Disability royal commission split over future of special schools

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The disability royal commission has split over the future of special schools, with some commissioners to recommend they be phased out completely over the long term.

On Friday, the government is expected to release the final report of the $599 million royal commission, which was asked to investigate conditions for people with disabilities in schools, workplaces, jails, group homes, hospitals, and day programs.

Disability royal commission chair Ronald Sackville (right) and commissioners (l-r) John Ryan, Dr Alastair McEwin, Andrea Mason, Dr Rhonda Galbally, Barbara Bennett hand their final report to Governor-General David Hurley (second from right) on Thursday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Over 4½ years, the commission heard of widespread exclusion of children with disabilities in the school system, sickening abuses in group homes, and people with disabilities working in Australian Disability Enterprises (formerly known as sheltered workshops) paid as little as $2.37 a day.

All six commissioners want more inclusion of disabled children in schools, according to multiple sources close to the royal commission.

However, they say the commissioners are divided over whether to phase out special schools entirely over a period of many years.

About 10 per cent of school students have a disability, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Almost 89 per cent attend mainstream schools, and the rest go to special schools, which some disability and education advocates see as a form of segregation.

At the final hearing of the royal commission this month, commissioner Dr Alastair McEwin said a recurring theme had been the failure of the mainstream education system to include children with disabilities in their schools.

“I never had a parent tell me they wanted their child to go to a special school,” he said.

“We saw and read [about] gatekeeping where teachers and principals told disabled children and their families that their local school couldn’t enrol them and that they would be better off going to a special school.”

McEwin told the hearing he had a vision of Australia having a fully inclusive education system where “there is only one education setting with no dual and segregated settings of mainstream and special schools”.

Commissioner Dr Rhonda Galbally echoed concern about segregation in education in her closing remarks, noting “many mainstream schools are rejecting children with disabilities and pushing them into a growing number of special schools”.

“I have been told there is fear that having disabled students in mainstream classrooms will be detrimental to the education of non-disabled students and use up too much teacher attention and school resources,” she said at the closing ceremony earlier this month.

“Yet research presented to the commission shows that this fear does not have any reasonable basis.”

A report by the royal commission’s data and analytics team this month found National Disability Insurance Scheme participants who attended special schools were significantly less likely to transition into employment than those who attended mainstream classes or a segregated class in a mainstream school.

Since it was established in mid-2019, the disability royal commission has held 32 public hearings with evidence from 837 witnesses – 25 per cent of whom had a disability – and received 7944 submissions.

Most of the recommendations are not in dispute and are expected to cover areas including guardianship, health services, the operation of group homes, regulatory regimes for the NDIS, employment pathways, disability support services, disability advocacy, and the justice system.

Federal and state governments have no obligation to adopt the recommendations of royal commissions.

Children and Young People with Disability Australia said it supported the phase-out of special schools provided no children were disadvantaged.

The association’s chief executive, Skye Kakoschke-Moore, said a move towards a one-stream system in Australia would need to involve significant teacher training, making sure schools were physically accessible, there was support in place in all classrooms and restrictive practices and exclusion were not used.

“If we did it too fast, there is a risk of the systems not being ready,” Kakoschke-Moore said.

She said the other challenge was that the states were responsible for providing education and any special school phase-out would need to involve the states and Commonwealth working together.

The Australian Special Education Principals Association said no other education system in the world had figured out how to phase out special schools “because one size doesn’t fit all”.

“We take the most complex kids, the non-verbal kids usually,” national president Matthew Johnson said.

He said he was regularly contacted by mainstream schools not coping with students with disabilities, who needed more support.

“We all want inclusion but the perfect classroom where everyone’s needs are met doesn’t exist.”

The Australian Education Union has argued that while all public schools should be better resourced to cater to students with disabilities, for a small few, a specialist school with targeted support will still be in the best interests of the child.

With Sherryn Groch

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