Following the release of Disability Royal Commission’s final report, Australia’s school sectors have weighed in, with some questioning a controversial recommendation to phase out special schools.
In volume 7 of the report, three commissioners called for segregated educational settings to be removed by 2051, with no new enrolments by 2031, and no new placements by 2041.
“We heard that once a student is placed in a special or segregated school or class, they will rarely transition to a mainstream school or classroom,” the report’s authors said. “This can contribute to them remaining in other segregated environments throughout their lives.”
Responding to the final report, Australian Education Union federal president, Correna Haythrope said a well-resourced public education system and a productive community discussion are needed to best ensure children with disabilities can access their educational rights.
“All governments must ensure that public schools, both specialist and mainstream, are provided with the resources required to teach students with disability,” Haythorpe told The Educator.
“It’s also important that principals, teachers and education support staff in public education are equipped with adequate training, ongoing professional development and appropriate support to help every child thrive.”
‘These schools need more care and support and less ideology’
Dallas McInerney, CEO of Catholic Schools NSW said specialist Catholic schools and classes in NSW are not segregated settings and that its families value participation within the community and local mainstream schools.
“In some cases, our specialist school campuses are co-located with mainstream schools. In others, buddy programs and other initiatives ensure integration with the mainstream Catholic community and school system,” McInerney said.
“The last thing students with a disability need is to have their futures hostage to activists seeking to re-ignite school funding wars. These schools need more care and support and less ideology.”
McInerney said Catholic Schools NSW acknowledges Commissioners hold different views about the need for special schools to be phased out over time.
“We support the Commission’s view that the complex question of ‘wholly separated and wholly inclusive settings’ is nuanced and requires consideration of the specific circumstances in which the physical separation takes place, we believe that special education settings are crucial to parental choice and can have an important role to play in supporting students with disability.”
Phasing out special schools fraught with risk
Independent Schools Australia (ISA) Chief Executive Officer Graham Catt said the revelations arising from the Disability Royal Commission’s work show “there is much to be done in all settings to maintain the dignity of, and better protect those who live with disability.”
“The recommendations from the Disability Royal Commission provide deep insights into what can be done to improve outcomes for students with disability,” he said. “The issues relating to schools are extremely complex, and ISA is currently examining the recommendations in detail.”
Students with disability account for one fifth of students enrolled in Independent schools – a similar proportion to those in government schools. Of these, five in six students with disability are in a mainstream Independent school, and one in six is enrolled in a specialised Independent school.
“Specialised school settings support some of the best inclusive practices for students with disability with expertly trained staff, wrap-around support, and collaboration with allied health services,” Catt said. “In fact, it could be detrimental for some students and their families if specialised school settings were phased out.”
Catt noted that there are 143 Independent special schools, including 96 special assistance schools, that cater for students with a wide range of needs, including students with disability.
“There is no one way to provide an inclusive education to young people, as all students are individual and have different needs,” he said. “Educators consistently utilise best practice, teaching to diverse student cohorts, including students with complex needs.”
Are special schools truly segregated?
Matthew Johnson, president of the Australian Special Education Principals Association, expressed his lack of surprise at the decision to phase out special schools.
“Advocates for full inclusion frequently employ terms such as ‘segregation’ and ‘institution’ when discussing special schools, although these descriptors do not accurately reflect the specialised and educational nature of these schools,” Johnson told The Educator.
“Special schools provide highly specialised learning environments, not segregated or institutionalised settings. Special schools are also subject to scrutiny, external validation and operate under the same policy and compliance frameworks as other schools.”
Johnson pointed out that the right of parents to choose the best education for their children is safeguarded under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 26.
“Notably, other educational institutions such as selective high schools, single-sex schools, private high-fee paying schools, and faith-based schools are not labelled as segregation, despite the element of choice they offer to parents,” he said.
“Similarly, parents select special schools and classes to cater to the specific needs of their children. Denying students with disabilities and their families this choice contradicts the principles of equality.”
Move to full inclusion must be matched with resources
Pat Murphy, president of the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) said government primary schools across Australia have for more than a decade been moving towards an inclusive approach of educating students with disabilities.
“The government primary sector currently has 76% of high disability students currently enrolled in our schools,” Murphy told The Educator. “The gradual move to full inclusion needs to be matched with the necessary resources to ensure no student or is disadvantaged and staff are not overburdened.”
Murphy said every students’ safety and wellbeing needs to be paramount in delivering a full inclusion model.
“The additional resourcing required needs to be over and above the funding of the full Schooling Resource Standard,” he said. “It needs to include specialist staffing including Doctors, nurses, allied health professionals along with a significant increase in teachers and teacher assistants.”
Murphy said an injection of federal funding will be required for the capital works required to repurpose schools to ensure that inclusion is successful for every child.
“As every schooling sector receives government funding, it is important that all sectors meet their requirements to enrol students with high levels of disability.”