Day two of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability heard from a parent of five children with disability and her interactions with schools, and also received the official controversial position of the Queensland Teachers Union.
The first witness for the day, Witness AAC, described their children as all having varying psychosocial and neurodiverse disabilities.
AAC says the most difficult part of schooling for children with disability in mainstream schools was educating teachers about disability diversity and having the teachers make small adjustments to make the classroom environment inclusive.
“It can be incredibly difficult to make teachers make adjustments because of teachers lack of knowledge and understanding. Sometimes I have to pull out the big guns and mention the [Disability Discrimination Act] (DDA),” says AAC.
When a teacher refuses to make changes in the classroom, AAC says, “It is essentially saying these 27 other children in the class are more important than your child.”
AAC outlined many different scenarios of their children being verbally, or sometimes physically, abused by teachers due to their lack of understanding, which resulted in multiple changes to new schools.
Even if a support plan for one of AAC’s children required specific adjustments, sometimes a teacher wouldn’t allow it.
“There’s a real lack of training in university courses about how a disability needs to change the classroom approaches. The current training is really superficial,” says AAC.
“Most teachers come out of uni not knowing how to make adjustments. The universities don’t target the demands of what that teacher’s going to face when they’re first in the classroom.
“I’m surprised to find that I work with people, including principals and administrators, who still think that children with disability should not be taught in inclusive environments or actually understand what it looks like in reality.”
At AAC’s children’s new school, three of their children received academic scholarships to attend and she says she was able to enrol them easily.
However, AAC admitted they had heard that other families with disability were experiencing gatekeeping at the same school.
AAC believes that if leaders of a school do no support or show support for inclusive education, it sets a culture throughout the school, which can look like a child with disability is a lower priority than other students.
“It breaks my heart to think that people still think that children with a disability don’t have the same rights as everybody else. It shows me that there’s such a long way to go,” says AAC.
“I would like to see the general public’s perception towards the education of students with a disability change. I would like people to realise that the way students with disability are currently treated is not okay.”
Not enough inclusive education training is provided to teachers
President of the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU), Kevin Bates, fronted the Commission to explain the position of QTU on inclusive education and what changes could be made to accommodate more students with disability in mainstream schools.
While QTU supports inclusive education, that support does come without conditions.
Training in diversity at university was discussed, which Mr Bates admits is only usually taught in-depth if a university student elects to take a class with disability as a focus area.
Mr Bates says, “The curriculum requires teachers to be familiar with diversity issues as they apply in the classroom. It’s much more broadly defined than simply disability. Disability is one of the issues about which teachers should be familiar in addressing diversity in the classroom.
“But certainly, given the depth and breadth of the curriculum, our assessment would be that disability is not considered in any great detail during most university qualifications.”
Mr Bates explains that the university standards is set by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), developed in consultation with principals and schools, and are a minimum standard. So inclusive education training is not a mandated learning area.
Mr Bates says when funding from the Government was provided for those types of training for teachers, they were quickly filled with teachers keen for the extra study. However, once the funding ceased, the professional learning opportunities in disability also stopped.
Moving onto adjustments in classrooms for children with disability, Mr Bates says that all teachers need additional human resources in the current state of the schooling system, whether or not there are children with disability in the class.
“The expectations of a single teacher are often beyond the capacity of a single human being to deliver. That might sound like an overstatement, but it is an acknowledgement that we are limited in our capacity as human beings to do 27 things at once because, in many classrooms, there are 28 young individuals,” says Mr Bates.
Mr Bates adds that if one teacher is expected to cater for 28 students individual learning experiences, there will continue to be deficits in education.
Funding was another big topic with the Commission, inquiring into how disability funding works in schools.
Mr Bates says that fund spending is up to the discretion of the principal, and to a large extent, all funding provided to schools, including disability funding, is pooled together and distributed from there.
“At a school level, the principal determines the allocation of resources. We actively engage with principals to work on a consultative process which allows for input from all teachers but the decision-making that is undertaken in respect of allocation of resources is the responsibility of the principal,” says Mr Bates.
Queensland Teachers Union supports controversial schooling policy
On behalf of QTU, Mr Bates provided endorsement for special schools, which he characterises as more of an “economic rationalistic argument” than an “educational one”.
He believes the decision to enrol a child with disability is up to the parents, and is a choice put to the parents.
This is contradictory to evidence given the day before, with one witness saying many families are pushed to special schools because of difficulty with management in mainstream schools.
Mr Bates described special schools as a “critical part of the offering in education”, and that by concentrating resources in one particular location, “we can deliver the greatest benefit in a cost-effective way given our system struggles all the time with issues of a finite budget.”
“We think there’s a critical need for significant increase in funding and resources that would make other alternatives viable, but in the absence of those resources, we have to take a practical approach which is how can we provide the best possible outcomes,” says Mr Bates.
“And until such time as we achieve our goals of limitless resources for our schools to provide the services that children need, we’re probably going to have to look at some unfortunate compromises around some of those outcomes.”
Mr Bates explains the Gonski Review had identified that disability needed to have its own review to reach a proper answer to inclusive education, but a decade on, nothing has been done.
When asked if special schools should be phased-out and if that is possible, Mr Bates says yes, if there is a guarantee that all children can be provided for, but not if a school had no capacity to provide the resources necessary to support a child’s education.
He adds that the only limits to students with disability in mainstream schools is the lack of resources.
“The evidence around the world is that it is possible. The fact that we can’t do it here is a consequence of limitations on our system, as opposed to some intent to construct restrictive or limiting factors that go beyond the resourcing issues,” says Mr Bates.
In the present schooling system, QTU supports special schools. This was reaffirmed by the Union even after the Inclusive Education Policy had been implemented in Queensland this year.
Another reason Mr Bates believes special schools are more equipped for providing education to students with disability is that current school facilities were not made with disability in mind.
Commissioner Roslyn Atkinson AO was not happy with his response, saying that his comments disturb her because “when you talk about the physical difficulties is underlying that is an assumption that not everybody has the right to be there, whether it be a teacher with a disability, a student with a disability.”
Mr Bates reaffirmed to her that it proves his point that funding to make mainstream schools accessible is unlikely to be approved by Government.
While Mr Bates adds there are locations without special schools that operate within the system, he says they are only able to do so with significant additional support for students outside of special school settings.
“From our perspective, until we determine otherwise, I guess, we continue to argue that building more special schools is an option that should be considered by Government,” says Mr Bates.
The Disability Royal Commission hearings will continue on November 6 and finish on November 7.