Family Advocacy commends the NSW Government for following through on the Parliamentary Inquiry into Students with a disability or special needs in New South Wales (2017) and tabling its first report on the educational progress in relation to the Inquiry’s recommendations, as accountability is essential in this process. We also acknowledge that the NSW Minister for Education, the Hon. Sarah Mitchell MLC, wants to follow through with the change that the strategy proposes. These are the makings of a good start.
In the report, entitled Progress Report: Improving outcomes for students with disability 2019 (which can be downloaded here) the Minister refers to ‘Improving the Inclusivity of education in NSW.’ What is significantly problematic about this statement is that currently the NSW Education system does not have a clear definition of what inclusive education is. The Department’s current definition attempts to avoid both evidence and effective practice. It does not refer to important elements such as settings, it does not make a distinction between inclusion, segregation, integration and exclusion, nor does it draw from over 60 years research concerning this evidence-based definition. Instead, the approach within the department seems to be ‘let’s just wait and see’ and then ‘let’s develop our own’. We acknowledge that creative thinking can lead to creative practice; however this notion has no place in the current discussion regarding the definition of inclusive education. It this is not addressed now, there is significant danger that it will lead the Department away from the core objective of the strategy, which is inclusion.
We commend teacher education and acknowledge that this forms a critical step to transforming our current system. However, the Department’s recently launched scholarship program, highlighted in the report, is for teachers to take Master’s degrees in both 'inclusive' and 'special' education. As the objective of the strategy specifically highlights the focus on inclusive education, it is nonsensical that ‘special’ education is even considered. Scholarships should only be directed towards ‘Inclusive Education’ qualifications for this to be effective. We will be keen to observe how then these Inclusive Education qualified teachers will be deployed within the department. Consideration will need to be given to how these educators will support the broader work across the department.
The ‘Innovation Fund’ also highlighted in the report has significant potential to shift some practices across NSW. The cautionary tale from many similar approaches to change strongly indicates that ‘Innovation’ needs to be clearly defined. What are we actually reaching for, and what will lead us in this direction? Otherwise, much of the NSW government’s funds will go towards projects that do not authentically build the capacity of the education system toward inclusive practice. Careful consideration needs to be undertaken to make the most of this fund.
The report also refers to parental choice as to the most appropriate setting for their child. With extensive gatekeeping practices occurring across the state both directly and indirectly for many families, parental choice is extremely limited; it is not uncommon for parents to have their child with disability rejected by 10 or so schools before finding a school that will welcome their child into the regular classroom. Many pre-schoolers are turned away before they even have the opportunity to start their school journey. Unfortunately, in 2019 this practice is widespread. Parents are also strongly informed by departmental staff that their child should be in a particular setting. Many with convincing arguments that lead parents to believe that they are making the best and only choice. This approach by educators clearly refers to outdated ideas and practices regarding where students with disability belong, and this needs to change. If this is going to be authentically looked at, then the department needs to undertake a very close look at its practices. The rights of the child are often overlooked in this situation and the UN Convention, Article 24, general comment four specifically highlights this issue. The ‘rights of the child’ trump the rights of the parent.
We were pleased to read that the Minister is looking into the significant issue of suspension of students within the education system and the over representation of students with disability. Several issues regarding this need to be considered; the main one is the fact that behaviour is a form of communication. We need to ask - why is a child behaving in this way and importantly what is going on in this child’s environment for this to occur? All too often children and adults with disability are vilified for their behaviours with little or no reflection occurring in systems regarding why this is the response from the person. Disability is not an indicator of whether a student has a behavioural issue. The behavioural issue is an indicator of whether supports and environments are working well for the student.
In considering the other jurisdictions around the world that have undertaken the steps to transform their education systems to be inclusive, a commonality has existed whereby the government has enlisted the support of academics who are highly regarded in the inclusive education sphere. If the Department is going to get this right, it needs to make a similar commitment and enlist a world-class academic in inclusive education. We are not short of them in Australia and some are often used internationally for their expertise. The Department needs to work with these ‘experts’ and bring them closely into the fold. This approach needs to be broader than the current ‘consultation’ approach: it needs to bring them directly into the heart on the Implementation Team. We cannot rely on well-intentioned government staff to undertake this task. External expertise is required; otherwise, this strategy will not have the legs it so desperately deserves.
It is promising to hear the NSW government’s concern regarding the ‘actual progress’ that is occurring in ensuring the rights and interests of students with disability are met. However, as previously stated, we need an ‘Evidence based Inclusive Education Policy’ - it simply does not make sense without it. We also need government to commit to winding back current structures that do not fulfil both our UN Convention obligations or the moral imperative for all students to belong. A respectful debate is needed in NSW and Family Advocacy would welcome the opportunity to be a part of this.
Executive Officer, Family Advocacy