We should see significant changes for children with disabilities in NSW schools if the recently released recommendations by the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the education of children with disabilities are acted upon. These changes will significantly improve the lives of children with disabilities. The impact on families of NSW children with disabilities, their school communities, teachers, school executives and school systems will also be considerable.
We support the recommendations and the way funding and training for schools and staffs were highlighted in the report. However we have grave concerns the recommendations will be simply rubber-stamped by the NSW Government, as has happened with so many other parliamentary inquiries, and that nothing will change. We are worried that issues of inclusion and dealing with discrimination in NSW schools will remain for our children with disabilities.
The NSW Government and Education Minister Robert Stokes now have 6 months to provide a response as to the recommendation. So we call upon Minister Stokes to show he has moral strength as an education minister and that he is not beholden to unelected officials in the NSW Department of Education who might be advising him not to act boldly on making changes. We hope he will take this chance to be a leader for equity and justice.
The recommendations and our concerns
The purpose of the Inquiry was to make recommendations to build upon the positives for children and eliminate the some of the challenges faced for children with disabilities in the future. It came up with 38 recommendations that can be summarised into 4 key areas: inclusion, funding, training, accountability and complaints.
The first recommendation is that all children should be included in mainstream education as a default. Further recommendations in the report however appear to contradict this default position through the recognition of segregated Special Schools and units
There is limited to no research that shows segregated settings have any long-term benefit. Also it should be said, Units and Special schools do not demonstrate Inclusion, it is integration at best and state sanctioned discrimination at worst. The UN General Comment No. 4 24.2 states ‘only inclusive education can provide both quality education and social development for persons with disabilities, and a guarantee of universality and non-discrimination in the right to education on the rights to an education states’.
We acknowledge that pragmatically to transfer all children into mainstream overnight would be a disaster for schools and children, however we argue a timeline and process for the closure of all these settings is required.
We also want to point out that children with specific needs cannot be moved into mainstream schooling without first changing attitudes in many mainstream school communities. Also it cannot be done without fully funding support, training and resources for the school staff, parents and children involved.
Ten of the 39 recommendations have a direct impact on funding issues. To implement the report recommendations, equitable and accountable funding needs to be in place.
The committee recognised that Gonski 2.0 will not meet the required needs of students, so funding needs to be found and directed as purposed for the education of children with disabilities in NSW schools.
Funding is needed for resources, infrastructure and staff release so teachers can be given meaningful, hands-on training, not just access to online units that can appear superficial.
To assist in this there is a recommendation that schools should appoint trained business managers, and that funding for children with disabilities be made public and accountable.
Training was seen as key to implementing changes, with 16 relevant recommendations. It is seen essential to change as a successful Inclusion policy. Staff and parents all felt additional training was required to support all learners, with attitudinal change key.
Children with a disability need to be seen as children first. Real, depth of professional development is recommended as a necessity.
‘Snake oil’ training and teaching methods with no empirical research behind them should be challenged and removed from our schools. Staff must be given time to attend training and embed their enhanced skills. Health professionals, parents and schools should work in partnership to build on the expertise they all bring to the education of children with disabilities.
ACCOUNTABILITY and COMPLAINTS.
The Inquiry had the most to say about accountability and complaints processes in relation to the treatment of children with a disability, with 19 associated recommendations.
Too many reports from NSW and across Australia demonstrate that children with a disability are being denied even basic enrolment in their local public school when first applying; and even when eventually being offered a place; are marginalised, often denied access to the curriculum and wider school events.
The gravest of our concerns is the abuse of children with disability in schools. You would not have missed the harrowing stories of abuse that were revealed when the Inquiry released its report in September. The reaction sparked a unanimous call in the media and from organisations involved with children with disabilities, for schools, school systems and those in authority to urgently take action.
Recommendation 17 called for the NSW Ombudsman Inquiry into behaviour management in schools – August 2017 to be fully accepted and implemented. This calls for an outside committee to review complaints, and for protections against abuse and discrimination of children with a disability to be seen as a priority. There is harsh condemnation of the Department of Educations ‘investigative’ processes in relation to reportable conduct and the role that the Employee Performance and Conduct (EPAC) has played.
Real concerns remain over the Department investigating itself. Statistics must be published, staff supported, whistle-blowers protected and most importantly the most vulnerable children kept safe from abuse.
Other areas of concern
There were some under-developed areas that the report could have been stronger on. Children with a disability in some secondary settings will still be funded at Primary school level and this could be a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. The research on the role of SSPs (Schools with a Specific Purpose), with the diminished educational outcomes for children and the heightened danger of abuse potentials, could have been made more prominent. Segregated special settings should be closed to lead to full Inclusion. The flawed role of EPAC that was highlighted, but we believe that should have led to a recommendation of its disbandment with an independent Educational ICAC put in its place to safeguard all children and staff equitably.
Many parents claim to be left with no other option than to home school their child with disabilities. There is an annual increase in home schooling of around 12% a year (public school enrolments only increased by 0.9% in 2016). This has massive social, moral and economic implications for society. If children are denied an education, how can they become economic contributors to Australia in the future? If a family home schools (not through choice) they cannot work or contribute to the economy and their children receive no educational funding at all.
It all comes down to leadership
Overall what will have the greatest impact to the education of children with disabilities is leadership and attitudinal change in mainstream schools. Funding, training and processes will not be successful solutions until those in leadership at school and system levels place the emphasis on every child’s ability to learn and feel safe, rather than protecting a flawed system. Of course the leadership that matters most at the moment is that of NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes.
The Inquiry recommendations cannot heal or even investigate the allegations of abuse and discrimination of the past that initiated it. Minister Stokes can, but as of yet has done little to do so. This report gives him a chance to be a leader for equity and justice rather than just another politician saddled with the education portfolio. We want him, and his government, to be more concerned with our children and their futures than infrastructure, cutting costs and ticking boxes.
Minister Stokes and the NSW Government have an opportunity here to use this Inquiry to make the radical changes needed. Let’s see if they have the political courage to do so.
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 Dock 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.