Tasmania doing far better for inclusive education for students with a disability, but still 'work to do'

All together: Creating inclusive education is a challenge still being faced.

All together: Creating inclusive education is a challenge still being faced.

A new report surveying the parents of students with a disability has shown both the significant improvements made in the inclusive education sector, and the work still to be done.

Researchers from Curtin University and the University of Melbourne surveyed 745 families, advocates and students with disability nationally, with 41 Tasmanian parents and five staff respoding.

The survey questioned respondents on their experiences of discrimination in mainstream schools, and uncovered a high percentage of Tasmanian families reporting restrictive practices, segregation and ‘gatekeeping’.

Just under 30 per cent of Tasmanian respondents, both parents and staff, reported that their children spent large amounts of time outside the mainstream classroom.

About 26 per cent of Tasmanian respondents said their child had spent the majority of classroom time being taught away from their peers, and more than 35 per cent reported the student was not included in mainstream lesson material.

Report authors Shiralee Poed, Kathy Cologon and Robert Jackson defined ‘gatekeeping’ as practices in mainstream schools, both conscious and subconscious, designed to dissuade parents from enrolling students with a disability, or restricting students’ access to mainstream classes and studies.

The report follows the 2016 Senate inquiry into access to learning for students with a disability, and the United Nations focus on setting out the basic human rights of access to inclusive education.

More research needed

Warning that the discrimination reported by parents and teachers in their survey was deeply embedded, the report authors concluded with a note that any structural change would have to be comprehensive to challenge the embedded norms.

University of Tasmania inclusive education lecturer Dr Chris Rayner said the report showed both the good and the bad of the present education system.

“More work of this kind, or replication of the survey in future years, would be helpful to identify if and how structural changes should be made,” he said.

Dr Rayner noted that some of the practices reported by respondents were illegal, such as “an unjustifiable refusal to enrol a student on the basis of their disability”.

“Other practices explored in the report are more open to interpretation, such as where the teacher provides a student with ‘the same lesson, but adapted where necessary’,” he said.

“Such learning experiences may actually be appropriate, representing what the Disability Standards for Education 2005 refers to as a ‘reasonable adjustment.’”

There are no silver bullets in this thing called ‘inclusion’.

Dr Chris Rayner

Tasmanian Disability Education Reform Lobby founder Kristen Desmond said her particular concerns with the report were around the high percentage of Tasmanian respondents who reported restrictive practices for managing behavioural challenges.

She noted while the number of Tasmanian families surveyed was small compared to the national average, about 70 per cent of respondents said they had experienced gatekeeping behaviour from mainstream schools.

Where to now?

In June this year the Education Department released an update on supporting students with a disability which also polled 113 parents and 462 principals, classroom teachers and support teachers. Both parents and teachers flagged a need for more specialised teacher education and training.

Dr Rayner, who works closely with the state Education Department on inclusive practices, said Tasmania has come a long way over the past 40 years, but there was still work to be done.

“There are no silver bullets in this thing called ‘inclusion’,” he said.

“There will always be a need for educators to build relationships with individuals and exercise professional expert judgment as educators, with the support of those who have specialised skills.”

He said UTAS and the Education Department are delivering a tailored postgraduate course targeting teacher development, a program developed in response to the 2015 Ministerial Taskforce’s recommendations.

The state government committed $12 million over four years to implementing the taskforce’s recommendations, with Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff’s recently announcing Tasmania would shift to a needs-based funding model for students with a disability – a very welcome change for parents and teachers struggling to match resources with need.

“The expectations for teacher education have certainly changed since the introduction of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers in 2011, with the need for graduating teachers to be prepared to work with students with disability now an explicit, non-negotiable requirement,” Dr Rayner said.

“Any major structural changes would also need to be done in such a way as to maintain the positive achievements.”