Which way for school students with disabilities?

Oct 7, 2023
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To truly serve all students, we’ll have to rethink how schools ‘do school’.

The disability royal commission has reported. The commissioners want greater inclusion of disabled children in mainstream schools, with some wanting to eventually phase out special schools altogether. That could happen, but not without a serious rethink about how schools ‘do school’.

The numbers suggest that it is possible to integrate most of the 53,000 students now in special schools. It would average out at around half a dozen to each mainstream school, and they’d bring their teachers with them. Yes, schools would have to re-examine their current practices to best serve a greater variety of students, nothing wrong with that either. And the message of schools leading the way by opening their doors would be very powerful.

But would enough schools really welcome more students with a disability? Already some don’t want to, and too many don’t have to. Our whole framework of schools isn’t inclusive, it’s driven by a culture of choice and competition. And while we admire the schools that dare to be different, at least half of Australia’s schools have enrolment barriers of one sort or another. In this setting, schools compete for the students who will best enhance results and reputations. It happens up and down (but not too far down) the school SES food chain. Sorry disability royal commissioners, in this culture your concerns take second place.

And so do students with a disability. Oddly, we make the same assumptions about those with a disability as we do with those who are academically selected: they are allegedly best served in a school with similar others. And those schools who are stripped of their high achievers aren’t queueing up to accept students they see as problematic. Saddest of all is the assumption that students with a disability are somehow devoid of gifts and talents.

If they are really pushed, policy-makers will regulate to increase integration. But they first need to have a closer look at what seems to be shaping what schools are, and do. Both governments and school authorities use a surprisingly narrow range of outcomes to measure student and school achievement. NAPLAN scores and other similar measures are dominant. Good idea if it works, most indicators suggest it doesn’t. Think of it as the assessment tail wagging the school dog – great if it is a well-balanced tail, problematic if it isn’t.

If we get the measures right, other stuff will happen. There are schools which place engagement front and centre. Unsurprisingly they achieve this by also putting student learning passions front and centre. Their NAPLAN results are on a par with similar schools, but are ahead in so many other ways: student engagement, family participation, strong future focus, high attendance and retention, great post-school destinations … and minimal levels of misbehaviour and suspensions.

We know much less about such schools. They are often assigned to the periphery. After all, they don’t look like the schools we have known and loved (well, by some) for 150 plus years. But they are the very schools best able to support students with a diverse range of abilities. To ensure such innovative schools are given a fair go, we have to acknowledge that just as students successfully learn in them, we need to learn from them.

In Australia the largest network of such schools is probably the Big Picture schools, strongest in NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia. Now here’s the thing: they don’t target any particular group for special attention. Why would they? They are already inclusive, not only in who they enrol but in the design of learning and structure of the school. And while they initially located in disadvantaged communities their students now come from a surprising range of families.

What the students often have in common is a previous unhappy experience in mainstream schools. What they also have in common in their new school is a high expectation of success, in school and when they leave. These achievements are summed up, with backing data, in a two-page report on progress in NSW, the state with the largest number of Big Picture schools.

There are many other innovative schools in Australia. The point is not to shift all schools to operate in these ways. But unless more schools shift in these directions there will be limited opportunities for those who aren’t progressing as well as they can, and should. And that shift has to start now.


Chris Bonnor  is co-author of Choice and Fairness published by Australian Learning Lecture.

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