The final two days of the education hearings in Brisbane for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability heard from department heads of inclusive and special education services, and the Department of Education’s role in driving inclusive education in Queensland.
On day three, a panel of special education department heads discussed the success of inclusive education in their schools in Queensland.
All panellists agreed students with disability deserve to learn in mainstream schools and that it is possible to implement nationwide.
The panel included the Head of Department, Inclusive Practices at Ingham State High School, Jewelann Kauppila; Head of Special Education Services at Bowen State High School, Catherine Morris; and Head of Inclusive Schooling at Thuringowa State High School, Loren Swancutt.
Counsel Assisting Dr Kerri Mellifont QC asked the panel how the needs of students with disability are met within mainstream school systems.
Ms Swancutt says, “There’s no straightforward answer because we’re talking about individual children that are obviously very dynamic as individuals, but ultimately it’s about valuing their rights and understanding them as individual students and individual people and getting to know their functional impacts and their strengths, their motivations, and their families.
“And sort of being able to understand that holistic approach about them and then working as a team within our schools to address those things utilising the vast variety of experience and resources that we have in our schools to do that for any child regardless of a child with disability.”
Ms Swancutt adds that her school is very welcoming of every child with disability and believes it within the school’s capacity to provide education for every child.
All panellists agree that student and parent voices are very much at the centre of what they all do to make sure students with disability are engaged in mainstream schools properly.
The best system for teaching
Counsel Assisting brought up the importance of co-teacher classrooms and whether the model works.
Ms Morris described the co-teaching model as a fantastic way to provide education to all, not just students with disability.
She says her school looks at next year’s classes to see the diverse range of students, including those with disability and diverse learners, and then applies the co-teaching model to classes depending on the diversity of the students in the class.
Ms Morris says she would like to use the co-teaching method all the time, across the board, because of how effective it is for teaching.
Counsel Assisting inquired about how receptive parents were to inclusive education when Ingham State High School, Bowen State High School and Thuringowa State High School adopted an inclusive education model.
The panellists said some families were scared about how their children would cope and whether the other students would bully their children.
Counsel Assisting followed up asking how schools can become more accepting of diverse and inclusive education.
Ms Swancutt says there needs to be, “A willingness and a moral imperative within the key leaders of our school to turn this ship away from something that we knew was not the right practice and to head into uncharted waters with nothing more than it being the socially just thing to do.
“And strong leadership and skill to bring along a culture of a whole staff to walk with us into that unknown and down that journey knowing that this is the important work and is the work of school improvement and is incredibly important for every child in our school.”
Ms Swancutt adds that once the school transitioned to an inclusive education model, adverse behaviours from children with disability declined since students felt more valued and welcomed, and had higher rates of engagement and achievement.
She also mentioned another issue was that additional school funding was only provided for students with disability if they had a “verified” disability, but not if there were students in the school who could not meet verification for some reason.
Ms Kauppila says the current allocation of staff does not reflect an inclusive model of practice in teaching, which needs to change.
“Updating the staffing model would assist for providing extra teaching staff. The extra teaching staff would assist with building the capability and capacity of staff in catering for students in co-teaching and supporting the students with diverse learning needs,” says Ms Kauppila.
These improvements have been seen in all three schools, with inclusive education having positive impacts on students with improved pathways after school.
Ms Swancutt says they have seen an increase in students going on to work and further study after school.
Ms Morris was in agreeance, saying 100 percent of Bowen students receiving a Year 12 certificate.
All panellists told the Commission that they want an increase in teacher allocation and specialised personal, and that resource model needs to be available nationally.
Ms Swancutt says, “I ultimately want to light a fire in all who are associated with education to dare to imagine more.
“We can’t possibly be happy with what we are currently doing because history has reminded us time and again that the segregation and othering of diverse groups of our own humankind results in the most horrific outcomes which linger for many decades and transcend generations.
“We have known better for an awfully long time. We must act with urgency and do better.”
Department won’t set a policy that has legal consequences
On the last day of the Commission, evidence was given by Deborah Dunstone, the Assistant Director-General of Disability and Inclusion at Queensland Department of Education.
In her time at the Department, Ms Dunstone was brought on to fix areas in the agency around service delivery to students with disability.
Ms Dunstone explained that one in five students were receiving reasonable adjustments due to their disability in the classroom, which is around 18 percent of Queensland students, or 103,000 students, not including another 35,000 students in non-state schools.
A disability review made many recommendations around defining inclusive education and how that would look in mainstream schools.
Following the review was the Deloitte Report, outlining key commitments that the Government were prepared to make following the 17 recommendations from the disability review. The report was provided to principals at a State principal conference.
When asked by Counsel Assisting about whether the document could be considered a policy, Ms Dunstone disagreed, saying it wasn’t exactly a policy but more of a practice guide.
Counsel Assisting inquired further asking if there are any legal consequences to the policy, Ms Dunstone admitted that it doesn’t have any legal consequences and was more so about good school practice.
“Many of those recommendations talk to the right of every student to be able to attend their local school,” says Ms Dunstone.
Ms Dunstone also told the Commission while the document is readily available to access by the public, it was not sent specifically to the 103,000 students with disability and their families.
Counsel Assisting stated the policies provided by the Department of Education weren’t just for students with disability, but to cover students from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Ms Dunstone agreed that this could be difficult to understand if the aim of the policy was to deal with different categories of students, rather than just students with disability.
At the end of her evidence, Ms Dunstone says, “We acknowledge that education is one of the most important foundations to living a life of choice, not a life of chance.
“While we are proud of our Inclusive Education Policy and improvements that have taken place, we know we have a lot more work to do.
“We will continue to build the capability of schools to make reasonable adjustments, address systemic issues, earn parent confidence and continue to transform our state education system.”
The next hearings for the Disability Royal Commission are focussed on home and living for people with disability in Victoria. Hearings will run from on 2 - 6 December and will be held in Melbourne.