children with disabilities in schools

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 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.

Children with disabilities in schools: how we started the parliamentary inquiry and what’s happening

We were extremely disturbed by the increasing reports of children with disability across Australia being abused and discriminated against, and by what we saw as a systemic exclusion of children with disability from education.

As researchers in education and while working in schools in NSW, we have experienced first hand the issues and challenges facing children with disability and their families. We know many good teaching and support staff in our state are being burnt out and we believe deeply that fundamental attitudinal change needs to happen.

So we decided to do something about it.

We set out to meet personally with NSW parliamentarians in all parties in the NSW Upper House who were interested in the plight of children with disabilities. We organised group meetings at Parliament House, involving concerned parents and teaching staff, where we presented research and data to parliamentarians.

Our actions led to an Upper House Inquiry into Students with a disability or special needs in NSW schools which is currently ongoing.

This Inquiry, from the hearings held so far, may potentially and significantly change policy. Testimony after testimony appears to reveal a system that is failing many children, despite the best efforts of parents, teachers and schools.

Listening to the hearings, it is likely the findings might have implications for all schools and all teachers beyond the disability provision aspects.

Earlier Inquiry

The previous Inquiry into exactly the same thing in 2010 produced a set of recommendations with responses by the NSW Government. This led, in 2012, to the ‘Every Student Every School’ policy that is supported by the Commonwealth Government. This policy promised to provide extra funding for schools “to build their capabilities to meet the additional learning and support needs of students with disability”.

So it is timely that we should look at what is happening and what, if anything, has changed.

The Inquiry

The Terms of Reference are important as they guide the Inquiry, are focused on funding, the implementation of the ‘Every Student Every School’ policy, the previous Inquiries recommendations and (potentially the most challenging) the complaint and review mechanisms within the school systems in New South Wales for parents and carers.

The Inquiry is clear that its purpose is not to deal with individual complaints but with wider systemic issues and also to reflect best practice.

Problematic issues arising so far

Lack of data

The first major issues arising from the Inquiry is the lack of data available about how funding is applied and accounted for. From the hearings so far, it appears that the NSW Department of Education, as of yet, has been unable to substantially demonstrate how such funding is applied, if it is used to meet student needs.

Students refused enrolment

Multiple submissions and sworn testimony additionally report students being refused even basic enrolment at their local public school (which is a breach of multiple laws). Of course private schools often find ways to deny enrolment and they also have culpability in potential discrimination. But from evidence gathered many children and families appear to be forced into even further financial and emotional hardship by paying for expensive private education, if they can find a school that will accept them, or to home school. Riding above the arguments of the benefits or challenges of home schooling, if families undertake the option of home schooling, it should be through choice, not discrimination.

To add to the complexity of this issue is the recent release of a survey of public schools principals where principals, under pressure to accept enrolment of children with disabilities, rated the funding and support provided by the government for children with disabilities as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

Flawed complaints process

Evidence over the complaints process is also emerging. Who investigates complaints? It appears that too often, the Department of Education investigates itself. Indeed it appears the NSW Department of Education often appears to appoint the very people responsible for the initial complaint problem to investigate themselves.


The use of or lack of use of some ‘labels’ can appear to deny support to children who require support. Perhaps we should stop using medical deficit labels to define children and instead just look at the actual educational needs to target resources. This way all children will get support, whether with a diagnosis or not.

Other significant issues unfolding

There are other significant questions over serious potential ‘Reportable Conduct’ issues not being investigated, physical assaults on children being dismissed or at least glossed over, and the internal investigative body of the NSW Department of Education (EPAC – Employee Performance and Conduct) being ineffectual in supporting staff or students.

Encouraging indications

Voices are being heard

What is empowering is hearing the voices of parents and teachers and academics demonstrating best practice and what could be applied if real inclusion, rather than the increased exclusion of children with disabilities (in to Special Units) is applied.

Some schools are succeeding

Against all odds, some schools appear to be offering real support, but they sadly appear to be a minority.

What we would like to see in the recommendations

There are real hopes for the recommendations from this Inquiry.

We would like to see children fully included in educational experiences. Research after research demonstrates that learning for all students is best when children with a disability are included in mainstream classrooms as a default.

Will NSW follow the best practice of the rest of Australia and include speech therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to work in and with schools?

Hopefully an independent complaints and investigative body will be set up to protect the rights of children and staff alike. Currently the system is all too similar to concerns we have heard from the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where institutions investigated themselves.

Funding should be made available and used to support the students, staff and school in the area it has been allocated. Schools and systems should be accountable for the money allocated. The effectiveness of the allocations should be measured.

Teacher education has a role within this, as does the professional development of teaching staff. All Initial Teacher Training courses and professional development courses for teachers should provide embedded, detailed support strategies to support children with challenges in accessing learning.

We remain optimistic

We may seem idealistically naive to expect an Upper House Parliamentary Inquiry will make radical positive change, but all of the Inquiry’s committee members seem to be concerned, across all of the diverse political parties. We suspect the NSW Department of Education did not expect this to be such a forensic inquiry, as they came with little or no data on the first day of the hearings.

Here’s hoping the discrimination and abuse allegations of children with a disability being uncovered by this Inquiry are taken seriously and real changes will happen as a result. We can only hope.


David Roy is a lecturer in Drama and Arts Education at the University of Newcastle. His research focuses on how we can use the Creative Arts to for inclusion and to support diverse learners, particularly those with disabilities. He has been part of examination teams in Scotland, Australia, and for the International Baccalaureate. He is the author of eight texts, and was nominated for the 2006 Saltire/TES Scottish Education Publication of the Year and won the 2013 Best New Australian Publication for VCE Drama and/or VCE Theatre Studies. His most recent text is ‘Teaching the Arts: Early Childhood and Primary (2015) published by Cambridge University Press. 


Caroline is a research assistant at the University of Newcastle and a visual artist.She uses Creative Arts and Physical Education as intervention strategies for child development. Working closely with Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists she has been developing innovative strategies to support children with ‘atypical’ disability diagnosis. Caroline regularly engages with politicians and public bodies as an advocate for the disability rights of children. Her research interests include, pedagogy, psychology, ASD and dyspraxia. Caroline’s most recent publication is Dyspraxia, Delinquents and Drama. Journal of Education in the Dramatic Arts, 19(1), 26-31.