special schools

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.