Disability Royal Commission

Special schools: should they be phased out?

Even before the release of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the differing views on segregated settings for people with disability in education received media attention. Soon the debate was framed around the closing of special schools. Acknowledging the calls for a faster phase-out, I focus on the first step of the proposal to phase out special settings. I see a need to better understand special/segregated settings in the process of phasing them out. 

Is change possible? 

For a long time, Australian governments have supported a dual system of education for students with disability. Hence, changing course won’t be a natural reflex but an act of vision. Australia has invested in providing support for the nearly one million school students (just over one-fifth of total enrolment) receiving disability adjustments (ACARA) across all settings. This is now a historical opportunity to prioritise inclusive equality towards a unified system for all. 

The Commission was tasked to identify “what should be done to promote a more inclusive society that supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation”. It operated within a Human Rights approach informed at international level by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

The CRPD’s understanding of equality moves beyond formal equality, i.e., treating everybody the same. It promotes substantive equality, i.e., the provision of different treatment such as adjustments for achieving equitable outcomes. It also introduces inclusive equality, which looks to reshape the way society is structured. A human rights approach requires a shift of deep-seated beliefs, attitudes, practices, and responses to disability.

What are the divergent positions?

The Commissioners themselves expressed divergent views on segregated settings for people with disability in education, housing and employment. But all Commissioners agreed that the current education system needs to be transformed to become more inclusive. They differ on the role and future of educational segregated settings.

Phasing out of special/segregated settings. Three Commissioners with lived experience of disability – Bennet, Galbally and McEwin – recommend phasing-out and ending special/segregated education over 28 years. They perceive such settings as incompatible with an inclusive society and linked to abuse and low educational, social and employment outcomes.

Maintaining of ‘non-mainstream’ settings, increasing their proximity and interactions with mainstream settings. The Chair, Sackville, and Commissioners Mason and Ryan prefer the use of the ‘non-mainstream settings’ term. They perceive them as compatible with an inclusive education system when the choice to attend is ‘free’, and interactions between students with and without disability are cultivated. They emphasise the provision of such settings for ‘students with complex support needs’ and prioritise ‘parental choice’.

What would happen if the phasing out of special/segregated settings starts next year?

The proposal for phasing out special settings includes six phases:

  • Phase 1: 2024-2025: Agreement to a national inclusive education roadmap
  • Phase 2: 2026-2027: Preparation for implementation
  • Phase 3: 2027-2035: Transformation of mainstream education
  • Phase 4: 2032: No new enrolments of children with disability in special/segregated schools
  • Phase 5: 2041: No new placements of children with disability in special/segregated units or classes
  • Phase 6: 2051: By the end of 2051, all students previously in special/segregated schools have finished their education.

The central aim of the proposal is to transform mainstream education. For existing segregated settings, changes will take place in later phases. But phase 1 requires “no new special/segregated schools being built, or new special/segregated classes or units being included within schools replacing education in a mainstream classroom from 2025.” 

This will halt the trend of growth in segregated settings provision, re-allocating resources and planning priorities.

Special schools

A conversation around special schools is needed. 

There were just over 50,000 students attending special schools in 2021. Nearly 47000 were funded for having a disability under the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD). The report defines these special schools as“schools exclusively or primarily enrolling children and young people with complex support needs”. The number of schools  increased  from 414 in 2010 to 520 in 2022 – an increase of 26 per cent. And that increase is predominantly in independent schools (from 55 to 132, 140% increase), Catholic School system (additional 20 schools, 74% increase) and nine schools in the government sector (2.7% increase).

The report doesn’t distinguish

The report doesn’t explicitly distinguish between two types of ‘special schools’ as per the Australian Education Act 2013

–        Special Schools catering exclusively for students with disability and for which a diagnosis of disability is an enrolment condition

–        Special Assistance Schools which cater for students with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

The ABS and ACARA data used in the report record most (but not all) ‘Special Assistance Schools’ under ‘special schools’. Special assistance schools, also called flexi schools or non-mainstream alternative schools, cater for students who have experienced substantial disengagement from mainstream education. A recent report by Independent Schools Australia reported that in a large proportion of Independent special assistance schools either most or all of the young people enrolled have a disability funded under NCCD. The overwhelming majority of new special schools are special assistance schools with more planned for the near future.

The Royal Commission didn’t include a dedicated public hearing on special schools. There is work to be done to understand different types of special schools, who is attending them, pathways in and out of special schools, and what special schools offer to their students. This work isn’t about improving special schools (although it hopefully will achieve this while special schools are still in operation), but to inform the transformation of the education system.

Special classes in mainstream schools

Information around special/segregated provision in regular schools is even more limited. The Final report doesn’t include statistics by state/territories and sector but acknowledges evidence of increase in such provision across Australia. There is however data to start this conversation.

For example, the New South Wales Department of Education publishes data on students enrolled in support classes. The increase of enrolment in support classes is a long-term trend, but it is worth looking at short-term impact. For example, in 2018, 7,827 full-time equivalent students were attending primary support classes increasing to 9,542 students in 2021. This is 1,715 extra students. Similar increases are evident in secondary support classes and special schools. At the same time, the NSW Department of Education developed its Disability Strategy and Inclusive Education Statement for students with disability

These are substantial resources to tap in to support the transformation of mainstream schools. A national and state commitment to redirect resources is not about ‘losing’ these extra places. It is about gaining clarity of direction towards inclusion and utilising resources that are instrumental in releasing innovative possibilities. This will require considering the function of existing support classes during the different phases of the process.  

The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability was released on Friday September 29. It comprises 12 volumes with 222 recommendations.

Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has more than twenty years of experience in researching and teaching internationally in the areas of inclusive education policy and practice, comparative education, disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

The header image comes from Volume Seven of the final report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

What I learned from my first year of teaching

“Ring the bells that can still ring, 

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything, 

That’s how the light gets in”.*

Trauma walks to its own beat. As with adults, children and young people who have experienced trauma, or any other adverse experiences often seem to have a different rhythm than children of a similar age. This is because of the way their sensory system makes meaning of the information around them, the information they see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. I recall one of my students, on a school excursion, responding in horror when we walked into the education room. He pointed to a corner of the ceiling and called out, “they are coming…with big horns on them”. His distress so intense, I took him outside until he felt safe and settled. We then returned to our school; he was too distressed to join the rest of the group. No-one suggested another possibility for him to participate in the event. He was excluded.

My first-year teaching in a program for children with disabilities, was filled with experiences like this. It became apparent that all of my assumptions about children, about language, about the very meaning of the objects and situations around me, belonged only to me. The children in my class had other ways of communicating, of seeinging and of understanding the world that was uniquely their own. A uniqueness many schools interpreted as a problem, a “developmental delay”. A perspective, I found only expressed what my students were not yet able to do compared to other children. A perspective supporting the existence of two school systems in Australia, schools for specific purposes (SSP’s) and schools for everybody else.

Last week the disability royal commission heard about the experience of students and their families in both school settings. Despite the legal right of students with a disability to a free education, “on the same basis” as students without a disability, SSP’s appear to be increasing. A phenomenon that is at odds with the overwhelming research in support of inclusive education. Research that outlines how education can be accessible for all.

Education that is accessible for all is not about changing students. It does not problematize students by attempting to (as I did in my early career) correct their differences, their differences in language, communication, the differences in their literacy, numeracy, or the differences in the way they played. It should not be about “getting children ready for big school”, and attempting to shape them into a size to fit a school for which they had never been considered.

It is an approach, as one mother told the disability royal comission, “that will never work”.

Or until we learn to do otherwise. About a year into my teaching, I was introduced to AMICI Dance Theatre at an Orff Schulwerk Conference in Sydney. Wolfgang Stange, the artistic director led us through a series of workshops that for my thinking and teaching were transformational. At the heart of his practice, was a belief in the contribution of everyone to dance, a unique contribution that should be valued and recognized. It was an approach that challenged the notion that there was only one way to do things and explored the possibilities of many, including those dependent on spoken language.

I danced back to my classroom with not only a range of approaches and strategies for children to express their ideas, make choices and reveal themselves in a way that was uniquely their own. I had been given a way “to see” the children and everything that they were doing, a complete contrast to the view of everything they were not. Now the light was getting in.

A light that gave me the permission to bring my knowledge of theatre, drama, and puppetry into the classroom. The puppets helped me not only to “see” but to “listen” to the children. To discover their interests, their strengths and how much they could contribute to their learning at “big school”. I wondered how much “big school” would contribute to them. 

Twenty years later, I am still wondering, wondering if children and young people, walking to their own beat will belong in all our schools.  Testimonies by children, families and young people at the Disability Royal Comission speak of their experience of being excluded. My research told the story of how puppets and the creative arts could bring about alternative ways of teaching and connecting with ALL children. To remove the barriers to communication and self expression through the object of the puppet was a revelation and one that allowed the children and I to learn together, to see our differences and embrace them. 

Teaching is problematic. It asks that teachers be responsive, be reflexive and embrace the idea that every day is not the same and that every child is unique. To let the light shine in.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

What we should all know about authentic inclusive classrooms

Kids with learning and behavioural difficulties couldn’t possibly tell us anything about quality teaching… could they?

Anti-inclusion sentiment has reached fever pitch following the most recent Hearing of the Disability Royal Commission; one that aimed to hear both sides of a so-called “binary” debate.

If folks were hoping the hearing would prove that it’s all unicorns and rainbows in special schools, they would have been disappointed. 

Former students and distraught parents enumerated the many ways respective school systems had failed them, both when students were in mainstream schools and when they were in or had moved to a special school.

There have been dark mutterings in various fora since the Hearing. Frustratingly, but as usual, those mutterings have conflated mainstreaming with inclusive education. 

Advocates of the latter are being framed as dangerous ideologues who are arguing for the impossible, especially when it comes to students with challenging behaviour.

So, what is this ‘impossible’?

The goal of inclusive education is to reform schooling, such that all schools are capable of including all students, especially those with a disability. 

The goal is not simply to move students with disability from segregated settings to mainstream schools. That’s integration (or what used to be called mainstreaming). Integration is what is currently happening in most schools, and we learned waaaay back in the 1970s that it doesn’t work.

Inclusive education is different. It is also a human right under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). The Australian government ratified the CRPD in 2008, which means that it agrees to be held legally accountable to its terms.

After a decade of relative inaction that the CRPD Committee correctly surmised was influenced by confusion as to what inclusive education really is, inclusion was defined in General Comment No. 4, as:

“…a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience”.

To make this right a reality, we need to seriously lift the quality of teaching in everyday classrooms. We need to move it from integration (which GC4 also defines) to genuine inclusion.

We can’t do it by using existing pedagogical frameworks and measures because—like the idea of balanced literacy—the approach is skewed towards a perceived majority, ergo “the mainstream”, and is based on what has been shown to work with them. 

Assessing quality teaching 

What happens when you flip from teaching to reach most to teaching to reach all? What does that add to existing conceptions of quality teaching? 

Can teaching even be considered to be quality, if it fails to reach all students? Do students with disability need something different that the average student doesn’t need or do they need something better

We wanted to know, so we went to the students that few people think have anything to offer by way of insight into teaching and learning, and we asked them.

They weren’t hard to find. We were already working in complex secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities; schools with higher than average suspensions, high numbers of teachers on contract, schools where the quality of teaching matters most to kids’ lives. 

We pointed to the Positive Behaviour for Learning triangle and asked the school leadership teams from each school to nominate the kids in the “red pointy end”. The ones with a long record of behaviour incidents, especially involving conflict with teachers. Kids who have familiarised themselves with the principal’s office, who may have been previously suspended or excluded and who, when they weren’t truanting, were generally not engaging and not learning.  

The leadership in these schools had no trouble identifying them.

We ended up with a Brains Trust comprising 50 pointy end kids across Grades 7 to 10. We asked them lots of questions. About school, whether they liked it, what they did and didn’t like about it, when they started disliking it, what they typically get in trouble for, about conflict with teachers, and even what they think they’d be like as a teacher! 

Around the middle of the interview we asked them “What makes an excellent teacher?” 

They were free to say whatever they liked and our job was to make sense of those responses.

The idea for our new paper on the quality of teaching necessary for the inclusion of these students formed when we were conducting the interviews because it became clear very quickly that there was a strong pattern in the responses. 

Kids talked differently in response to this question than they did our questions about teachers they got along with (or didn’t). They did not—in the main, for this specific question—refer to teachers they liked, they talked about teachers who taught well

More than just teaching well, these kids from the pointy end of the behaviour support triangle who some people think have nothing of value to add, described practices that help them to learn.

What did they say about excellence in teaching?

Our 50 participants generated 90 statements that we coded into four categories. Three were based on the domains of teaching quality described in the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, “emotional support”, “classroom organisation”, and “instructional support”. Because there is strong popular belief that these kids want ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ teachers, we added a fourth category, “temperament/personality”.

Only 16.1% of statements related to teachers’ temperament or personality. Importantly, while students said that they appreciate teachers who are bubbly, fun, and good-natured, they clarified that excellent teachers still make sure that students are learning. 

“Just have a bit of fun in the classroom but still on task and that type of stuff” (Grade 10, School A).

A slightly higher percentage of statements (18.3%) related to classroom organisation. Students told us that excellent teachers kept them on the ball but were fair and kind in how they did it. 

“Mr V. He cares for basically the whole school. He gives us reasonable detentions and gives us fitness if we don’t do what he says, and he’s just a very nice teacher” (Grade 8, School A).

Almost one quarter (24.7%) of students’ statements related to emotional support: the positive climate that teachers fostered in their classrooms, teachers’ sensitivity to their students, and their responsiveness to student perspectives. 

“…their understanding and their kindness… if you get a teacher like that, then you automatically you feel safe, so you’re like, “Okay, well I can learn with this teacher. I know that they’re going to help me and understand me” (Grade 9, School D).

The majority of statements (40.9%) fell into the instructional support domain which is sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive activation’. This domain includes practices that scaffold and support and extend intellectual demand, such as feedback, modelling and explicit teaching.

One student talked about how this prevented student-teacher conflict: 

“It’s like he always like stops fights before they happen. He like – so like say that a student doesn’t get it he stops and like he explains it like multiple times until like the person actually gets it and does demonstrations, get the students up there. Like the students that don’t get it and gets them to do it, so they get it” (Grade 9, School A).

Other students said excellent teachers were those who checked in with students to make sure they had understood and who then clarified if they didn’t. 

“They explain everything, they take time out of the lesson to ensure you’re okay and see if you’re on track and always supportive and even if you’re not normal, they support you no matter what” (Grade 9, School D).

A really important finding from our work with these students is that they do not need something that other students don’t need. They just need quality teaching to be accessible.

We also concluded that existing pedagogical frameworks and measures of quality teaching do not emphasise accessibility, and nor do they go to the granularity necessary to help teachers produce a level of quality teaching that is good enough for these students.

So what now?

This work is informing the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, now in its second year. 

From the 400-plus Grade 10 students participating in this Linkage, we have identified a subgroup of 63 with identified language and/or attentional difficulties. In student interviews, we are checking their views on teaching excellence.

This time we have provided a matrix describing the four categories above and have asked students to select which element is most important to them.

When presented with the matrix, students have ruminated, “Well, they’re all important but if I had to say most, I’d say…”

Instructional support, which we have described as teachers helping students to learn by explaining things well and providing examples, still came in first (42%). 

The pattern shifted slightly after that with just over a quarter (27%) choosing temperament and personality. Emotional support came in third with 19% of responses, and classroom organisation came in last (13%). 

The schools that we are now working in are not as complex as our previous high schools and this may explain the change in pattern. Overall however, the students we are working with say the same thing: they need accessible quality teaching and they rate the teachers who strive to provide them with it.

Although we are yet to crunch the masses of data being produced in this project, we are already seeing benefits from our work with these students’ teachers.

In an interview last week, both interviewer (Graham) and teacher (who we’ll call “Miss Maudie”) were in tears as Miss Maudie described what the various refinements to her practice, that we proposed during this term’s program of learning, had achieved. 

In doing she talked about “Patrick”, a “solid D” student who had finally made it to a C-. More than the grade though, for Miss Maudie, the positive impact came from the fact that Patrick had for the first time really engaged and that he believed he could achieve the task being set.

We want many more Patricks and Miss Maudies to feel like this, rather than how our original pointy end kids and their teachers did. 

We have a lot more work to do but the revolution has started. And it isn’t going away.

From left to right: Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on responses to students experiencing difficulties in school and with learning. Ms Haley Tancredi is a PhD candidate on the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, investigating the impact of accessible teaching practices on the engagement, experiences and outcomes of students with language and/or attentional difficulties. She is also a senior research assistant within C4IE. Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is an Associate Professor and researcher in the Faculty of CI, Education, and Social Justice at QUT. Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation.