'Special Schools' Can Only Do So Much


On Monday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced an additional funding boost to special schools of $76 million over six years. This equates to approximately $30,000 each year per school. There is no doubt that a funding injection must underpin the breadth of reforms needed, but this money will do little to fix a system that is badly failing students with disability.

In the last two weeks alone, I have been informed of a child being put in a cage in their classroom for “behaviour management”, a young girl experiencing relentless bullying including being tied up by other students in the playground and of a boy being “king hit”. These examples are unfortunately not unique, and while shocking I am not surprised to know they are occurring in both mainstream and special schools. Many families tell me of an inability to access full time schooling due to inadequacies in school resources and the typical culture of low expectations. If students without disability had these experiences at school it would be headline news.

Sadly and shamefully the reporting of these experiences in education is not unusual, it is in fact typical that students with disability experience discrimination, exclusion, lack of appropriate funding  and even abuse throughout their education. If a student with disability can boast that they can access their education on the same basis as their peers without disability, it is like winning the lottery. So why is it that that these children, arguably those most in need, fail to attract the attention, policy and funding that is so badly needed?

Last Friday Unicef released The State of the World’s Children 2013 – Children with Disabilities. Despite its common reference to developing countries, the report is relevant to Australia. It stresses that change for children with disability is not possible without a change of attitude. It states “ignorance about the nature and causes of impairments, invisibility of the children themselves, serious underestimation of their potential and capacities … all conspire to keep children with disabilities silenced and marginalised”. All of these factors are at play for children with disability in Australia.

The Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling recognised that students with disability are "disadvantaged" and recommended the establishment of an additional funding loading for these children. There is bipartisan support for a specific disability loading.

The review also noted that there is much work that needs to be done to be able to quantify the level of need. The national data collection of students with disability is only now commencing and has been found to be a complex task. This will provide essential information on individual accommodations required which will assist in the development of the loading. It is a telling indictment that a society such as ours cannot articulate accurately what the current level of need is for students with disability. The need is automatically diminished if not measured.

It is often suggested that students with disability are best suited to a “special school”. It is assumed that special schools will be better positioned to meet a child’s “special needs”. The practical reality at present also is that most local schools are not well positioned to meet the needs of students with disability due to insufficient funding, expertise and inadequate inclusive education practices and attitudes. Rarely do we prioritise a child’s right to attend their local school or recognise the potential benefits to all involved of this practice.

The Unicef report also stated that “as long as children with disabilities are denied equal access to their local schools … States parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities cannot fulfill their responsibilities”. Australia is a signatory to this convention.

Students with disability continue to be largely overlooked, in data, policy and practice. So while the political wrangling continues about education dollars and we plug a few holes with some quick fix cash injections, it is clear that much more fundamental change is required.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.