children with autism

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.

The voice of the child in 21st Century education matters, now more than ever

In education systems today there is a real danger of children’s voices being swamped by those of bureaucrats, economists and politicians. I believe to ensure we remain responsive to learners we have to listen and respond to what children have to say about the world around them. My particular concern is for the voices of young children and children with autism to be heard.

The right to be heard

 The great educationalist John Dewey’s concept of the centrality of the voice of the learner in the teaching process is mirrored in Article 12 of The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which expressly states that when adults are making decision that affect children, children have the right to have their opinions taken into account and their views respected. This concept was further extended in the pedagogy of listening articulated and embraced by Loris Malaguzzi in the pre-schools of Reggio-Emilia in Northern Italy.

However based on my extensive experience in education for thirty-five years as a teacher, a schools’ inspector, a lecturer and researcher, I believe the voice of the child continues to be largely absent from practice and policy contexts.

In an attempt to highlight this gap, I have worked on four research projects to demonstrate that all children, irrespective of age or ability, can contribute to the teaching and learning process. As parents, teachers and researchers, we need to develop innovative and creative ways to support children in expressing their views and in doing so, develop both a pedagogy of voice and a pedagogy of listening.

Why children should have a voice

 Increasingly research is demonstrating that meaningful participation enhances children’s self-esteem and confidence, promotes overall development and develops autonomy, independence, social competence and resilience.

Furthermore children’s higher-order thinking skills are significantly enhanced when children are afforded opportunities to verbalise. The socially shared process is particularly important for learning as children explain and justify their ideas, opinions and decisions.

Pedagogy of listening

Implementing a pedagogy of voice requires an associated pedagogy of listening. For all of us, listening is not easy and has to be mindfully cultivated and developed. If we are prepared to do this, the possibilities for our children become endless. Conscious that the voices of young children and children with special educational needs are notably absent from research and practice, my research (on which this article is based) focused specifically on capturing, and including these voices, through a methodological approach derived from the child conferences described by Clark and Moss.

My research involving the voice of children with autism

As co-principal investigator in a recent national evaluation of education provision for children with autism in Ireland, commissioned by the Ministry for Education in Ireland, I was concerned that children with autism would be provided with an opportunity to contribute to the process.

My research involved having conversations with groups of children. The children were also invited to draw pictures related to their education experiences. These drawing were particularly revealing to us.

Children readily participated in the research and enthusiastically communicated their school-experiences in a coherent and meaningful manner. Some of the children’s drawings and descriptors are included in Table 1. below and convey children’s positive curriculum and social experiences.

Interestingly the drawings challenge the diagnostic certainties of the social and imagination deficits associated with autism, suggesting that children with autism are aware of, and have an interest in their immediate interactional environments, which they creatively and imaginatively depicted.


Table 1.   A Selection and Analysis of the Drawings of Children with Autism
1 Drawing by a child at middle-primary level in a special class in a mainstream school. The child has included all of his class in the drawing and one of his favourite activities, which was working on his IPAD.
 2 Drawing by a child in a senior class in a special school. The child has drawn the school and his class. The drawing has a positive aura and reflects the child’s sense of belonging to the school community.


I was involved in two other research projects involving children with special educational needs included in mainstream schools. While children reported positive experiences, children also reported experiencing social isolation, curriculum exclusion and bullying in mainstream schools. The child’s drawing in Table 2. below reflects both the child’s positive experience and isolation from his peers during football. The child has drawn himself with a ball in the top centre area of the drawing.

Table 2.   Analysis of the Drawing of a Child with a Severe General Learning Disability inlcuded in a Mainstream Primary Rural School in Ireland
3 Drawing by a child at senior primary level in a mainstream rural school in Ireland. The child has included all of his class in the drawing and one of his favourite activities, which was playing football with his friends in the yard during recess period of the school day.

Fifty-seven children, aged between three and four, transitioning from pre-school to kindergarten, participated in the final research study. The significance of this transition for children was captured both in the narrative and in the drawings included in Table 3. below, with children noting that ‘[The school is] big … bigger than any school in the world … bigger than a giant’.

Table 3.   Drawings of a Children at Pre-School Level in Ireland
 4 5

Children were particularly concerned about the limited availability for play in primary school, the requirement to do ‘homework’, making friends and the kindergarten teacher.

The child is the starting point, centre and end of what we do as educators

It is timely at the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education to remind ourselves that the child is the starting point, the centre, and the end of what we do. Listening and responding to the voices of children irrespective of age, or ability, enriches the learning and teaching process and supports both teacher and child-autonomy in an era where education is increasingly being driven by marketisation, standardisation and politicisation.

As parents, teachers and researchers we have a particular moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that the inclusion of children’s voices remains a priority in education in this era of global unrest and uncertainty.


Emer_Ring_photoDr. Emer Ring, B.Ed.; LLB.; M.Ed.; M. Ed. (Autism); Ph. D., is Head of the Department of Reflective Pedagogy and Early Childhood Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Emer previously worked as a mainstream class teacher, a learning support teacher, a resource teacher at primary school level and a senior inspector with the Department of Education and Skills in Ireland. While working with the Department of Education and Skills, Emer was involved in a number of thematic evaluations of educational provision for children with special educational needs including educational provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDS). The focus of Emer’s Ph.D. research was the learning and teaching of children with ASDs. Emer has contributed to a number of publications and conferences with regard to the findings of this research. Areas of particular interest to Emer are early years’ education, school readiness, special education policy and practice, research and evidence-based practice in education, curriculum differentiation, reflective practice, assessment of learning and teaching and the education of children with ASDs.

Recently Emer attended the Future of Education Conference in Florence, Italy (June 31st – July 1st 2016) and presented a paper entitled ‘Why the Voice of the Child Matters for Education in the 21st Century’ . She was also invited to present the closing address, for which she chose the title: ‘Back to the Future: On Democracy and Education in the 21st Century: What would John Dewey say a 100 years later’.