Students with disability must remain key focus of education reforms.

Children with Disability Australia

Opinion by Stephanie Gotlib

This piece was published yesterday on No Fibs and is reposted here.

August 11, 2013

It truly is momentous that most states, as well as the independent and Catholic education systems, have now signed up to the Better Schools funding program with 78 per cent of students to benefit from this new funding deal. Governments should rightfully be applauded for getting this major reform across the line in many jurisdictions, but the whole job is yet to be done.

Following the passing of the Australian Education Act 2013, a new funding model will be rolled out in participating states at the beginning of the 2014 school year, with a core amount per student, and additional funding loadings for disadvantaged students. But, the essential reform needed for students with disability is not scheduled to commence until 2015.

The loading for students with disability is yet to be developed. A national data collection program to inform the development of the loading begins in October. Existing funding programs will remain largely the same for the 2014 school year.

The system is not adequately meeting the needs of students with disability. Our current system is fragmented, underfunded and poorly targeted, meaning that there are many students missing out. Schools are not adequately resourced. We know there are positive experiences and excellent educators in our system, but this is the exception and not the rule.

For students with disability low expectations are the norm. When it comes to schooling, attendance is one of the few measures of engagement, rather than education and real inclusion. Bullying is rife as is a general all-round poor school experience.

Students with disability have been marginalised in education for way too long.

The government must firmly and publicly commit to the implementation of the disability component of the funding model in 2015 with no further delay.

Increased funding for education is long overdue and much of the new funding framework is in place. Additional funding will lay the groundwork for longer term reform and it is crucial that students with disability don’t get left behind as the reform progresses.

What may not be well understood in the wider community is just how inadequate the current system is for students with disability.

This was articulated two days ago by a parent who responded to a questionnaire sent to Children with Disability Australia’s 5000 members. The brief response was this: “I’m sorry I cannot possibly fill this out focusing on positive things, my child being unable to attend school full time for four years broke my family, sent me broke and isolated us from society entirely… I hate the education system with a passion.”

These words represent the despair and frustration of many who constantly have to fight for their child with disability to access education. These families are pleased the need for reform has been recognised but also realise the huge depth of reform needed. This is too important to neglect or delay further. We must get it right.

Every classroom in Australia is likely to have a student with a disability. Teachers want and need to be well equipped to teach all students. Our schools need to welcome and embrace all students. For all schools to be accessible to all students and to ensure that school leaders can support inclusion longer term requires cultural change in schools and teacher training, as well other specific assistance. This will give students with disability more opportunities and greater futures.

There is much work to do to establish a disability loading and this is a vital aspect of the reform. The provision of a fair ‘loading’ system is pivotal to the success of the Better Schools program. This cannot take the form of a voucher system, as has been suggested by some, but needs to be instrumental in increasing the capacity of education systems to provide more resources for inclusive education. Research in this area has found that inclusive education has benefits for all students in schools, not just individual students with disability.

To get this right we need a clear road map. A national action plan for students with disability should be developed, in much the same way that the plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students was.

There are three immediate priorities. All states and territories must sign up to the Better Schools funding plan. There must be an across the board guarantee that implementation of the disability loading will happen in 2015. There must be a commitment to the creation of a national action plan for students with disability.

Let’s get this reform right for students with disability by using this unique opportunity to create an education system that provides equal opportunity, value and respect to students with disability.

Stephanie Gotlib is the Executive Officer, Children with Disability Australia (CDA), the national peak body representing children and young people with disability. New members are welcome and membership is free.

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