Opinion: No matter how much you tinker with the Titanic, it's still heading for the iceberg

Opinion: No matter how much you tinker with the Titanic, it

After reviewing the Progress Report: Improving outcomes for students with disability 2020 recently released by the NSW Department of Education, we once again commend the Department for their good intentions to improve outcomes for students with disability and following through on some of the recommendations from the 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry.

However good intentions are not enough if NSW is to have a quality equitable inclusive education system in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), General Comment No 4 (2016), Article 24: Right to Inclusive Education (to which Australia is a signatory). Good intentions also only go so far when there is a lack of clear direction as to what the Department is actually working towards. This has been a constant symptom of the process throughout the design and delivery of the disability strategy, and unfortunately there is no resolution in sight.

Tinkering and good intentions won’t bring about the necessary transformation

The recent Disability Royal Commission hearing on education strongly highlighted that tinkering and good intent did not provide the necessary safeguards to ensure a quality, safe inclusive education for students with disability. The evidence presented pointed to the necessity of whole systems transformation.

An example of the Department’s tinkering is mandating that all school principals are trained on the Disability Standards for Education. This is absolutely necessary. Certainly, according to many of the families we hear from, the success - or failure - of the inclusion journey for their child with disability often depends on the willingness and the skill of the school leadership. And when a child is genuinely included at school, the natural by-product is safety from abuse and neglect. However, given the Standards have been in existence since 2005, it is a sad state of affairs if the Department believes this is a notable achievement after 15 years. This is comparable to teaching the head engineers of the Titanic about the basic health and safety measures of a ship.

One of the reasons the success of inclusion is too often dependent on the skill and commitment of school leadership and personnel is because there is a lack of systemic capacity to meet the educational and social needs of all students. This is the issue that needs addressing, and it goes beyond a lack of funding.

Further, there is a severe lack of data from which to make informed decisions and to be transparent to the public and accountable to parents. The lack of data and lack of access to data is a problem that has been raised over the last few decades. Without these data, the ship is missing the key coordinates it needs to stay on course.

Barriers to inclusive education are increasing

Education issues constitute over half of Family Advocacy’s enquiries from parents and our calls over the last 5 years have doubled. Based on what we hear, parents continue to struggle to have their children included on the same basis as their peers. All too often we hear about the barriers that prevent students with disability achieving equitable outcomes which include gatekeeping the enrolment, partial enrolments, low expectations, lack of inclusive curricula, lack of individual education plans, lack of ongoing reasonable adjustments leading to a rise in suspensions, lack of reasonable assessments, use of restrictive practices, and poor transitions. The COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to widen the gaps that already existed for people with disability, and we heard many stories from students with disabilities being left behind at this time.

As founding members of the Australian Coalition of Inclusive Education (ACIE), we have heard similar stories from disability advocacy organisations across the country. Disability based segregation and home-schooling in NSW (and Australia) have increased over the last decade, with a shift towards students with disability attending special schools and away from attending mainstream schools. The number of students with disability across Australia attending a special school increased by 35% between 2003 and 2015. This increase is supported by a funding incentive, whereby a child with disability receives higher funding if they attend a special school rather than a mainstream school.

Further to this, funding incentives are given to local schools when support classes are established within the school. The Department needs to address the increasing rate of segregation of students with disability and redirect adequate resources to full inclusion into mainstream classes, not provide incentives to increase segregation. This is one of many processes that works against desegregating our NSW system. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that these inconsistencies work against the good intentions of the department and the ‘tinkering’ approach will never work when there are strong incentives and feedback loops that support the status quo.

What needs to occur to achieve an inclusive education system?

We need a commitment to move towards evidence based inclusive practices in the regular class, and to gradually phase out segregated settings. The Department must acknowledge the current structure of the dual system of education with multiple places to segregate students based on their disability contravenes the CRPD and it is outright discrimination, denying students with disability from accessing an inclusive education.

The Department needs to create a roadmap for achieving inclusive education in Australia over the next decade in order to comply with the UN Sustainability Development Goals 2030, where Australia signed up to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. This long-term Action Plan for Inclusive Education needs to include a legislative and policy framework that fully complies with Article 24 and CRPD General Comment 4.

Transformation will not happen overnight, but it can happen

We are not suggesting that schools for specific purposes be closed overnight. Instead, we propose a transitional plan that is phased over a 10-year period, implemented in stages and utilising the expertise of special educators. It is not the teachers, but the setting that needs to change for students with disability so that they can experience physical, social and curricular inclusion and thus gain the benefits that forty years of research has consistently confirmed: better student engagement, social development, mental health, academic and vocational outcomes.

It is not enough to say we want to improve the special schools, support units and mainstream school settings to improve outcomes for students with disability. This is not inclusion. This will not solve the root cause of the barriers faced by students with disability. Whilst there is an option to send a child with disability elsewhere, very little will change. We have been very disheartened to see recently the release of video clip that attempts to showcase inclusion in a segregated classroom as an example of good inclusion and as a learning tool for educators and families alike. The clarity needed within the inclusive education policy is paramount in ensuring that they are steering the ship on the right course and must include clear signposts to what evidenced based inclusion is. For the Department to adopt a policy with this clarity will be a promising step in the right direction.

We strongly urge the NSW Department of Education to show leadership and ensure the upcoming proposed Inclusive Education Policy is written in accordance with the UNCRPD and in particular adopting the definition of inclusive education in line with General Comment No. 4. 

If this does not happen, the Department’s version of inclusive education is just like a refurbished Titanic still heading for disaster.

A Roadmap for achieving inclusive education in Australia already exists

ACIE has already developed a 10-year plan, Driving change: A Roadmap for achieving inclusive education in Australia. We strongly recommend the adoption of this Roadmap to help realise equitable education outcomes for students with disability. The 10-year plan is underpinned by six pillars that are drawn from the evidence base and embed the rights of students as outlined in the CRPD. The pillars are: Ensure inclusive education, Phase out segregated education, Increase educational outcomes, Stop gatekeeping and other discrimination, Eliminate restrictive practices, and Prevent suspensions and expulsions.

Enough with the tinkering and let’s get serious about righting the wrongs of the current system. We need a concrete commitment to progressively realise authentic inclusive education and this can only be achieved by making the bold political move to declare there will be no more segregation, and using the ACIE Roadmap to get there. Anything short of this is simply providing a summary of activity, which is what the Progress report: improving outcomes for students with disability 2020 essentially is.

We can change the direction of the Titanic thoughtfully, slowly, gradually and safely. All parts of the system need to work together to ensure that inclusive education is achieved. Together we can bring the ship to safety and forge a society that values each human being for their sameness as well as their differences, where everyone is included, belongs, has the opportunity to reach their potential, contributes to the best of their ability and has a true sense of community. Let’s end segregation for the adults of the future.

Cecile Sullivan Elder is the executive officer of Family Advocacy, a NSW organisation working with families to promote and defend the rights and interests of people with developmental disability.