It was alarming to hear a recent podcast released by the Department of Education, with Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education heading up the discussion with Vicki Baczynskyj, Principal of Canterbury Vale School at Lakemba – a secondary school providing ‘specialist environment’ to students with ‘behaviour or emotional disorders’ who experience a high rate of suspensions in schools.
Mr Scott introduced the podcast “Every Student” as a chance to showcase great leaders in education. What was concerning about this podcast episode was that the Department seems to have missed the mark on so many levels that we would need to write an essay to explore them all. Here are just some of the points we picked up:
This particular school is seen as a shining light because it is – and this is repeated many times throughout the podcast – “welcoming and supportive”. However, aren’t all our schools meant to be welcoming and supportive? The Department’s Disability Strategy states that they want to ensure that “all children and young people attending NSW schools are welcomed and included in their local school community” and that they all “receive an excellent education, with expertise available to support access to the full curriculum in a way that is relevant to them.” So why the need to separate these students, when they should have been welcomed and supported in their regular schools?
According to Ms Baczynskyj, at Canterbury Vale they are very good at “fitting the students to the environment” – this is another alarming statement as the system should be adapting and accommodating the environment to the students and not the other way around.
Ms Baczynskyj also states that Canterbury Vale is a place where many of the students can be successful for the first time in their schooling career. The fact that many of these students have gone through their entire primary schooling and have to attend a segregated, specialised setting to experience success doesn’t place the department of education in a very favourable light. This assertion should have been ringing alarm bells with Mr Scott – but instead he wholeheartedly agrees, saying “One of the things you do… is structure the learning so kids are experiencing success in a way that they may never have experienced success at school”.
For many students, according to Ms Baczynskyj, this is also the first time they are engaged in learning, which suggests that they cannot be engaged in the system unless they are specially catered for in this school. In fact she goes on to say that when students first visit the school, they are told “you have made really bad decisions and engaged really poorly in schools, yet the Department of Education still believes in you”. This assumes it is the students’ fault that they have failed, when in fact the system has set them up for failure. This approach by the principal adds to the emotional trauma that these students have already undergone within the education system.
The main reason Canterbury Vale’s 28 students attend that school is because of their history of repeated suspensions because they “might have aggressive violent behaviour, they are oppositional or are non-compliant”. At one point, Ms Baczynskyj calls the students ‘selfish’ because “they want their needs met straight away” – a statement that demonises these students. This is very concerning as the focus here is on the behaviour of the students, when what should be under scrutiny is the inadequacy of our policies and practices when it comes to supporting students with complex needs.
As we know, suspension is also a form of exclusion. According to the recent survey by Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA), many families report that “schools are using suspensions and ‘support needs’ as ways to prevent students from attending school full-time.” Canterbury Vale is clearly an example of this, a place where students have been excluded from their regular school altogether because they are “consistently getting suspended through the system” (*).
We acknowledge that Ms Baczynskyj is a passionate school leader and covered a number of positive practices implemented in her school, such as daily debriefing sessions with staff and the Making a Choice Framework which supports students to make more positive decisions - something most high school students would benefit from. Again, these should not be unique to a specialised setting when schools across the board would benefit from such approaches.
Over all however, this podcast represents a clear narrative from the Department in relation to how they view and treat students that present with complex considerations. Whilst the focus is on blaming the student, the focus required for whole of system reform will eventuate to not much more than what’s currently on offer. A statement such as “poor behaviour in school is often seeking attention, to stand out in a crowded classroom,” uttered by Mr Scott is very damaging coming from him, considering his position in the Department of Education, and the fact that he is leading the changes heralded by their recently released Disability Strategy.
A large missing piece in this podcast is the need for an overt connection between disability and behaviour. To shift old paradigms and mindsets, we believe it needs to be expressed and reinforced as often as possible that behaviour is communication of unmet needs, and it is especially important that educators understand and put this into practice.
For Mr Scott to embed his mantra where every child is "known, valued, and cared for", the onus of change must be squarely shifted on to the Department of Education to take responsibility to create the right conditions for success for all students. It requires that every teacher has a deep understanding of the student, and where the student has a disability, to consider their disability and the considerations that come with that, particularly around the supports they need to access education.
This was clearly a missed opportunity for Mr Scott and his Department to create more positive mindsets and culture change amongst department staff.
(*) Time for change: The state of play for inclusion of students with disability Results from the 2019 CYDA National Education Survey, Children and Young People with Disability Australia, October 2019