equity

Students with disability have a right to inclusive education: Reviewing the Melbourne Declaration

Students with disability were not identified as an explicit priority within the Melbourne Declaration, a statement that was agreed back in 2008 by all Education Ministers in Australia. It stated that the main goal for education in Australia should be equity and excellence for all young Australians and outlined a commitment to action.

Now the declaration is being reviewed and we believe this presents an opportunity to address a critical gap in the original Declaration, which made no reference to inclusive education for students with disability, despite being published in the same year that Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and despite explicitly mentioning other equity groups.

The CRPD imposed legally binding obligations on State Parties including, through Article 24, to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels. This Review of the Melbourne Declaration provides the opportunity to emphasise the important role that inclusive education provides in combating discrimination to create a fairer and more cohesive society in which people with disability are active contributing members.

Omission of students with disability from the Melbourne Declaration

Many of the initiatives that resulted from the Melbourne Declaration perpetuated disadvantage for students with disability because they were not mentioned explicitly in the declaration. For example, by not naming students with disability as a priority equity group, there was no requirement to report disaggregated data for these students in NAPLAN or My School as there was for socioeconomic status and Indigeneity.  As a consequence, students with disability have been viewed as a liability by many schools, resulting in increased gatekeeping. Troubling statistics regarding low school completion rates, poor engagement in further education, and high post-school unemployment also show that schooling outcomes for Australians with disability have not improved during the period of the Declaration. This Review presents an important opportunity to ensure that improving the equity and quality of education for students with disability is named as a key priority.

The right to an inclusive education

In 2016, the United Nations published General Comment No. 4 (GC4) to provide guidance on the right to inclusive education. GC4 defined inclusive education, making it clear it is  distinct from (i) segregation, which is when students with disability are educated in separate schools and classes, and (ii) integration, which is when students with disability are enrolled in unreconstructed mainstream schools with the onus placed on the student to adjust to such environments. GC4 also explicitly specified the steps State Parties must undertake to realise the right to inclusive education. GC4 and General Comment No. 6 on equality and non-discrimination (GC6), which was published by the UN last year, state that the segregation of students with disability in education is a form of discrimination and a contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN Committee is reviewing Australia’s commitment and progress against the CRPD in September 2019.  A new Declaration that reflects Australia’s international legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would help demonstrate genuine commitment and intent, as well as provide a guiding framework to support realisation of the right to inclusive education across sectors nationally.

Proposed additions to the next Declaration

As members of AARE’s Inclusive Education Special Interest Group, and All Means All: The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education, we have called upon the Federal Government to consider a range of important additions to the next Declaration.

First, we believe that the Declaration must include a commitment towards inclusive education at all levels of education. Any definition of inclusive education must be consistent with the CRPD. This would promote a nationally consistent understanding of inclusive education.

Second, the Melbourne Declaration stated that “Australian governments and all school sectors must provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on … disability”.  The lack of an explicit reference to inclusive education in the Melbourne Declaration leaves both the quality and model open to interpretation. Replacing “high-quality schooling” with“high-quality inclusive education” would align the new Declaration with the National Disability Strategy (2010 – 2020).

The new Declaration should also emphasise the importance of active participation, consultation and involvement of children and their representatives in needs determination and education provision. This would ensure Australia meets its obligations enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Disability Standards for Education 2005, as well as elaborated in CRC General Comment 9 (2006) on the rights of children with disabilities, CRC General Comment 12 (2009) on the right of the child to be heard, and the aforementioned GC4 and GC6.   

Third, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: Australian governments and all school sectors must … reduce the effect of other sources of disadvantage, such as disability, homelessness, refugee status and remoteness”. However, the Declaration gave no indication as to how this might be achieved, and made no acknowledgement of the societal barriers that create and perpetuate the disadvantage that constitutes disability. In the next Declaration, we recommended the following revised statement,

Australian governments and all school sectors must ensure that structural, physical, attitudinal and cultural barriers to learning, participation and achievement are removed, that students are actively involved in decisions made about their education, and effective teaching and leadership practices are implemented, to support all students in making progress at school regardless of their personal characteristics.

Fourth, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: “Australian governments and all school sectors mustpromote personalised learning that aims to fulfil the diverse capabilities of each young Australian”. This terminology is not consistent with the terminology being used in recent cross-government initiatives, such as the National School Improvement Tool or the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Students with Disability. In the next Declaration, we recommend the phrase “personalised learning” is replaced by “quality differentiated teaching practice”, “Universal Design for Learning” and “reasonable adjustments”.

Our vision for Australian education

The next national aspirational declaration on Australian education should put forward a view of educational purpose that is ambitious for, and inclusive of, all Australian students. It should provide guidance to ensure that purpose and vision is achieved for all students, in ethical and inclusive ways. It should require appropriate support to enable the educational growth of all students and embrace student diversity as inherently normal and economically, culturally and socially beneficial. It should cover all levels of education — early childhood, school, vocational and higher education — and express broad principles expected of each.

The Declaration should motivate and inspire educators, and school and system leaders, as well as gather all stakeholders around a common goal. It should be consistent with the Australian government’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a clear progression to end segregated education and exclusionary practices. The removal of systemic pressures that might inhibit the progress of inclusion has education, employment and lifelong benefits for all.

Dr Shiralee Poed is a senior lecturer in learning intervention at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education within the University of Melbourne. Shiralee is also the co-chair of the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia, member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Professor Linda Graham leads the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (SELB) Research Group in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. Linda is also the co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and board member of All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education and Chair of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel.

Cátia Malaquias is a lawyer, an award winning human rights and inclusion advocate and a co-founder and an Advisor of All Means All.  Catia is also the founder and director of Starting With Julius, a board member of the Attitude Foundation and Down Syndrome Australia, and a co-founder of the Global Alliance for Disability in Media.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Kate is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the University of Sydney. Ilektra is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Education at QUT. Jenna is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Emily Cukalevski is a lawyer and disability rights advocate.  Emily is also an advisor for All Means All.

Dr Peter Walker is a lecturer in inclusive education at Flinders University. Peter is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Marijne Medhurst is a senior research assistant in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Haley Tancredi is a research assistant and sessional academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at QUT, and a certified practising speech pathologist. Haley is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. Kathy is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

Politicians of all persuasions use the language of panic and crisis to whip up fear about the ‘quality’ of teachers, and their teaching.

The consequence of this deliberate attempt to shape public opinion, is that ‘quality’ has effectively become a smoke screen, obscuring the real and serious educational equity problems we have in Australia.

Equity is the equal opportunity for all children to get a decent education in schools that are adequately funded and resourced.

Some of my recent research has looked at how the language of panic and crisis are playing a role in public discussions about schooling in Australia.

In 2011, Australian writer David Marr wrote Panic, a collection of essays in which he examined the use of moral panic by Australian politicians in the shaping of public discourse in relation to different areas of social life.  On the dynamic of panic within Australian society, he wrote:

I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm…This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties.  It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.  They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country in states of exaggerated alarm…

Education is fertile ground for panic, as it provides a mass point of reference for the electorate: most voters attended school themselves and a large proportion of the population at any given time has children at school.

As Marr suggests, the key consequence of moral panic is fear.  Along with panics regarding ‘law and order’ (pink jumpsuits for bikies, anyone?) or the ‘takeover’ by immigrants and asylum seekers, educational panic seeks to undermine social trust while at the same time offering a simple solution to a complex problem.  In this case the solution is “improving teacher quality.”

I recently analysed 42 Prime Ministerial and Ministerial speeches, media releases and interviews, along with related print media articles, produced over a period of one week in September 2012.  The week in question began with the announcement, in an address given by the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the National Press Club, of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ (NPSI).  The NPSI was the long-awaited Government response to the Independent Review of School Funding conducted by a panel chaired by David Gonski AC (otherwise known as the ‘Gonski review’).

The Government’s response at the time was surprising.  While the Gonski review had been set up to make recommendations about achieving greater equity, the response that came out the other end was largely about quality.  Largely absent from the ‘solution’ was any sense that the ‘problem’ was one of fairness and equity.  The NPSI looked more like a response to a review of teacher quality itself.

The claim that “nothing matters more to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class room” is dominant in these texts.  This notion is deeply troubling because it discounts students’ background and simplifies the education discussion to the point where success or failure hinges on the quality of the teacher ‘in front of’ the class.

Kevin Donnelly, long-term opponent of “progressive fads” in education, like current Education Minister Christopher Pyne, extended the argument to suggest that the key problem here lies in “teacher training institutes”:

Attempting to lift teacher quality, by mentoring beginning teachers and ensuring trainee teachers have more practical experience, will come to naught unless teacher training institutes are forced to base what they teach on evidence-based research about effective pedagogy and less on postmodern, new-age, politically correct theory.

Accepted is the claim is that teachers are not effective enough, not literate and numerate enough, not skilled enough, seduced by dubious ‘fads’ and entranced by political correctness.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, argued in a recent address on this issue in the US:

We need to stop chasing silver bullets and shibboleths if we are going to create genuine educational opportunities for all.  And finally, if American education is to improve we will need to support rather than blame our teachers.

The issue raised by Darling-Hammond of support rather than blame for teachers, is a salient one here in Australia. No matter how far we see that our educational problems as a society are complex consequences of a lack of equity, teacher quality is repeatedly named as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Australian politics has been particularly volatile in the months since the completion of my study.  First we saw the exit of Gillard and Garrett, the key champions of the NPSI, and subsequently the defeat of the Rudd-Gillard Government by the Abbott Liberal Government.

However the points I make about the role of panic and crisis in manipulation by politicians are perhaps even more salient now.

Current Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tells us our education performance is falling according to OECD measures (as did Julia Gillard) but he said,

It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.

He also said at the same time,

Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.

In other words, it’s all about teacher quality.  No equity issues to look at here, folks. (Read the full text of his piece HERE.)

All of this is not to argue against accountability.  Teachers must be accountable for their practice – to their students, their colleagues and their school communities.  But the kind of accountability embedded in critiques and crises of quality not only undermines trust in the profession but is also unlikely to bring about actual improvements in quality, despite ‘ticking all the boxes’.  The sad truth is that the vision of ‘teacher quality’ embedded in this version of accountability is an impoverished one.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the goal of attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into the teaching profession will be met under the current conditions and trajectory of accountability. What is required is perhaps a more intelligent form of accountability, described thus by Onora O’Neill, a teacher, philosopher and crossbench member of the House of Lords, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope – not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability…Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.

For those of us within the teaching profession, there are specific implications and imperatives from this manufactured ‘crisis’.  We need to understand more deeply the political context of our work and the political processes that capture education.

We need to play a part in public debate and discussions of education, to address misconceptions and misunderstandings, to reject the premise of politically expedient yet educationally empty strategies and to suggest good alternatives.  We all – teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers – have a part to play in this.

Anything less is likely to contribute to, rather than address, a very real crisis of educational quality.

 

Mockler2Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.