New evidence to the Disability Royal Commission has revealed a broken education system that enables too many young people to leave school without basic skills.
The Royal Commission’s latest round of hearings, held in Canberra this month, found that students with disabilities were routinely being let down by a widespread lack of support across both mainstream and specialist schools.
In response, leading specialists in inclusion and disability have called for an urgent overhaul of legislation.
“It’s been devastating to hear stories of young people graduating from school without having acquired the basic skills of literacy, numeracy, or having received appropriate communication support,” Inclusive Educators Australia co-founder Loren Swancutt said.
“Just as concerning, however, is that one impression that might be formed from testimony presented to the Commissioners, is that some students do not have the capacity to learn or be included at their local school; that low expectations of them are justified. As professionals and experts, we know that this is absolutely not the case.”
Learning Difficulties Australia council member Dr Kate de Bruin, also a senior lecturer in inclusive education at Monash University, said all young people were entitled to quality education and support tailored to their requirements.
She said some students with disability would require more intensive support to acquire skills, while those with complex communication support needs would additionally benefit from allied health input, such as specialist services and access to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) options.
“It is not necessary for students to attend a special school to access any of these supports – these can all be implemented in mainstream schools,” Dr de Bruin said.
“In fact, research shows this group make significantly greater gains when they are supported to learn in inclusive settings.”
Dr Roslyn Neilson, Secretary of Learning Difficulties Australia, noted the difficulty this created for families.
“On one hand, their local mainstream school may lack the resources or the capacity to deliver a high-quality and inclusive education for students with a disability. On the other hand, choosing a special school can reduce the benefits of their child’s full participation in society.”
Autism Awareness Australia Chief Executive Officer Nicole Rogerson said witness testimonies had highlighted the need for urgent change.
“At the moment, families face an impossible choice when it comes to educating their children with additional needs,” she said.
“We need laws, policies, teacher and allied health education programs and funding models that work in harmony across all parts of the system to support all students to receive a quality and inclusive education, without exception.”
Matthew Johnson, president of the Australian Special Education Principals Association (ASEPA), says the special education principal role is, even in ‘normal’ times, “one of extreme challenge, complexity, and conflicting pressures.”
“Due to the range of issues and demands faced by our special school leaders today, a greater emphasises must be placed on both understanding needs and providing support, not just to our leaders and teachers but our students and their families,” Johnson told The Educator.
“Essentially, we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Johnston says targeted research needs to be made in the area of wellbeing for principals and leaders in special education to build on the existing data from the annual Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey and to identify tangible actions and supports.
“Our support for each other as leaders across our schools is vital,” he said.
“Many people look at resilience programs and the like, but an individual leaders’ resilience is simply not sustainable without concrete supports, sufficient qualified staff and appropriate time and resourcing to do the job.”