The authentic inclusion of students with disability across NSW schools continues to be a hit and miss experience for many students, often with lifelong negative consequences. For many years, the disability advocacy sector has been calling for the NSW Department of Education to develop an inclusive education policy that strengthens inclusive education practice across our schools.
Recently, the Department released the long-awaited Inclusive Education Policy (officially starting Term 3, 2022). Family Advocacy has been one of the lead organisations seeking this policy development and was deeply disappointed to see that the policy is missing a critical component – the definition of what an inclusive education setting actually is.
“The definition of inclusive education needs to be in alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” says Cecile Sullivan Elder, Family Advocacy’s Executive Officer. “What is key about this definition is that it defines not only what inclusive education is, but what it is not; Under this definition, being in a special school or support unit is certainly not inclusion, but rather segregation.”
Not only this, but the policy highlights the ongoing investment in educational settings that segregate children with disability from their peers, rather than include them like for instance schools for specific purposes, stating that “For some students, it may also mean attending more than one learning environment during their education. For example, attending a school for special purposes, or a support class in primary of secondary school.”
How can an education system that segregates 26,264 students with disability from their peers call itself inclusive? That is a lot of kids being segregated from society - enough to fill a home game for the GWS Giants Stadium. In fact, this figure shows that the numbers are heading in the wrong direction: enrolments in special schools and support units has steadily risen by 7.8% since 2018 to 2021, whilst the population rate is on the decline (-3.4% in NSW in 2020).
Julie Charlton, member of the NSW Disability Youth Council, says “time and time again the NSW Department of Education has segregated us from our peers and our ability to thrive in life. As they continue to do so by not removing Schools for Special Purposes and having exclusionary policies like this one, we continue to feel excluded from society.”
Research over the last four decades demonstrates that segregation has a profoundly negative impact in both learning and social integration. Of course, it is not just the child with a disability that misses out on all the rites of passage their peers experience, such as going to school camp, but the students in regular classes are deprived of the opportunity of learning and growing from experiencing the benefits of diversity in the classroom.
Segregation at school has a flow on effect with employment. At the Disability Royal Commission’s Public Hearing 9, Ms Catherine McAlpine of Inclusion Australia spoke about the “polished pathway” as a means of describing the relative ease of transition from special or segregated education into supported or segregated employment and congregated housing. She also gave evidence that people have to be “pretty determined” to reach the goal of open employment.
NSW is in danger of falling behind other states such as Queensland, which adopted the definition of inclusion from the United Nations in their inclusive Education Policy Statement. Australia has signed up to this. NSW has chosen NOT to.
The Department’s mantra is that “Every child is known valued and cared for”. And we know children that learn together, learn to live together. Segregation in all forms takes us away from becoming a diverse society where our differences are respected. In inclusive schools, all students can thrive together. When the Department of Education adopts the true meaning of inclusion in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, our society, as a whole, will be much better off. We urge NSW to take the lead on this matter and disrupt the status quo for the good of our society.