According to the Federal Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare, an estimated 380,000 (10%) of all Australian students aged 5-18 have a disability.
While principals and department heads are mindful that these students need additional supports to their non-disabled peers, research shows that schools are struggling when it comes to supporting their needs.
This is a challenge not lost on Matthew Johnson, president of the Australian Special Education Principals Association, who said that along with his other association principal colleagues, the number one challenge for ASEPA principals has been the ability to access and guarantee stability in their teaching workforce.
“This is especially challenging for our schools, classes and settings as we require experienced and qualified special educators and support staff to ensure program delivery and wellbeing for our students with complex needs,” Johnson told The Educator.
Johnson also pointed to the issue of “serious and ingrained inequity” with regard to funding across Australian schools.
“The vast majority of special schools and settings are government schools which are yet to see equity in funding and resources, and this has been supported by many recent reports and papers,” he said.
“Equity is also about access to appropriate supports for students with disability, be that respite care, therapists or paediatric support and assessment.”
Johnson said each state and territory is feeling the same pressures and challenges with regard to attracting and retaining a quality teaching workforce.
“There are many factors at play in this space and the distribution of teachers is not equal across sectors and regions. Each state and territory have their own nuances though and this makes a one size fits all solution a challenge,” he said.
“I am hopeful though, that key federal strategies can be agreed upon by each minister, especially with the view to raising the status of teaching and reducing the administrative burden to free teachers to collaborate and teach.”
Johnson also pointed to the importance of refocussing on delivering quality initial teacher education for special education trainees and a continued focus on internships and mentoring for new and beginning teachers.
“I honestly believe that the time has come for each principal to be able to have an executive assistant, not just a business manager, to assist them with the administrative load and to be able to refocus on teaching and learning in their schools,” he said.
“If I could wish for more, it would be for increased school counsellor time and a dedicated ‘wellbeing officer’ for each and every special school.”
Johnson said special education leaders cannot be expected to continue to manage never-ending new processes, implementations and polices without the commensurate administrative and wellbeing support.
“This is not just for our leaders’ and schools’ benefit, but to increase our time to give the focus back to our core business, supporting students with complex needs.”