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 must … promote 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.
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.