May.15.2017

Expensive new government funded website for schools fails to deliver

By Ilektra Spandagou and Linda Graham and Ben Whitburn

Students with disabilities often struggle in Australian schools. There have been many inquiries and reports over the years that tell us this. Of course, students with disability struggle for a range of reasons but a major one is the lack of funding for support materials that can be used by teachers with the responsibility of educating them. So when funds do become available it is very important for them to be spent carefully and wisely.

Our post is about a new resource, the Leading Learning 4 all website, which was commissioned by the Australian government in response to the latest review of the Disability Standards for Education in 2015. The resource aims to promote inclusive school practices but we believe it makes some fundamental mistakes.

We decided to air our concerns here because it might help raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully improve future support and resources for teachers involved in educating children with disability.

What is “Leading Learning 4 all”?

Leading Learning 4 all is a website developed by the Australian Special Education Principals Association and built by Schoolzine Pty Ltd.  The idea for the website is it that it will be a place where teachers and schools can go for ideas and to learn strategies that will help them with the education of children with disability. The website aims to develop a repository of inclusive teaching practices across Australia, which will be added to over time.

It claims to be organised around the Disability Standards for Education for Australian schools and is aimed at school leaders. It cost taxpayers $622,000.

We believe this was money poorly spent and a great opportunity wasted.

The bulk of the resources available on this site are in the form of videos and schools are invited to upload their own.

The website states that these videos “are not intended to be crafted, professionally directed pieces”. The idea is if teachers and schools upload their own videos of what they are doing with their students with disabilities, this will help develop a repository of practice that will be useful to others looking for help.

Although this signals respect for the teaching profession, it also assumes that school practitioners have the means and technical know-how to generate videos that are appropriate for broader use.

One fundamental problem with this site is poor modelling

Teachers and school leaders will look towards the existing videos on the site as a guide. We should expect they would be good models of the things teachers and schools might aim for.

For starters, the videos are both low-tech and low quality, so on a production level alone they do not provide a good model for amateur video producers to work towards.

But we have identified far more serious problems with the videos on this site.

For now, we will highlight just three: poor accessibility, flawed representation of students with disability, and incorrect interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education.

Poor accessibility

The provision of accessibility, such as text captioning—to enable access to information and equitable participation—is basic to any resource intended for students with a disability.

At the time of our investigation of the website, there was a video with the captions presented in the Dutch language and two videos with no captioning at all. The remaining videos only had auto-generated captioning by YouTube.

This practice does not comply with international accessibility expectations and organisations have been asked to lift their game. For example, the US Ministry of Justice last year ruled that the automatically generated captions on Berkeley University’s YouTube channel “were inaccurate and incomplete, making the content inaccessible to individuals with hearing disabilities”.

This is not the only accessibility problem with the videos and we have listed others below:

  • no pre-recorded sign language, or available scripts of the videos
  • continual background music in the videos that could distort what viewers hear
  • many resources are in PDF format, which means they need to be downloaded and filled-in, presumably using a pen or pencil. No other formats are provided
  • no glossary or plain English information
  • no contacts for translation or interpreting services. While the website can be translated using Google Translate, this service lacks accuracy in translating policy and legislation. In a multilingual society like Australia providing support to families from non-English speaking background to access information in their language is an essential advocacy practice
  • The information provided for sensory disability (as a handout) makes no reference to digital accessibility. In our fast-changing technological world, teachers need to be aware of how technology can be both a facilitator and a barrier to students with disability

Flawed representations of students with disability

Students are present in just 7 of the 17 videos available on the website in the Interpreting the Disability Standards for Education section. In these 7 videos, 11 of the 12 students featured have an obvious disability.

One indicative video in the section Reasonable Adjustments with the title ‘Adjustments in the Curriculum’, has the credit “Sue and Students, Teacher [school name]”. The teacher, Sue, is sitting between two girls and starts talking to the camera:

“The two girls are from grade 3/4. One is a hearing-impaired girl and the other girl is not hearing impaired. They both work on Maths on money recognition and simple addition and equivalency. And they are working with me together in the deaf facility because they are at a similar level and it gives them some focus with me in a smaller group situation. So girls, let’s have a look…”

Sue keeps talking to the girls for another two seconds and the video ends. The ‘girls’, who have no names and no voice and who have been introduced by their impairment (or lack thereof), are treated more like props than thinking, feeling humans.

This is a huge concern because a central feature of inclusive education is the use of person-first language. While there are exceptions with some communities or individuals electing to be known as ‘Deaf’ or ‘Autistic’, this is a personal choice and should not be assumed.

School children should therefore never be referred to as a ‘hearing impaired girl’ or a ‘Down syndrome boy’ because of the risk that they will be defined by their disability. Disability is only ever an aspect of humanity and not the sum of who a person is. The respectful use of language should be a basic consideration in any resource relating to inclusive education.

It is also not at all clear what adjustment is being made in this video example, what relevance this adjustment has to hearing impairment, or why the lesson needs to occur in the deaf facility, especially when the second girl is not hearing impaired.

Rather than an exemplar of inclusive practice, this video example appears to be about reverse integration—a concept that is deeply entrenched in special education traditions.

Interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education

Both the 2012 and the 2015 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education have commented on the lack of confidence that schools and teachers feel in interpreting the key terms of the Standards. Despite the emphasis on training, schools still struggle with the concepts of ‘on the same basis as’, ‘consultation’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’, which are all examples of the key terms of the Standards.

The examples provided in the Leading Learning 4 all website do not assist in clarifying these terms. They instead provide a poor model to guide practice. This is exemplified in a video on ‘consulting with students’ where collaboration between teachers and a physiotherapist to develop a fitness program to enable a student’s participation in sport is discussed, without once mentioning whether or how the student was consulted in the process.

Why the problems with this site need to be fixed

Everyone involved in the education of students with disability should understand the fundamental concepts and practices underpinning inclusive education; concepts as simple as ‘consultation’ and practices as important as using person-first language.

We strongly support the development of quality resources for teachers and schools to enhance their inclusive practices. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s Leading Learning 4 all website falls short of this aim and may lead well-meaning educators to unknowingly engage in practices that are both discriminatory toward, and stigmatising of, students with disability.

Rather than addressing poor practice, this website risks perpetuating it. And, if the Australian Government’s own inclusion website does not model inclusive practice, who will?

An example of videos that DO model expectations and good practice

We thought you might like to see what we do consider to be a great example of modelling and expectations.

The Reasonable Adjustments Project developed in England produced a manual and DVDs in 2005. The DVDs are now available on YouTube. They are of high quality and consistently use sign language interpretation and embedded subtitles.

The Leading Learning 4 all website represents a costly, missed opportunity for the Australian Government to do the same for the Australian school context.

 

Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has been involved in teacher education in special and inclusive education both in Greece and Australia. She has experience working with general and special education teachers in the area of theories of inclusive education, and the nexus of policy and school practice. Ilektra’s research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her publications include the book Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice.

Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

 

Ben Whitburn is a Lecturer of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Ben draws on critical disability studies, policy sociology, and insider perspectives to research and teach principles of inclusive schooling in theory, policy and teacher practice. He tweets @BenWhitburn

 

17 thoughts on “Expensive new government funded website for schools fails to deliver

  1. Kate de Bruin says:

    Thanks for this piece Ilektra, Linda and Ben. Your critique notes the key elements that should be required of all educational resources – accessibility, respectful language, and grounding in Commonwealth disability policy & legislation. These should be the standards to which all resources are held, but are particularly salient for any resources designed to support school inclusion and diverse students.

  2. Linda Graham says:

    Thank you for your comment, Kate. We look forward to a response from the Australian government or ASEPA as to how and when these problems will be addressed. In the meantime, we continue to refer students directly to the DDA and Standards for Education.

  3. We are pleased to see a review of the Leading Learning 4 All website and in particular of the exemplars of practice that are being provided. This review echoes similar concerns that have been expressed to us in relation to some of the content and, previously, some of the tools developed to support educators to support students with disability.

    While we acknowledge that there is some good content on this website, it is critical that a resource that is being put forward by the Australia government to support the inclusion of students with disability in mainstream schools consistently with applicable law and policy and in light of Article 24 of the UN CRPD and the clarification provided by General Comment No4, meet an appropriate standard for inclusive practice. The fact that such standard is not consistently reflected by the resource is disappointing but perhaps not unexpected – the idea that the Association of Special Education Principals (i.e. Principals of segregated special schools and education support units) hold the appropriate expertise on delivering inclusive practice in mainstream schools seems illogical given their expertise is in delivering education services to students with disability in segregated settings. This concern was previously raised by Starting With Julius.

    This is not to say that special educators do not have a valid contribution to make but to engage special education experts to lead and undertake this project without at the very least co-design and co-leardership with inclusive education experts seems not only wasteful but fundamentally misguided. We hope the Australian government considers a review of content by inclusive education experts so that educators seeking to support diverse learners in mainstream schools can be confident that they are being guided by inclusive education best practice.

    All Means All Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education

  4. Catia Panetta says:

    Thank you for this. I was curious to see how the website stacks up agains inclusive practice. It has always worried me that special education principals were tasked to develop this resource, I mean you don’t ask the midwives association to develop a resource on best practices in dental care? Why not ask inclusion experts? A general education classroom is fundamentally different to a special school/centre classroom and I want people who can advise my son’s teachers on the best way to deliver education services to my child in the general education environment. “Special ed” practice in many cases does not transport well into a general education environment. Also, as a parent who has chosen general education as the best place for my child with a disability (based on research, not whim), I have expressly turned down special education so why would I want to special school principals to lead on how to educate my child?

  5. Great to see a comprehensive review. I too noticed the teacher who referred to the hearing impaired girls. I don’t think at all that this piece of video demonstrated inclusion in anyway. The language used was deficit based and the students were obviously excluded from the rest of their peers.
    I think that the Site developers would have benefited from input from inclusive education advocates not just the special education groups.
    Even though I was pleased to see an article of mine on the site…most articles and resources were open source or freely available online. In itself this is not an issue but I would have liked to see peer reviewed resources.
    As a parent of a young man with a disability who I needed to advocate for his education, I think the website could have added more parent perspectives about inclusive education. There are many open source docs from a number of parent advocate groups that could have been included that weren’t.
    The issues of accessibility noted in your blog is inexcusable for a website about inclusion and disability.
    Thank you for working together to make these issues apparent to those who may not be aware of the minimum requirements of a truly inclusive resource!

  6. Peter Walker says:

    This article raises important points regarding voices that are foregrounded within ‘inclusive’ discourse.
    As a lead body for Special Education leaders, ASEPA (funded to create LL4All) should absolutely have had a voice in this conversation.
    They do, however, consider “inclusive debate” as a potential danger to the range of special education programs currently in existence LINK to ASEPA website and, furthermore, challenge inclusion as actually being ‘about’ regular school placement. This doesn’t align with the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
    Australia is a signatory to the CRPD, which defines options outside of ‘regular schooling’ as educational segregation. ASEPA, meanwhile, advocates strongly and consistently for the ‘full range’ of alternatives to regular schooling.
    There appears to therefore be a significant discrepancy between what we’ve signed an agreement to do as a nation (the CRPD), and the resources we’re funding, the voices we’re privileged within such resources, and the resultant advice provided to our school leaders.
    I’m not arguing against the importance of ASEPA and the relevance of their being involved in LL4All. I’m arguing for less incongruity – through the greater inclusion, and equity, of others’ voices.
    In providing very early feedback on LL4All, I pointed out that the audit tool, to be used by school leaders, was biased towards identifying that students with disabilities belonged outside of mainstream schools LINK to Peter Walker on Twitter. To ASEPA’s credit (after some community pressure), they recognized what they called an ‘unintended bias’, and rectified the issue by changing the tool. But would such an error have made it past the ‘draft’ stage had more diverse voices been utilized within the construction and trialing of the resource…? I suspect not.

  7. Linda Graham says:

    Thanks for that information, Peter, it was very interesting! I took a look at the ASEPA link and was immediately disappointed. I have copied it below because there are several problematic statements in here:
    —–

    “ASEPA sees the importance of advocating for the full range of education services for students with disabilities from local school through to specialised school enrolment. As part of the inclusion debate there is a danger of reduced program options and parental and carers choice. ASEPA places priority on developing and increasing the range of programs to meet both student needs and parents and carer choice. ASEPA is in the process of writing a position paper on this action area.”
    ——-

    First, there is no “inclusion debate”. Such wording undermines the legitimacy of inclusive education and that kind of language is never accidental.

    Second, the notion of choice for parents of children with disability is a complete furphy. If they’re in the government system then their child’s enrolment is decided by a placement panel. Places are limited so the reality for most parents is that they have no choice: it’s an illusion.

    This is especially the case for low-SES parents and parents of students with behaviour disorders. The first group does not have the advocacy power of high-SES parents and the second group (in NSW anyway) has no power of veto on that placement decisoin. Of course, their kid can choose and they do: by not attending.

    That brings me to another point, which is glossed over by the above statement by ASEPA and that is: if local schools are inclusive (in the fullest sense of the word), then there would be no need for parents to HAVE to choose.

    Report after report from multiple inquiries features comments from parents who feel they have NO choice because the local school is not inclusive. Many would prefer their child to be with their siblings, for example, but have ended up in a special school or support class (some which operate as surrogate special schools) because of a lack of support in the local school or because they are frightened that their child will not be supported.

    This, incidentally, is what the LL4a resource is supposed to address but as we note above it is inadequate to the task.

    A parallel special education system lets the “mainstream” off the hook; allowing it to engage in exclusionary tactics by providing alternative places for the students that system chooses not to serve.

    Inclusive education proponents have made that point for years and it is extremely disappointing to see the Australian government commission the development of a resource aimed at developing more inclusive schools from an organisation that would have to work against its own declared interests in order to achieve the outcome.

    I look forward to the position paper.

  8. Fiona Forbes says:

    May 16th 2017

    A response to the recent AARE blog post

    Educating students with disability is, and has always been, a highly contentious area. Understandably there are strong opinions, honestly expressed.

    Academic experts around the world have been fighting an ideological battle for decades regarding provision for Students with Disability and Additional Needs, with not much evidence of cohesive positive actions for the school sector.

    None of the authors of this blog post have contacted Leading Learning 4 All to discuss the negative viewpoints they have voiced. LL4All has been explicit in stating that it welcomes contributions to the task of enhancing what is, and always will be, a series of starting points. We remain open to feedback about the website, its content and functionality.

    LL4All will continue to evolve and in so doing will take account of the accessibility issues raised in the blog in our next version of the website. Our ‘Practitioner in Action starting point videos’ for schools will be refreshed and added to with additional accessibility features. Where possible we will add transcripts to existing videos.

    This resource is by Australian practitioners for Australian practitioners, and with Australian content. It provides support for schools on their respective journey in enabling them to reflect on their vision and actions to learning for all Australian students.

    LL4All constitutes a starting point. We welcome dialogue with the authors of this blog so that, in the spirit of collegiality and professionalism, we can maximise and add value to the work that is ongoing.

    Yours sincerely

    Fiona Forbes
    Director
    Leading Learning 4 All

  9. Ben Whitburn says:

    Dear Fiona

    Thanks for your response to the article. What is immediately obvious in your considered reply is your characterisation of a deeply divided field of disability education, one apparently dismissed as an ‘ideological battle ground’ populated by academics who controvert policy and practice. This limited argument has been made persistently over the past 30 years by proponents of medical-based special education, and it does little to further a unified development of inclusive approaches to schooling. Along these grounds I would put it to you that the development of an education in Australia that is inclusive of all is beholden on all of us. Part of this is, among other things, the use of carefully selected language that does not invoke metaphors of war and division, nor political posturing in relation to the development of resources.
    At the risk of you categorising us as ideological, I’d like to point out that we each work as teacher educators and researchers seeking to address systemic marginalisation of students with—among other things—disability, as well as their families. This is inherently practical work. It more often than not has us going out and spending time with families to learn about their experiences. In the university lecture theatre, the role of the teacher educator invariably involves instructing pre-service teachers on appropriate practice as mandated by the Disability Standards, and how to appropriately partner with families, carers and other professionals to ensure an appropriate level of support for students’ needs, while planning to cater to their strengths and develop their learning. To foreground their inclusion in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy, not their marginalisation from particular classroom activities.
    In my research, many young people with disabilities and their families have expressed again and again their disappointment in not being listened to, nor the choices availed them in relation to their schooling settings. These findings have been substantiated in reports such as the 2016 Senate Inquiry, and are perpetuated in matters of access to the NDIS, particularly in its links to education.
    My purpose in describing these issues relates to our having published this blog post. We seek to make these concerns public well beyond the readership of Leading Learning 4 All, and have done so in a forum that accepts contributions that are not vetted by an editor who may well characterise the field similar to the way that you have.
    That you are open to developing the site in a way that accounts for our grievances about accessibility makes for a welcome response. The necessity to partner with families as a rich resource to support the learning of young people with disabilities in schools would be another. Issues such as these might have been made explicit up front, and in the spirit of collegiate sharing, we might ask that your organisation consults with us to develop the site in the future. As you will have seen, we have made a suggestion about a resource from the UK that commences from a conceptualisation of education as one in which diverse ways of living and access are an inherent part of working inclusively.

    With thanks

    Ben

  10. Dear Fiona
    It is great to see that you will welcome dialogue with the authors of the blog. Most of us in the field were not aware of the development of the LL4All site and would love to be involved in providing feedback if appropriate.

    I am not sure I can agree with you that the authors of the blog were engaging in an “ideological battle”. I think we are well beyond discussing ideologies in this education sector. The research about the value of inclusive education has overwhelmingly supported the inclusion of students with disability in schools with their same age peers. Beyond the ideology, inclusive education is a human right as reflected in the Salamanca Statement and the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities.
    As an academic, teacher and parent of a young man with a disability, I hope that the education for all means that it is based on sound research and of course the international commitments to inclusive education.

  11. Peter Walker says:

    At the beginning of March I provided feedback to LL4All regarding my initial concerns. (Highlighted at the bottom of my reply.)
    On the 7th of March I received a response from LL4All which indicated that NO change would be made, even though my communication clearly pointed out an unfair bias towards alternative placements. (Perhaps this was ideological?)
    It was not until many others, not just ‘academics’, but families, parents, and advocates, echoed these concerns, that changes were made. There was clearly an initial resistance to changing a guiding document which stated that students with disabilities should never ‘always’ belong in regular schooling. In a resource on inclusion, this is highly problematic. I am glad that it was eventually changed, as it should have been.
    I am also glad to hear that LL4All remains ‘open to feedback’. Being ‘open to feedback’ afterwards, however, is a very different experience to having diverse voices included from the conception of a resource. An organization, such as ASEPA, whose catch cry is ‘build us in, don’t bolt us on’, would be highly conscious of this.

  12. Max Davey says:

    Disappointing to see the negative nature of the feedback of this resource. It was launched in Tasmania as a starting point for conversation and not necessarily the answer, but a resource to generate discussion. It provides opportunity for this and therefore for growth in our understandings. Personally I would like to say thank you for the time and thought put into developing this.

  13. Cátia Panetta says:

    As a parent and an advocate for my child I frankly do not want a government funded resource on inclusive practice to be “a resource to generate discussion”. We don’t need discussion, we need good quality and clear information on best inclusive practice, consistent with research and human rights.

  14. Max says:

    We have the DSE but this alone does not change culture or practice. However guided informed discussions amongst beginning teachers, school leaders, ancillary staff have the potential to do this and are a crucial part of our journey of school improvement and deep cultural change. Manuals and procedure documents, in my experience, serve to enforce compliance – schools with inclusive cultures do not need these- as they just do not know any other way.

  15. Sue Tape says:

    As a parent and advocate for my children, I choose inclusion. I am concerned that this genuine review of a funded resource is being positioned as combative. I want educators and researchers to be challenged. I want to see a community of experts sharing ideas and supportive of true inclusion. Our family has experienced both a special education environment and mainstream. We choose inclusion. I want practitioners from local community schools to share their experiences. We can all do better and dismissing criticisms on ideological grounds is distressing for families.

  16. Fiona Anderson says:

    I am the mother of a 21 year old university student with severe disability – in an economically affluent nation where only 30% of students with disability complete Year 12. In addition to the comments made already by parents and advocates, I make a plea that every element of this resource is clearly outcomes-focused, ie be crystal clear how this video/guide/information supports effective teaching, learning and inclusion of students with disability, which is the foundation for post-school learning, employment and active social and civic participation In adult life. In 2017 it is tiresome to discuss, much less debate inclusion. Australian schools and teachers just need to have the practical resources to do it.

  17. Trevor McCandless says:

    The second video on the harassment and victimisation page of the Learning4all site has a young boy pointing out at the ‘mainstream kids’ and I believe everything about this 30 seconds of film shows how unsafe this child feels. It is also seems to be virtually the only time a child is given an authentic voice on the entire website and it is heartbreaking.

    Comparing what this child has lived through in being ‘included’ with the stunning video from the UK linked at the bottom of blog post does much to make your point.

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