The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation held its first hearing in Townsville from 4-7th November 2019, on the topic of education, at this early stage focusing on the theme of inclusive education policy and practice in the State of Queensland and educational neglect of students with disability in the education system.

The Australian Coalition for Inclusive Education (ACIE), is a new national coalition to ensure that Australia adopts a human rights and evidence-based approach to education for children and young people with disability. Members of the Coalition were either present at the hearing or watching with great interest online, and sharing our views online on social media or speaking to the media.

ACIE members are pleased that the Royal Commission has commenced its inquiry by putting a lens on the right to education of people with disability, as this sets a clear human rights based framework for further and more detailed consideration of individual experiences of people with disability and their families in the education system, and all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in educational settings.

We look forward to the announcement of future hearings by the Royal Commission, and in particular, detailed consideration of practices of restraint and seclusion in education and the direct testimony of children and young people with disability.

Here is our WRAP UP from the hearing.

Why start with inclusive education?

 “If we don’t get it right in education, we can’t get it right everywhere else.  So this is really important and historic that the Royal Commission is starting with education.”

This quote by Mary Sayers, CEO of Children and Young People with Disability and co-convenor of the ACIE was provided in the opening address by Counsel Assisting Dr Kerri Mellifont QC. It set a course for the hearing and its inquiry into how can we get it right for students with disability so they can experience inclusive education.

ACIE was pleased that the Royal Commission took the approach of looking at education, which often represents the beginning of life long marginalisation of people with disability.

The focus of the first hearing on inclusive education in particular, reflects the imperative for the Royal Commission in its Terms of Reference, to be guided by the full and equal enjoyment by people with disability of their human rights, and the realisation of a more inclusive society.

Inclusive education is about everyone learning, growing and flourishing –together – in all our diversity as equal members of an educational community.

Inclusive education recognises the right of every child and young person – without exception – to be included in general education settings. It involves adapting the environment and teaching approaches to ensure genuine and valued full participation of all children and young people.

Decades of evidence overwhelmingly shows that children and young people with disability achieve best in inclusive schools – and that their non-disabled peers benefit as well – yet they continue to be placed in special schools, separate classrooms, in part-time schooling, and doing a separate – or worse, no – curriculum.

Why start in Townsville?

Many might say why start the first hearings in Townsville or North Queensland?  The Royal Commission has explained that the population demographics of the town are helpful to provide insights, particularly given people with disability comprise a significant proportion of the local population.  Townsville also presented the opportunity to consider Thuringowa State High School, Ingham State High School and Bowen State High School, which provided valuable evidence about their practice in providing inclusive education. As Loren Swancutt, from Thuringowa, speaking of her vision for the future said:

“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 human kind 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.”

What did we hear about inclusive education?

We heard from two parents whose children had experienced both inclusive and non-inclusive education and the impact this has had on them.

Parent, Witness AAA gave evidence about the exclusion her daughter faced a dance performance.

“She’s separated on the right-hand side of the group, very close to her teacher.  She was doing the same performance at the same standard as all of the other children, but she wasn’t allowed to stand as part of the group.  And I watched that and it just breaks my heart because she was – if – I can’t think of a reason why she shouldn’t have been in the group because she was doing everything – she – and it’s a beautiful video.  It’s just a shame that there’s probably 10 feet between her cohort and her.”

However when inclusive education was provided her daughter excelled.

“They’ve expressed that my daughter’s capable of getting a regular job, which is perfect because my vision for [REDACTED] is to get a job that pays real wages and have an ordinary life, an ordinary opportunity at getting a job and living in her community”

We heard much about the neglect and exploitation of students with disability. Dr Lisa Bridle from the Community Resource Unit Ltd said:

“So I guess I can think of situations where there has just been an appalling lack of attention to the student’s dignity and privacy.  So I’m thinking of a child that was seated on a – a dog mat in the classroom, because – which was a way that if that child had a toileting accident it would not hurt the carpet . . . and when the parent argued against that she was treated as if she was just off the wall.  You know, kind of – you know, accused of being kind of neurotic, basically, for questioning that.“

Professor Suzanne Carrington of QUT provided an overview of the difference between special education and inclusive education:

“So the difference between special education and inclusive education is about the beliefs and the values and the models of disability or the models of difference that actually inform those two approaches, if you like.  So an inclusive education is based on the social cultural model of disability, and this is where the society and the environment influence how disabled a person may be.  So this is why inclusive education has a focus on identifying and removing the barriers to learning, because with an inclusive approach we’re trying to think about, you know, the classroom environment, the teaching pedagogy, how we have an approach to a curriculum, and what barriers are actually in place that we can remove that will make it more – a more successful experience for children and so that they can be better included.  So this is in contrast to a medical model of disability which really takes a deficit approach and views impairment or disability as an individual inadequacy that must be fixed or remediated.”

The Queensland Government also outlined their Inclusive Education Policy, which is the only policy in Australia that takes a human rights based approach and defines and distinguishes the key concepts of “inclusive education”, “exclusion”, “segregation” and “integration”, and which the ACIE commends as a strong step. The importance of embedding this through the educational system was highlighted in the evidence provided by Deborah Dunston, the Director General Disability and Inclusion.

Counsel Assisting Ms Kate Eastman SC probed multiple times about the efforts of the Department of Education in ensuring that school leaders, educators, parents and students with disability are aware of the policy and its implications. A signpost that further work is needed to involve all stakeholders in ensuring that the policy is known and implemented.

What we heard about the systemic barriers and enablers to inclusive education

The myth of parental choice for segregated education in special schools or special units was debunked by Dr Glenys Mann in her evidence.

“The decision to maintain a special school option and to maintain this dual system is very often justified through saying it offers parents choice . . .

Her research found parents choosing to leave regular education to go to special schools found this was not based on choice rather:

“88 per cent of the survey participants indicated that they left school, the regular school, because of learning barriers in the regular school.  Some – some things that people said about that, some quotes, one parent said that their child was ignored or forgotten by the main classroom teacher.  Another parent said that their son had a learning support teacher for half a day, and then after that finished, he had to go home because there wasn’t enough support for him.

She concluded that:

“School selection does not necessarily represent parents’ preference. I think that’s the key point, really. So choice presupposes that there’s an option and a freedom to choose, and I think parents were quite clear that – that the decisions that they were making weren’t happening in a vacuum, that there was – there was systemic issues that were playing a part in the choices they made.”

Therefore the choice of special school was because of the poor culture and practices when it comes to the inclusion of students with disability in regular schools rather than them necessarily seeking out a special school because they thought it was the best option.

Funding was also presented as an additional barrier to inclusive education, with Kevin Bates from the Queensland Teachers Union saying the Union endorses segregated education and is campaigning for growth in that sector. ACIE was dismayed by the position of the Queensland Teachers Union and the stance that economic rationalism be used to justify the denial of human rights to students with disability:

“And – and it goes to what is probably best characterised as more of an economic rationalist argument rather than an educational one.  And that is by concentrating our resources in a particular location we can deliver the greatest benefit in a cost effective way given that our system struggles all of the time with issues of a finite budget.  So the – the buildings, facilities, human resources necessary to deliver effective education for all students don’t exist in every context. . . 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.”

However, the evidence from the principals and educators from the three north Queensland school challenged the Queensland Teachers Union’s position on resourcing. While adequate resourcing is important, they all agreed that it was mindset, culture and deep professional learning and practice that made the difference for inclusive education. As Loren Swancutt said in her testimony:

“Resourcing, as we know, has come up many times, but, for me, as I said, the resourcing aspect is more linked to that time aspect around giving our teachers more time to do this work well, as opposed to just, you know, more money and more teachers generally.  So I would like to see some more strict accountability around how current resourcing is utilised in schools.  We know that schools do have a lot of resourcing and we’re resourced well, and you’ve heard today that we’ve been able, in our three schools, to utilise existing resources, structures to do this work well already.  So I think it’s just more around accountability of the resources that we have and, not necessarily, a whole lot of new resources that we need.”

As Principal Grant Dale from Thuringowa State High School said:

“We’re talking about developing and changing school culture, that it’s about high expectations for – not only for students, but for teachers as well and, in our school, that’s been our biggest change, is that I believe we’ve – we’ve given students reasonable aspirations and high aspirations to reach, and – and I’ve asked teachers to – to work hard to meet those high expectations as well.”

The Royal Commission started with a policy lens

Many might say, why start with a policy and systemic focus, and not have the hearing focussing on individual experiences of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in education system?

We would have liked to see evidence given at the hearing by children and adults with disability.

However, we consider that it is important for the Commission to understand the broader systemic and policy context and to also seek evidence from key actors in the education system, including to get a picture of the deep resistance in some quarters, to inclusive education and equal access in the general education system.

What we hope to see next

We commend the Royal Commission for bringing out the transformative potential that inclusive education can bring for all students and in particular students with disability.  We hope that the clear link between segregation and preparation for a life apart is kept at the forefront, with a strong analysis of the relationship between segregation, congregation and ‘othering’ and violence, abuse and neglect , which we believe is more fundamental than resourcing.

At future hearings we would like to ensure that people with disability and children and young people with disability have the opportunity to tell the Royal Commission about the violence, abuse and neglect they have faced in their educational journey, and receive necessary supports to do so.

We also want to continue to hear the structural and systemic barriers to inclusive education and ending exclusion and segregation in education.

The intersectionality of education with other areas such as children and young people with disability in out-of-home care, in the justice system, those living in poverty and family violence situations along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse children and young people, must be heard.

Finally, we hope early childhood education and post-school transition is covered by the Royal Commission.

Disability Royal Commission – General and Education FAQ sheets

ACIE has developed the following FAQs Sheets to support the community in understanding various aspects of the Disability Royal Commission:

Contact us here.

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