response to the NSW Government in relation to the Report. If you would like to know more about this you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org[Cover photo © John Towner]