A primary school in Victoria made the news recently when it created a separate “naughty-naughty” class for children experiencing learning and behavioural difficulties. It is not the first school to have done this and it is unlikely to be the last.
Separate special educational settings are administratively attractive because resources can be consolidated and the effects of disruption can be contained. Schools sell the idea to themselves and others by claiming a smaller class will mean more individualised attention for difficult students and that this will lead to better outcomes.
If this were true, then there would be a wealth of research to support such decisions, right?
What the research says
International research evidence shows that concentrating children with learning and behavioural difficulties into separate settings leads to poorer outcomes because these children are segregated from prosocial peers from whom they can learn.
In separate classes and special schools, students with learning and behavioural difficulties learn negative attitudes and antisocial behaviours from each other. This is particularly the case when younger children are placed with older children, as the news story suggests is occurring in this Victorian primary school.
Research also indicates that the quality of learning in such settings tends to be low and that intellectual demand is almost non-existent. This can lead to an increase in achievement gaps over time.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have observed students playing computer games and watching Disney videos in “support” classes. So if we’re talking about better outcomes, the question becomes: for who? The excluded students or the students and teachers they are separated from?
Not surprisingly, research from New South Wales, where are there are many such settings, has found that students tend not to return to mainstream. Indeed, there is evidence that suggests segregation contributes to further decline with students in support classes graduating to special schools, students spending years in segregation bouncing from setting to setting, and even evidence suggesting that some students are graduating to juvenile detention.
Consider what it must be like to attend a school that has a total enrolment of 14 students? A school in which the youngest student might be 9 (or even 5, for the few K-12 behaviour schools) and the oldest 17? A school in which you have been placed because there are no places in a special school for students with autism and where all the other students have been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance or Conduct Disorder?
Imagine what it feels like to be told that you can’t return to mainstream until you ‘prove yourself’ by not reacting to those other students, each of whom finds it amusing to press your buttons until you explode?
Whilst the same study in NSW found that a slight majority of students preferred these settings, the majority also wanted to return to mainstream. The reasons behind these contradictory preferences were complex.
Those who preferred the special schools did so mainly because of more supportive teacher-student relationships, but also because they:
- got to go home at 1.30pm,
- did activities like wind-surfing and woodwork,
- were not being pushed academically, and
- had a games room with a Wii.
Those who wanted to return to mainstream (and some were in both camps) did so because they missed their friends or wanted to have the potential to make friends with same-age or “normal” peers. A smaller number wanted to return to mainstream because they were concerned by the quality of teaching and learning, and some wanted to experience the same rites of passage (Year 12, going to formal, etc) as other students.
This is what one could learn from just a brief search of recent research literature. But why should we bother checking the research evidence when we can make important educational decisions based on what we see on a TV show.
The low standard of evidence being used
That is apparently the standard of evidence now required, if the comments made by a Victorian Education Department spokesperson who enthused about the Darrabi program seen on the four-part ABC series, Revolution School, are anything to go by.
So how good is that evidence and what does this particular TV show tell us? The short answer is: Not good and not much.
The Victorian secondary school that featured in the ABC’s Revolution School developed a separate support class called the Darrabi Pathways Program. All the students were boys.
Rather than question how these students came to be “Darrabi Boys” or what the research says about concentrating students with high support needs into segregated units, the TV show focused on the achievement of one boy, Michael, who is elected sub-school captain.
It’s a story that ends well (for Michael) but we hear far less about the other Darrabi students and the question remains as to whether those students did reintegrate to mainstream, how they fared if they did, or whether they will be managed out of the school to follow an “alternative” pathway.
Revolution School was a TV show. So, rather than a rigorous comparison of student outcomes to test the effectiveness of segregation against an inclusive model, we get a hallmark card feel-good presentation that doesn’t ask the questions it should and therefore doesn’t tell us all that we need to know to make an informed judgment of the Darrabi program.
Is this the standard of evidence that schools (and especially Departments of Education) should be drawing on to make decisions that will affect the current and future lives of the young people in their care?
Hopefully we can all agree that the answer to that is a resounding “No!”
What schools should be doing
So what should schools do before they develop what the Department spokesperson called ‘innovative approaches to keep students engaged in their education’?
For starters they should consult the research evidence, of which there is plenty. And hopefully they will ignore word-of-mouth eduspeak mythology, where it is believed something works because someone said it worked for them, or because someone saw something they liked on a TV show.
For that to happen on a regular basis, we need to support everyone involved in education to become research literate, from initial teacher education and beyond. We also need to provide educators with access to education research databases, and our governments should better fund education research.
Educators, especially those in Education Departments, should be encouraged to consult the research evidence and weigh it objectively before making decisions that can have lifelong implications for others.
This is where the entire field of education must lift its game. It wouldn’t be acceptable to work off hunches in any other field and it isn’t okay in education either.
(Here is the news story that got my hackles up.)
Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.