Students with disabilities and those from Indigenous communities still face exclusion from Australia’s mainstream schools, despite “changes in policies and attitudes” in the educational system, a new report from United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has revealed.
However, the global report also noted that the education sector has already implemented several measures and initiatives to address the issue.
Barriers to inclusion
The 2020 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, titled “Inclusion and Education: All Means All,” listed the persistence of bullying as among the biggest roadblocks to inclusion in schools.
“Generally, the students most likely to be victimized are those perceived as differing from social norms or ideals,” the report said. “They include sexual, ethnic and religious minorities, and low-income, and special needs students.”
According to the report, a recent study that found 56% of students with disabilities in Australia had experienced bullying in the past 12 months. The figure was more than twice the rate observed in the general school-aged population.
A separate study also revealed that 40% of students with Indigenous backgrounds in New South Wales and Victoria had reported having discriminated against by peers while a fifth experienced discrimination by teachers.
The report added that these hindrances to inclusive education can sometimes be compounded by insufficient preparation.
“To build inclusive schools, head teachers need knowledge and understanding of inclusion,” the report said.
“Leadership support and professional development for inclusion should focus less on administration and more on learning and achievement, and cover areas such as evidence-informed decision making and use of data.”
However, a third of Australian principals who participated in the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) admitted to receiving no prior instructional leadership training.
The report also found that the access of students with disabilities to qualified teachers was somewhat impeded by overdependence on unqualified support personnel. It cited instances when students received more instruction from teaching assistants than from qualified teachers.
“The situation is exacerbated when teachers consider teaching assistants responsible for individual students, enabling the teachers to abdicate professional responsibility for these students,” the report said.
This has left some parents feeling that they have no choice but to transfer their children out of mainstream schools.
A Queensland survey showed that 37% of parents had moved their children to special schools because they felt mainstream institutions provided “insufficient provision for academic learning” and a “lack of inclusive ethos,” which caused their children “emotional strain.”
However, the report noted that Australia’s education sector has taken action to address these issues with the implementation of several programs and initiatives to strengthen inclusivity in schools.
Among these is the adoption of a flexible curriculum, which identifies “four levels of adjustment (extensive, substantial, supplementary, and support with quality differentiated teaching practice) for four categories of disability (cognitive, physical, sensory, and social-emotional).”
Australia also uses a nationwide data collection tool called the Australia Early Childhood Development (AECD) Census to regularly assess whether young children are developmentally on track when they start school.
The tool enabled the education sector to develop ways to close the developmental gap for the most disadvantaged children, including those in those in remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those with home languages other than English.
Programs for adult learners with disabilities have also been made available.
Australia’s two-year LatchOn literacy program, for example, gives adults with intellectual disabilities opportunities to continue literacy skills development.
The program facilitates inclusion through small group courses, an individual approach where necessary, and access to computer technology. A student newsletter also connects participants with young adults across the country.
Another program, the Higher Education Disability Support Program (HEDSP), which is part of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), addresses the needs of deaf students by covering costs for sign language interpreters, note taking, and examination assistance.
Some states are likewise implementing policies and programs to promote inclusion.
In Victoria, refugee well-being committees were established to help displaced students adapt to a new environment and connect them to psychological support units.
In Queensland, teachers willing to work in rural and remote areas can be entitled to rent subsidies and financial benefits, depending on location and degree of remoteness.
Australia targets worldwide inclusion
Australia’s efforts to improve inclusivity in schools are not limited within its shores. According to the report, several nations have benefited from Australia’s support to promote inclusive education.
Fiji was able to upgrade its education management information systems (EMIS) to improve indicators for disability-inclusive education through technical and financial support from the Australia-funded Access to Quality Education Program.
Through Australian Aid, Australia was also able to release a “universal design guide” and provide funding to help in the installation of inclusive facilities in schools in neighbouring countries. These facilities include wheelchair-accessible toilets, handrail, and ramps.
Currently, all schools built under Indonesia’s Basic Education Program and all primary schools rehabilitated by the Kiribati Education Improvement Program adhere to these design principles.