rights of a child

Students with disability have a right to inclusive education: Reviewing the Melbourne Declaration

Students with disability were not identified as an explicit priority within the Melbourne Declaration, a statement that was agreed back in 2008 by all Education Ministers in Australia. It stated that the main goal for education in Australia should be equity and excellence for all young Australians and outlined a commitment to action.

Now the declaration is being reviewed and we believe this presents an opportunity to address a critical gap in the original Declaration, which made no reference to inclusive education for students with disability, despite being published in the same year that Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and despite explicitly mentioning other equity groups.

The CRPD imposed legally binding obligations on State Parties including, through Article 24, to ensure an inclusive education system at all levels. This Review of the Melbourne Declaration provides the opportunity to emphasise the important role that inclusive education provides in combating discrimination to create a fairer and more cohesive society in which people with disability are active contributing members.

Omission of students with disability from the Melbourne Declaration

Many of the initiatives that resulted from the Melbourne Declaration perpetuated disadvantage for students with disability because they were not mentioned explicitly in the declaration. For example, by not naming students with disability as a priority equity group, there was no requirement to report disaggregated data for these students in NAPLAN or My School as there was for socioeconomic status and Indigeneity.  As a consequence, students with disability have been viewed as a liability by many schools, resulting in increased gatekeeping. Troubling statistics regarding low school completion rates, poor engagement in further education, and high post-school unemployment also show that schooling outcomes for Australians with disability have not improved during the period of the Declaration. This Review presents an important opportunity to ensure that improving the equity and quality of education for students with disability is named as a key priority.

The right to an inclusive education

In 2016, the United Nations published General Comment No. 4 (GC4) to provide guidance on the right to inclusive education. GC4 defined inclusive education, making it clear it is  distinct from (i) segregation, which is when students with disability are educated in separate schools and classes, and (ii) integration, which is when students with disability are enrolled in unreconstructed mainstream schools with the onus placed on the student to adjust to such environments. GC4 also explicitly specified the steps State Parties must undertake to realise the right to inclusive education. GC4 and General Comment No. 6 on equality and non-discrimination (GC6), which was published by the UN last year, state that the segregation of students with disability in education is a form of discrimination and a contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN Committee is reviewing Australia’s commitment and progress against the CRPD in September 2019.  A new Declaration that reflects Australia’s international legal obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would help demonstrate genuine commitment and intent, as well as provide a guiding framework to support realisation of the right to inclusive education across sectors nationally.

Proposed additions to the next Declaration

As members of AARE’s Inclusive Education Special Interest Group, and All Means All: The Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education, we have called upon the Federal Government to consider a range of important additions to the next Declaration.

First, we believe that the Declaration must include a commitment towards inclusive education at all levels of education. Any definition of inclusive education must be consistent with the CRPD. This would promote a nationally consistent understanding of inclusive education.

Second, the Melbourne Declaration stated that “Australian governments and all school sectors must provide all students with access to high-quality schooling that is free from discrimination based on … disability”.  The lack of an explicit reference to inclusive education in the Melbourne Declaration leaves both the quality and model open to interpretation. Replacing “high-quality schooling” with“high-quality inclusive education” would align the new Declaration with the National Disability Strategy (2010 – 2020).

The new Declaration should also emphasise the importance of active participation, consultation and involvement of children and their representatives in needs determination and education provision. This would ensure Australia meets its obligations enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Disability Standards for Education 2005, as well as elaborated in CRC General Comment 9 (2006) on the rights of children with disabilities, CRC General Comment 12 (2009) on the right of the child to be heard, and the aforementioned GC4 and GC6.   

Third, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: Australian governments and all school sectors must … reduce the effect of other sources of disadvantage, such as disability, homelessness, refugee status and remoteness”. However, the Declaration gave no indication as to how this might be achieved, and made no acknowledgement of the societal barriers that create and perpetuate the disadvantage that constitutes disability. In the next Declaration, we recommended the following revised statement,

Australian governments and all school sectors must ensure that structural, physical, attitudinal and cultural barriers to learning, participation and achievement are removed, that students are actively involved in decisions made about their education, and effective teaching and leadership practices are implemented, to support all students in making progress at school regardless of their personal characteristics.

Fourth, the Melbourne Declaration stated that: “Australian governments and all school sectors mustpromote personalised learning that aims to fulfil the diverse capabilities of each young Australian”. This terminology is not consistent with the terminology being used in recent cross-government initiatives, such as the National School Improvement Tool or the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Students with Disability. In the next Declaration, we recommend the phrase “personalised learning” is replaced by “quality differentiated teaching practice”, “Universal Design for Learning” and “reasonable adjustments”.

Our vision for Australian education

The next national aspirational declaration on Australian education should put forward a view of educational purpose that is ambitious for, and inclusive of, all Australian students. It should provide guidance to ensure that purpose and vision is achieved for all students, in ethical and inclusive ways. It should require appropriate support to enable the educational growth of all students and embrace student diversity as inherently normal and economically, culturally and socially beneficial. It should cover all levels of education — early childhood, school, vocational and higher education — and express broad principles expected of each.

The Declaration should motivate and inspire educators, and school and system leaders, as well as gather all stakeholders around a common goal. It should be consistent with the Australian government’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a clear progression to end segregated education and exclusionary practices. The removal of systemic pressures that might inhibit the progress of inclusion has education, employment and lifelong benefits for all.

Dr Shiralee Poed is a senior lecturer in learning intervention at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education within the University of Melbourne. Shiralee is also the co-chair of the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia, member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Professor Linda Graham leads the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (SELB) Research Group in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. Linda is also the co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and board member of All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education and Chair of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel.

Cátia Malaquias is a lawyer, an award winning human rights and inclusion advocate and a co-founder and an Advisor of All Means All.  Catia is also the founder and director of Starting With Julius, a board member of the Attitude Foundation and Down Syndrome Australia, and a co-founder of the Global Alliance for Disability in Media.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Kate is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the University of Sydney. Ilektra is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Education at QUT. Jenna is also a member of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG, and member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Emily Cukalevski is a lawyer and disability rights advocate.  Emily is also an advisor for All Means All.

Dr Peter Walker is a lecturer in inclusive education at Flinders University. Peter is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

Marijne Medhurst is a senior research assistant in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Haley Tancredi is a research assistant and sessional academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education within the Faculty of Education at QUT, and a certified practising speech pathologist. Haley is also a co-convenor of the AARE Inclusive Education SIG.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in inclusive education at the Department of Educational Studies, Macquarie University. Kathy is also a member of the All Means All Academic Advisory Panel

No child should be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of a school or ‘best interests’ of majority. This is what child rights is about

Everyone has the right to safe working conditions and environments including children. This right is not negated by misbehaviour or convenience, or because a child’s removal from a situation or classroom will make the rest of the class easier to manage. 

I am not saying that children should be permitted to ‘get away’ with whatever they want and that actions should have no consequence. However, our obligations under various human rights treaties (to which Australia is a signatory) mandates that behaviour management should always be implemented in a way that respects the human dignity of the individual regardless of what they are alleged to have done.

You would think most people would agree with me, but debate following media headlines about the use of restrictive practices in schools – especially when relating to students with a disability and/or challenging behaviour – indicates that public opinion is very divided on the use of physical restraint and/or punishment for children in education contexts.

Exactly what happened in each of these cases is often not clear, however everyone seems to have an opinion about the actions taken and broadcast in the media. As I see it, these cases open up a bigger issue that we need to talk about.

The bigger issue we need to talk about

The bigger, yet unexamined, issue that underlies this debate is the ‘acceptability’ of mistreating an individual if their mistreatment is considered to be in the majority’s ‘best interests’. It is a battle where the rights of the many are perceived to trump the rights of the individual.

This battle plays out in numerous ways in schools. For example, we can see it in responses to systemic pressures such as NAPLAN performance, where lower achieving students are given permission to not attend school on testing days in the ‘best interests’ of the school’s reputation. It is also visible when schools attempt to justify the exclusion of students with disabilities or challenging behaviour because it ‘puts a strain’ on resources or the teacher.

A more subtle example is when teachers reward or punish children for behavioural or academic choices by restricting who is and is not permitted to use the toilet during class.

Schools and teachers play a vital role in helping shape children’s lives and the way children interact with one another and the world around them. Respecting children’s rights through daily school practices has wider reaching effects than keeping a child in class to learn or training them to use the bathroom at appropriate times.

In our research, my colleagues and I consistently come across such examples. So much so that it has become a theme over multiple projects: many students feel their rights are not respected at school. The examples we have noted relate to choices, respect, control, and the inability to enact basic rights (e.g. going to the toilet) for what might seem to the students to be arbitrary reasons.

The denial of basic rights, including being removed or excluded from education experiences because their removal is deemed to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority, often fails to assure the child’s right to education in a way that respects their human dignity. Children may then develop a mistrust of adults who ultimately want to help them. This may lead to reluctance to go to teachers about other rights or general concerns such as safety/protection, self-harm, discrimination, or generally just feeling low.

This many/few tension is also not unique to adult-child interactions. There are also many examples of parents and teachers battling for assurance that their rights as an individual will not be lost in what is thought to be in the ‘best interests’ of the majority. There are frequent cases where teachers have actively advocated for the rights of their students (or groups of students) to counter restrictive policy or governmental mandates.

How do rights actually work?

The problem with much current discourse is that it pits rights groups against each other. It presents a view that certain rights or the rights of certain people are more/less important than others, when this is not the case.

Whether considering the rights of a child or rights of an adult, we are all humans, and all human rights are indivisible, interconnected, universal, and equal.

In the same way there is no quota for rights (i.e. only a certain number of rights to go around), they are also not something that can be ‘traded off’ for convenience or due to complexity.

There may be times when rights may indeed seemingly compete with one another. For example, when being verbally confrontational, an individual’s right to ‘freely express themselves’ may be thought to conflict with another’s right to protection from harm if the individual’s self-expression is considered abusive.

However, the right to protection from harm includes protection from physical or mental violence, injury or abuse. So, if the individual’s self-expression is deemed discriminatory or abusive in nature (e.g. in some cases of bullying or verbal abuse), it is actually subject to restrictions as “necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others…”.

This means that being abusive, discriminatory, physically or emotionally violent towards another is certainly not an individual right or entitlement. The right of the individual to be protected from harm outweighs the ‘right’ of the individual to freely express themselves, as abusive/discriminatory expressions of this nature are not actually part of the right to freely express oneself at all.

These and other similar rights tensions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of human rights and what they constrain and enable. It is these misunderstandings that contribute to a polarising focus on absolutes. These absolutes then distract from the main issue of wide acceptance when the choice is made to restrict or sacrifice an individual or group’s rights for the ‘greater good.’

An associated problem with this many/few discourse, especially for education, is that pitching groups against each other (majorities vs minorities; teachers vs students; students vs students; parents vs teachers) also discourages members of these groups from listening to each other.

Significant transformation can occur when different stakeholders actually start listening to one another, and perhaps more importantly, actively seek ways to authentically engage with and act on students expressed needs and experiences.

All stakeholders ultimately have the same goal. That is, to try to ensure and assure that all children are provided with a quality education that fosters the holistic development of each child. Trying to act in the best interests of the majority can therefore neglect a significant and underutilised resource in seeking to understand the student experience from the perspective of students themselves.

Benefits of teachers and schools listening to students

Recently we worked with a school on their journey to seek, include, and act upon wellbeing matters identified by students. Through this process, the school evaluated, refined, added, and developed student wellbeing provisions to connect directly to what mattered to students.

Throughout the project (funded by QLD Government Horizon Grant), students valued being able to “work on something that’s impactful for the school… normally we don’t get to do that kind of thing… Teachers and adults are [now] able to see our point of view of things that are happening around the school” (Grade 9 student) and actively contribute to enhancing the school experience. Students referred to developing greater confidence in themselves, as well as leadership, and transferable academic and critical thinking skills as a result of their project activities.

Student voice can be powerful. Some of the benefits we found in our research, include:-

  • Student voice can strengthen existing relationships between students and staff, or cultivate the formation of new relationships.
  • Student voice enables preventative and proactive resolutions for school related decisions
  • Student voice increases mutual understandings and respect of multiple perspectives, even when you may not personally agree with the perspective.
  • Student voice supports all members of the school community in feeling valued, connected and invested in the school experience.

Obtaining a better understanding of the student experience from the student perspective also enables greater insight into students lived realities and can change the way adults and children respond to one another.

When decisions are made that affect students, they are often not consulted or provided the opportunity to give feedback. Being authentic in seeking and actively including students in decisions and processes relating to their school experience also enables greater ownership and connectedness to the process of education and reiterates that they are a valued stakeholder – not just a passive consumer.

Ultimately, listening to all children enables greater insight into what really matters for students in the school environment and whether the interventions and strategies that we as adults are focused on, are actually able to address each child’s identified needs.

Respecting rights is enacting the core business of schools

When teachers and other school staff listen to and respect the rights of all their students, they are enacting the core business of education; that is, to support the full and holistic development of the individual “to their fullest potential.” As one teacher noted, they’re “starting to notice already, it’s changing the culture of how teachers are starting to view their role, like I’m not just a [subject] teacher, I’m a teacher of a student. Looking at the student holistically and looking at the mindset of teachers…”

Working in partnership with students supports a rights centred approach to education in fostering the “development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” while enabling “the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality… and friendship among all…”

In doing so, we are one step closer to an educational system that is more equipped to support the diversity of each child, in all contexts. We need to assure the child’s right to “preparation for responsible life in a free society” and protect that right against the tendency for some to believe the rights of the few/individual should be sacrificed to enable the rights of the many.

Jenna Gillett-Swan is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation. She also specialises in qualitative child-centred participatory research methodologies. Jenna is the Children’s Rights Research Strand Leader for the QUT Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group, co-convenor of the Research on Children’s Rights in Education Network of the European Educational Research Association .  Jenna is on Twitter  @jkgillettswan. She is co-founder of #ChildRightsChat Twitter chat

Jenna is participating in the forum Child Rights and Wellbeing at School as part of the Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour (#SELB) Research Group at QUT on Wednesday 20th Feb.

  • The image on this blog is a joint effort by three students working together during our research project. They were asked to think about what a school with wellbeing would look like, and this is what they came up with.