We were extremely disturbed by the increasing reports of children with disability across Australia being abused and discriminated against, and by what we saw as a systemic exclusion of children with disability from education.
As researchers in education and while working in schools in NSW, we have experienced first hand the issues and challenges facing children with disability and their families. We know many good teaching and support staff in our state are being burnt out and we believe deeply that fundamental attitudinal change needs to happen.
So we decided to do something about it.
We set out to meet personally with NSW parliamentarians in all parties in the NSW Upper House who were interested in the plight of children with disabilities. We organised group meetings at Parliament House, involving concerned parents and teaching staff, where we presented research and data to parliamentarians.
Our actions led to an Upper House Inquiry into Students with a disability or special needs in NSW schools which is currently ongoing.
This Inquiry, from the hearings held so far, may potentially and significantly change policy. Testimony after testimony appears to reveal a system that is failing many children, despite the best efforts of parents, teachers and schools.
Listening to the hearings, it is likely the findings might have implications for all schools and all teachers beyond the disability provision aspects.
The previous Inquiry into exactly the same thing in 2010 produced a set of recommendations with responses by the NSW Government. This led, in 2012, to the ‘Every Student Every School’ policy that is supported by the Commonwealth Government. This policy promised to provide extra funding for schools “to build their capabilities to meet the additional learning and support needs of students with disability”.
So it is timely that we should look at what is happening and what, if anything, has changed.
The Terms of Reference are important as they guide the Inquiry, are focused on funding, the implementation of the ‘Every Student Every School’ policy, the previous Inquiries recommendations and (potentially the most challenging) the complaint and review mechanisms within the school systems in New South Wales for parents and carers.
The Inquiry is clear that its purpose is not to deal with individual complaints but with wider systemic issues and also to reflect best practice.
Problematic issues arising so far
Lack of data
The first major issues arising from the Inquiry is the lack of data available about how funding is applied and accounted for. From the hearings so far, it appears that the NSW Department of Education, as of yet, has been unable to substantially demonstrate how such funding is applied, if it is used to meet student needs.
Students refused enrolment
Multiple submissions and sworn testimony additionally report students being refused even basic enrolment at their local public school (which is a breach of multiple laws). Of course private schools often find ways to deny enrolment and they also have culpability in potential discrimination. But from evidence gathered many children and families appear to be forced into even further financial and emotional hardship by paying for expensive private education, if they can find a school that will accept them, or to home school. Riding above the arguments of the benefits or challenges of home schooling, if families undertake the option of home schooling, it should be through choice, not discrimination.
To add to the complexity of this issue is the recent release of a survey of public schools principals where principals, under pressure to accept enrolment of children with disabilities, rated the funding and support provided by the government for children with disabilities as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.
Flawed complaints process
Evidence over the complaints process is also emerging. Who investigates complaints? It appears that too often, the Department of Education investigates itself. Indeed it appears the NSW Department of Education often appears to appoint the very people responsible for the initial complaint problem to investigate themselves.
The use of or lack of use of some ‘labels’ can appear to deny support to children who require support. Perhaps we should stop using medical deficit labels to define children and instead just look at the actual educational needs to target resources. This way all children will get support, whether with a diagnosis or not.
Other significant issues unfolding
There are other significant questions over serious potential ‘Reportable Conduct’ issues not being investigated, physical assaults on children being dismissed or at least glossed over, and the internal investigative body of the NSW Department of Education (EPAC – Employee Performance and Conduct) being ineffectual in supporting staff or students.
Voices are being heard
What is empowering is hearing the voices of parents and teachers and academics demonstrating best practice and what could be applied if real inclusion, rather than the increased exclusion of children with disabilities (in to Special Units) is applied.
Some schools are succeeding
Against all odds, some schools appear to be offering real support, but they sadly appear to be a minority.
What we would like to see in the recommendations
There are real hopes for the recommendations from this Inquiry.
We would like to see children fully included in educational experiences. Research after research demonstrates that learning for all students is best when children with a disability are included in mainstream classrooms as a default.
Will NSW follow the best practice of the rest of Australia and include speech therapists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists to work in and with schools?
Hopefully an independent complaints and investigative body will be set up to protect the rights of children and staff alike. Currently the system is all too similar to concerns we have heard from the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, where institutions investigated themselves.
Funding should be made available and used to support the students, staff and school in the area it has been allocated. Schools and systems should be accountable for the money allocated. The effectiveness of the allocations should be measured.
Teacher education has a role within this, as does the professional development of teaching staff. All Initial Teacher Training courses and professional development courses for teachers should provide embedded, detailed support strategies to support children with challenges in accessing learning.
We remain optimistic
We may seem idealistically naive to expect an Upper House Parliamentary Inquiry will make radical positive change, but all of the Inquiry’s committee members seem to be concerned, across all of the diverse political parties. We suspect the NSW Department of Education did not expect this to be such a forensic inquiry, as they came with little or no data on the first day of the hearings.
Here’s hoping the discrimination and abuse allegations of children with a disability being uncovered by this Inquiry are taken seriously and real changes will happen as a result. We can only hope.
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 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.