Kate de Bruin

Are regular classroom teachers really not qualified to teach students with special needs?

Sure enough, representatives of parent and teacher groups have emerged to back Senator Pauline Hanson’s claims that children with ‘autism and disabilities’ should be removed from mainstream classroom.

Primary principals in south western Sydney were reported as saying a shortage of places in special schools and classes is leading to the placement of students with disability or special needs into regular classes with a teacher who is “not sufficiently qualified”.

No description of the necessary qualifications was provided in the article but the implication was clear: special qualifications are needed to teach special students. In other words, a regular teacher education qualification just doesn’t cut it.

At about the same time Dr James Morton, who is Chairman of the AEIOU Foundation and parent of a child with autism, in an interview on ABC radio criticised universities for failing to prepare teachers to teach students with disability. His chief complaint was that units specialising in autism are not mandatory in undergraduate teacher education programs and accused universities of not investing in Australia’s future.

Then we had Professor Kenneth Wiltshire of the UQ Business School who argued via an opinion piece that the states had pulled a “con job… late last century” by promising “disabled students could become mainstream in every way by being included in conventional schools”. He then claims the states only supported inclusion because they were “cost-cutting by closing many special schools”.

While confused and lacking any supporting evidence, Wiltshire’s article echoes points made in the other two examples:

  1. special students need to be educated by special teachers in special places,
  2. regular classroom teachers are not qualified to teach students with disability and/or universities are failing to adequately prepare them
  3. there are not enough special teachers and special places (because of inclusion and the closure of special schools).

Is there truth to any these claims?

In short, no.

Firstly, research consistently shows that educating students with disability in special places does not guarantee better academic or social outcomes, better employment prospects or post-school options and social inclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This does not mean that they will do well in mainstream schools built for a narrow range of students. It means that local schools must evolve to cater to the full range of students. And this means teachers and teacher preparation must also evolve.

The 2016 Australian Senate Report made recommendations for teaching skills that would improve workforce capacity for inclusion: universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning.

With this knowledge, teachers can identify what support students need to access the curriculum, engage in classroom activities, and achieve at school. These skills are emphasised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which since 2012 have underpinned the accreditation of university teacher education courses.

The Standards make clear that all classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disability and/or additional needs. To be accredited, university teacher education courses must also cover four key focus areas that directly relate to students with disability: (i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, (ii) supporting learning of students with disability, (iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and (iv) managing challenging behaviour.

Every graduating teacher must provide evidence that they meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach. To maintain their annual registration, existing teachers must provide evidence that they have engaged in professional learning relating to the Standards.

Clearly, there is a framework to ensure that registered classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disabilities and/or additional needs, and for universities to prepare their graduates to do so. The benefits are seen in numerous schools and classrooms across the country, but there is scope for both teacher preparation programs and schools to embrace inclusive teaching practices.

Finally, the claim that places in special schools and classes have declined because of inclusion and the subsequent closure of special schools is completely false.

This is clear from a range of data sources.

 Research from New South Wales has shown that proportion of enrolments in separate special educational settings in Australia’s largest education system has been increasing since the 1990s. In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking.

These findings are supported by national data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) which shows that there was a 35% increase in the number of students with disability attending special schools between 2003 and 2015.

But most telling is this: Prior to the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act, before we signed the 1994 Salamanca Statement, and before “inclusion” was really a thing, there were 444 special schools accounting for 4.4% of all schools in Australia.

Almost three decades later — after the 2005 Disability Standards for Education, the 2008 Melbourne Declaration, and a multitude of reviews and inquiries nationally – there are now 461 special schools, accounting for 4.9% of Australian schools.

That represents an 11% increase in the number of special schools and this has occurred despite evidence that inclusion leads to more positive outcomes for students with disability.

We may well be living in a post-truth world but none of the empirical evidence supports the claims being made by Hanson’s backers.

 

Professor Linda Graham works in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education and leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT), and is a member of the Board for All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education. She has published more than 80 books, chapters and journal articles, and is leading two current large scale projects investigating educational responses to students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Linda blogs at drlindagraham.wordpress.com.au and can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

Dr Kate de Bruin works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University Her current research investigates evidence-informed practice and policy in inclusive education, with a focus developing teacher capacity for using inclusive pedagogies in ways that improve equity and quality schooling for all students, and she regularly provides professional learning to school teachers in these areas. She has worked with government departments on projects such as the Victorian Inclusion Support Programme, and the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for Students with Disabilities.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She worked as a special teacher in mainstream settings before she completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield, UK, in inclusive education. She has worked in inclusive education in three countries: as a researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece, before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her current research projects focus on inclusive policy and practice within a rights perspective. A common thread of this work is a conceptual understanding of inclusive education as a transformation project requiring a paradigmatic shift in perceptions of both ability and education. Her publications include the book ‘Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice’ (co-authored with A.C. Armstrong and D. Armstrong) published by Sage in 2010.