We finally have a new Federal Government in Australia, after a record-length eight week campaign and a further week of counting results. But while our politicians have been waiting nine weeks for results, our students with disabilities have been waiting many years to see progress on true inclusion in schools.
In the lead up to the election, we saw all the key parties make comment on education for children with disabilities, in the wake of the damning Senate Report on their educational access and attainment. While the NSW State Government has responsibility for the operation and management of schools, the Federal Government are responsible for national policies and programmes that help Australians access quality and affordable early child care and childhood education, school education, higher education, vocational education and training, international education and research. This includes policies like the Disability Standards in Education, Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability, and Every Student Every School.
The Liberal Party, which just won the Australian federal election, said that they would allocate $118 million in funding for schools to support students with disability in 2016 and 2017, using information from the National Data on Students with Disability, however, there was little information about how this money would be spent. Now that they are back in government, we need answers about this spending.
However, beyond answers on the allocated funding, we need our government to face up to the fact that Australia is failing to make progress toward true inclusion of our children with disability in schools.
In January 2016 the United Nations (UN) draft general comment on the right to inclusive education was released, stating:
Recognition of inclusion as the key to achieving the right to education has strengthened over the past 20 years, and is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities… Inclusive education is also central to the achievement of high quality education for all learners and for the development of more inclusive societies. It is part of a wider strategy promoting inclusive development, with the goal of creating a world where there is peace, tolerance, sustainable use of resources and social justice, and where the basic needs and rights of all are met… Many millions of persons with disabilities continue to be denied a right to education, and for many more, such education as is available only exists in settings where they are isolated from their peers and receive an inferior quality of provision. The equal right to education for persons with disabilities, while clearly mandated, is not being comprehensively implemented.
The Australian government’s response to the UN draft comment, under the leadership of the re-elected Liberal Party, affirmed the role of special schools and support units which segregate our children, despite the human rights, economic, and social case against these settings. The Australian Government stated:
Australia’s view is that a State Party will meet its obligations under Article 24 through an education system that allows for funding of different education modalities so students with disability are able to participate in a range of education options including enrollment in mainstream classes in mainstream schools with additional support, specialist classes or units in mainstream schools and specialist schools. A range of education options ensure that the best interests of the student are a primary consideration…
Separate systems of segregated schooling for students with disability show worse or at best neutral academic and social outcomes, but come at the great cost of normalising the separation of people with disability from everyday life. This parallel system costs significant financial and teaching resources which could be better spent supporting kids to have regular school experiences. One mum associated with Family Advocacy has noted that in her small local area the number of support units has increased from zero to three (that she is aware of) in two years. Inevitably, the presence of support units puts pressure on parents (and educators) to further isolate already vulnerable children.
In essence, the failure to transfer resources from segregated “special” schooling to regular/mainstream inclusive schooling stunts the development of a genuinely inclusive system … and that failure is being effectively attributed by the Australian government to a need to respect “parental choice” – albeit a choice that parents are frequently asked to make without regard to the applicable human rights framework, in the absence of proper “evidence-based” information, on biased “gatekeeping” advice and without any faith that their child will be “included” by the mainstream system … that is not a basis for informed or free parental choice upon which any government should be able to sleep peacefully.
The onus is now on the federal government – and advocates – to put forward an agenda that leads to better outcomes for our children. The research tells us that will mean heading toward true inclusion.