NSW schools

Why the minister should act boldly on changes to schooling for children with disabilities

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.


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.


Children with disabilities in schools: how we started the parliamentary inquiry and what’s happening

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.

Earlier Inquiry

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 Inquiry

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.

Encouraging indications

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.


Direct link between teaching and learning with laptops and better HSC results in biology, chemistry and physics

Most Australian students in years 9 to 12 were provided with a laptop courtesy of The Digital Education Revolution between 2008 and 2013. There was a lot of comment at the time about how the use of laptops might influence student learning and what that influence might be. I was particularly interested in the possible impact on the experiences and achievements of high school science teachers and students.
In 2010, I embarked on a six-year study involving 16 Sydney Catholic high schools in NSW to gather evidence. I have to say my expectations at first were quite conservative. I predicted my research would get a null result, as the data would be too inconsistent and messy.

The most interesting finding

However, the results were surprising and quite clear, with the statistical significance and positive effect sizes that boffins wanting “evidence” so crave. The major finding of my research was that teaching and learning with 1:1 laptops was directly linked with students attaining better results in their HSC in biology, chemistry and physics. In most of the previous research in this area only evidence of generic qualities, such as increased motivation or engagement, had been found. My research actually provided hard numbers. Given the high stakes nature of HSC exams in NSW, these findings might be of interest to other teachers of senior students.

Biggest impact in physics, why?

Investigating further I found that 1:1 laptops had a bigger positive impact in physics than in biology and chemistry. The reasons for this seemed related. Physics teachers and students out-reported their peers in the other subjects in terms of using science specific applications e.g. simulations, science software and spreadsheets. They were using applications that would directly benefit the teaching and learning e.g. simulations for experiments that would be impossible to do otherwise. Digging further, this is not surprising as the physics syllabus encourages and even mandates the use of technology throughout the syllabus, whereas in say biology, there is no reference apart from some generic motherhood statements.

I am not claiming in any way that the physics teachers were better than the biology teachers with using technology (they may or may not be, I didn’t explore this), but that the physics teachers had a mandate to use technology and they did, whereas the biology teachers didn’t have the same obligations, so they did not.

Other findings

Students became more proactive

Even if teachers didn’t engage with the technology (a minority), the students would still do so of their own accord. Given that they had a laptop, it appears they really wanted to use it. Also, students were much more inclined to use more creative applications such as blogging, video editing and podcasting than their teachers.

Old practices continued

However, in contrast, while I observed that students moved away from using pen and paper and did more work on their laptops, they still took notes and worked from textbooks, as they did before they had their laptops. The only difference was they now used word processing for notes and electronic textbooks plus simple online searching. Essentially, the laptops were most commonly being used to perpetuate traditional practices. It must be understood however that these findings were from 2010 data, only one or two years into the DER. The question now should be what are the modal practices with technology in 2017?

Teachers had ‘fingers on the pulse’

Another interesting finding was regarding teachers’ perceptions of what students were doing on the laptops compared to what the students reported themselves. About one third of teachers very much had their fingers on the pulse and were quite aware of what their students were doing. Just over half had a medium sense of their students’ practices. One in six teachers appeared to be out of tune with their students’ practices.

Teacher case studies

The final findings were based on case studies of four science teachers. Not surprisingly, I found that different teachers started from different positions of use of and expertise with technology. However, over the years of the study, all teachers reported improvement in their use of and expertise with teaching with the laptops, especially those that were starting from the lowest baseline.

A shift in the power dynamics of the classroom

The most interesting finding from the teacher case studies was that the implementation of the laptops involved a renegotiation of the power dynamics of the classroom and a shift in the teachers’ role from traditional instructor to facilitator of independent learning.

All of the teachers involved reported a gradual relaxing of ‘control’ over time, trusting and collaborating with the students more, and allowing the students to take more of a lead in how to make best use of the technology.

Future impacts

Five years since the end of the DER (such is the nature of part-time research), I feel the findings of this study still have currency for today’s schools. Whatever the latest iteration of technology in schools, or indeed any new initiative, this research raises areas of consideration for future classroom practices and research.

Teachers need to have their fingers on the pulse of their students’ practices. If teachers and students use technologies to capitalise on the unique opportunities they provide, rather than as a gimmick, it has been demonstrated that teaching and learning will improve. Hopefully, this research will further encourage research into new initiatives to include a more quantitative analysis and measurements of improvement or lack thereof.

I would strongly advocate that teachers are consulted on their personal thoughts and experiences in advance to any new initiatives implemented by governments and administrations, based on my research, and that these are monitored over the course of the implementation.

Impact on new syllabuses

In NSW as in many other states and territories, new syllabuses are being written in light of the new(ish) Australian Curriculum. It is quite pertinent that syllabus writers take into consideration the latest research regarding their influence on teaching and learning practices. New syllabuses should encourage the use of and capitalise on technologies that have been demonstrated to benefit teaching and learning. Empty motherhoods statements or catering for the lowest common denominator are not good enough – contemporary syllabuses should be relevant to a contemporary world and evidence-based.

Throughout the time of the DER and in the years since, it has been the subject of persistent criticism, particularly within the right-wing media (it was a Labor initiative after all). However, as with any initiative, while there are often failings, there are also many successes.

In the post-truth world we now find ourselves, we could all benefit from looking at the evidence rather than just react to the constant flow of opinion and comment in the media.


Simon Crook has just completed his PhD in Physics Education Research at the University of Sydney. Producing a ‘thesis by publication’, most of his academic journal articles are already in the public domain. Professionally, Simon is a STEM education consultant with his company CrookED Science. He supports primary and secondary schools and school systems across Australia, providing professional development to teachers and working with students. Previously, he was a high school science teacher for 15 years in the UK and Sydney and eLearning Adviser for the Catholic Education Office Sydney for 6 years. You can find him on  Twitter @simoncrook and check out his website

This article is about the findings from my recently published PhD thesis entitled Evaluating the Impact of 1:1 Laptops on High School Science Students and Teachers, completed through the Physics Education Research group at the University of Sydney.