Parents given ‘false choice’ between mainstream and specialist disability schools

Dominic Giannini 21 May 2021 22
Craig Wallace

ACTCOSS policy manager Craig Wallace said segregated classrooms at mainstream schools are no better than segregated schools for students with a disability. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Canberra families and children with a disability are being offered a “false choice” between mainstream and specialist schools because of resourcing discrepancies, an ACT Assembly inquiry into education and inclusion has heard.

Advocacy for Inclusion’s policy head Stacy Rheese said the ACT’s current regime did not give parents a true choice because support within mainstream schools was not available for their children.

Some schools told parents that they would not be able to adequately handle children with a disability, while others indicated that their school would not be a welcoming environment for the student, she said.

“As long as resourcing and funding are separated between [segregated and mainstream school] systems, can a parent really go to a mainstream school and have the full knowledge that their child with a disability is going to receive the best support?

“The concern is … we cannot give parents a true choice in engaging with a mainstream school when we are not providing those schools [with the resources] to give the best possible support they can.

“Some parents are choosing segregated schools because they feel like their child will not be welcomed or supported [at a mainstream school].”

Ms Rheese said there were instances where children were being separated, and equipment or infrastructure was being used to seclude or isolate them from others.

This included zipping at student with a disability inside a trampoline safety net enclosure while the other children participated in a physical education class.

Stacy Rheese

Advocacy for Inclusion’s policy team leader Stacy Rheese fronted the Assembly inquiry on Tuesday (18 May). Photo: Dominic Giannini.

ACT Council of Social Service’s (ACTCOSS) policy manager Craig Wallace said there could be a perception from parents that their child with a disability would be bullied or abused at mainstream schools, but the evidence showed that students were no safer at segregated schools.

“Children with a disability are not safer in segregated environments either in terms of violence, sexual abuse or other forms of safety,” he said.

“It is being in an open setting that is proximate to the community, and other children and families, that keeps people safe.”

There are two specialist primary schools and two specialist high schools for children with disabilities in the ACT.

But while some schools are classified as mainstream, they engage in segregation under another name, Mr Wallace said.

This might include placing students with disabilities in separate learning environments without the same opportunities as other students. This is equally detrimental to the student, Mr Wallace said.

“There is minimal evidence to suggest that the [segregation] model is successful,” he said.


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“Students with a disability deserve to be wholly included physically, socially and academically within mainstream schools in the ACT. The evidence shows that children with a disability educated in general education environments outperform their peers who have been educated in segregated settings.

“For that to happen, there needs to be a focus on upgrading school classrooms, playgrounds, toilets, ingress and egress so they meet standards of disability access.”

CEO of Carers ACT Lisa Kelly said that even when inclusive measures were put in place in schools, they often failed to work in practice because they were inaccessible to those who needed them.

“We have had some examples of sensory gardens being put into schools, but they have been put in part of the school that you have to have permission to use,” she said.

“If a child needs a sensory space, they are not capable in that moment to ask for permission to use it. So, good idea, poor layout design.”

She added that work needs to be done to understand the challenges of physical accessibility.

“We are using this idea that accessibility is around can someone get through doorways? Have we got rid of stairs? But we are not thinking about anything outside of a wheelchair to some degree.”


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Ms Kelly said schools often did not consider psycho-social disability, such as sensory perception issues, within the school’s design.

These issue could include light brightness, how busy some spaces are and echoing classrooms.

“What we see more often than not is that young people with mental health conditions stop attending school because the school is not inclusive and accessible for them,” she said.

In her tenure of more than half a decade at Carers ACT, the organisation had not once been asked for input into school design by the Education Directorate, Ms Kelly said.

If this story has brought up any issues for you, you can contact Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line on 13 11 14.


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22 Responses to Parents given ‘false choice’ between mainstream and specialist disability schools
Samira Grace Reeve - Âû Samira Grace Reeve - Âû 8:20 pm 25 May 21

I’d have to say it - but Neurotypical people tend to not have the time or desire to connect to Neuro-Divergent people.

As a ND person myself - I’d rather be surrounded with a school full of people like me.

Because “birds of a feather” and all that jazz.

Because other ND people understand my

want to talk at length on a particular topic, the lack of desire to do ritualistic “small talk”.

Not to say that it’s perfect amongst our own Neurotribe.

But we find “our own” - we support our own, we connect to the ND more than we ever would with NT.

And that’s why “inclusion at all costs” is just able-ist.

Because NT expect the ND to act “like them”.

We expect our own to be themselves.

Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 2:28 pm 24 May 21

The term is specialist, not segregated. There is no way my son would be able to attend a mainstream school. What would the class do if he needed to vocalise repeatedly or if he bashed his head on a desk out of stress at the light speed rate of learning going on around him or when his nappy needs to be changed and others smell it?

The meaning of inclusion needs to be considered from the perspective of the individual as distinct from an objective social goal. As an objective goal, it has obvious appeal but as with every social concept it needs to be looked at through an implementation lens. For example, I saw a child in a motorised buggy being dragged around a muddy field at a public school on a sports carnival day. The other kids weren't engaging with him and he wasn't in the group activities with them. The groups were running in the mud competing with others. He was 40 metres away. The adult who was pushing him looked tired. The child's face was lifeless and his feet were dragging under his foot rest at times, so much so I raised it as a safety matter. The assistant said 'his parents want him at this school', something which confused me because I had only mentioned the foot rest risk in the mud. This child wasn't being included. He was physically proximate to a predominantly mainstream population. That is not a child centred goal, it is the product of a decision based on an objective value with a lack of monitoring and evaluation to measure the actual contextual outcomes of the decision. I'd have whipped my kid out of there in a heartbeat.

Implementation is always the real test. If you cannot afford to build hydro pools and access points for the mobility impaired and safe sensory rooms and break out spaces and accessible school kitchens and toilets with nappy changing tables with harnesses and pullies to prevent back injuries and POD communication flip charts and tools for non-verbal kids and visual learning centres and rooms and auditoriums with hearing loops etc, you will need to adjust your expectations and recognise that at least some specialist schools need to exist to offer safe education environments for those who are the most vulnerable to being forced out of schools and into homes with overstretched families. There is no one size fits all when it comes to inclusion, nor education. We need more choices for our kids not less and a sensible conversation about what society can afford.

    Cathy Louise Cathy Louise 8:44 am 25 May 21

    Bri Heseltine why can’t the specialist schools be mainstream? Clearly if they can afford to build special schools, those facilities are affordable.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 11:07 am 25 May 21

    Cathy Louise, the specialist schools are public schools. They take children who are assessed as having moderate to severe special needs. On top of the infrastructure costs our son's school has roughly 100 high needs children and more than 100 staff.

    Cathy Louise Cathy Louise 11:25 am 25 May 21

    Bri Heseltine I’m not sure what your point is about them being public. Irrespective of public or private the facilities are clearly affordable. And 1:1 support ratios aren’t necessarily inclusive - in fact they are frequently associated with exclusion and segregation.

Lynn Hart Lynn Hart 1:19 pm 24 May 21

It also doesn't help when some schools are over 50 years old the infrastructure makes it challenging. The cost to retrofit most ACT schools with the facilities to fully support high needs students such as those that attend the specialist schools would break the bank. Also I would like to point out that the Disability Standards Act requires that there be a choice of educational setting, if you close all the specialist schools and all the learning support units where is the choice.

    Cathy Louise Cathy Louise 8:43 am 25 May 21

    Lynn Hart why not just mainstream the special schools that have those facilities?

    Lynn Hart Lynn Hart 6:50 pm 25 May 21

    Cathy Louise often the specialist schools are smaller and don't have capacity. Malkara and Cranleigh for example can't expand due to their location

Krystle Prince Krystle Prince 12:20 pm 24 May 21

I find that yes it is lack of available support and staff that deter me from placing my disabled children in mainstream. Lack of inclusiveness is a big issue, lack of assistance when accessing mainstream due to lack of available staff is the other big problem, especially for excursions and carnival days and in the playground. My medical/physical needs child has never been on a school camp or to carnivals because she cannot do most of those physical activities and not once has that (in small schools) been considered she just misses out each time. It’s disappointing for sure luckily their current school is pretty good but things could certainly be improved.

    Fiona Brammall Fiona Brammall 6:45 pm 24 May 21

    I remember when my daughter was in primary school they changed venues for camp that year to accommodate her school mate who was in a wheelchair. My daughter was sorry she didn’t get to go to the usual venue that she’d heard a lot about but it was OK. That school really knew how to include her. She competed in the same cross country race as all the other kids (and beat my daughter!). I’m sorry all schools don’t make the effort.

Jane Hills Jandi Jane Hills Jandi 2:34 pm 23 May 21

The Directorate isn’t interested in the lived experience of kids with disability and their families. They spout “policy” they have no intention of putting into practice.

    Bianca Rossetti Bianca Rossetti 4:54 pm 24 May 21

    Jane Hills Jandi totally agree!

    Cathy Louise Cathy Louise 8:41 am 25 May 21

    Jane Hills Jandi 100%. Ask the education directorate how many disabled people have ever been on the disability education reference group (1). And ask how many disabled students have been on it (0).

    Also their entire behaviour framework is centred around behaviour modification instead of environmental adjustment. And meanwhile kids are continually suspended, expelled, segregated and restrained. The Minister likes to hide behind ‘parent choice’ which is just code for ‘I do whatever the teacher’s union tells me to’.

    Nothing has changed since the Purvis case - it’s actually gotten worse. It’s a disgrace.

Janelle Munson Janelle Munson 1:54 pm 23 May 21

Have you ever visited a specialist school?

You may be surprised at the quality and inclusiveness that you find. Strong community and valued relationships.

    Kathryn Lee Kathryn Lee 11:06 am 24 May 21

    I’m sure the teachers and staff are welcoming and caring but this is not inclusion.

    Inclusive education allows students from all backgrounds to learn and grow side by side to the benefit of all. This is what creates real community and real valued relationships.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 2:38 pm 24 May 21

    Kathryn Lee, if inclusion means my son feels included then it is all I care about. My lofty social goals mean nothing if my son isn't loved and happy. He self harms out of massive stress when he's around neurotypical people for too long because he knows he is different and it makes him feel sad. How would you like to be forced to work say around a group of people who spoke a different language and with whom you had nothing in common? You would be lonely and you would be miserable, just as many of our kids are when forced to be 'champions for change' in mainstream schools. It is the best case for some kids, and disastrous for others. It's too great a burden on vulnerable young shoulders in my son's case. Let's respect our different journeys without imposing a one size fits all approach.

    Kathryn Lee Kathryn Lee 3:19 pm 24 May 21

    I’m sorry your son self harms. He obviously has some serious needs that are not being addressed in the mainstream schools. Little surprise there.

    It makes me incredibly sad to hear this.

    Your point was though that special schools are inclusive settings and by definition and by way of your comments it clearly shows they aren’t.

    Your son is in a setting that is removed from the mainstream environment.

    Warm and welcoming education and one your son can cope with maybe but not inclusive education.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 3:34 pm 24 May 21

    Kathryn Lee, you are considering inclusion as a detached, objective social construct. I believe in a child-centred approach. My son has communicated his needs and they are met in a specialist school where he achieves inclusion which is meaningful to him.

    Most special needs kids in mainstream schools are segregated from the predominantly neurotypical populations. That is physical proximity but not inclusion and those kids know it in their hearts, even where they don't want to hurt their parents or let them down over their goals for them.

    As I said below, inclusion needs to be considered from an implementation lens. If the kids don't have mainstream friends, if they sit with adults while learning and at lunch, if they aren't truly involved in everyday activities with others then it's not meaningful inclusion.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 3:51 pm 24 May 21

    Kathryn Lee, I am not tired of the realities my son faces living with complex needs but I am so worn down by people who have the luxury of rose coloured glasses. It's interesting that you think you know so much better than those of us in the arena with our kids. You fight your battles your way and we'll live with love, contentment and meaningful inclusion with our kids around their needs and with people they relate to.

    Kathryn Lee Kathryn Lee 4:15 pm 24 May 21

    I am sorry to hear you are worn down by trying to provide a safe and happy learning space for your son. I don't have rose coloured glasses. I have followed the path my daughter has chosen, and fought for, and advocates for. When people use the term inclusive education with reference to a education model that really isn't inclusive education, like a specialist school I take exception. You said that the specialist schools were providing inclusive education. They are not. They cant.

    Kathryn Lee Kathryn Lee 4:17 pm 24 May 21

    Bri I am using the definition of Inclusive education found on https://www.unicef.org/education/inclusive-education#:~:text=Inclusive%20education%20means%20all%20children,speakers%20of%20minority%20languages%20too. I think the issue is as this article portrays, that the ACT Directorate doesn't actually provide inclusive education. They are making the easiest choice to be made, the one you made. I'm not saying it is a bad choice for your son or for you but I am saying it is not Inclusive Education. If people out there want to access inclusive education for their child and live in the ACT then it is a difficult task to search out schools that do not have "units" or segregated playgrounds and find ones where your child can sit, learn and play with their peers. Where they can make friends and participate and truly belong. It is possible and I encourage others to explore it as my daughter and our family would only recommend it.

    Bri Heseltine Bri Heseltine 7:35 pm 24 May 21

    Kathryn Lee, I'm so pleased your daughter is having such an excellent experience at school. It is not easy to face the fact that your child is profoundly disabled as our son is but I can assure you that when your child is in the hardest possible place then a ratio of more than 100 staff to 100 children is an absolute gift I feel so grateful for for all of our students and families. We neurotypical people revolve around their needs, not the other way around as in mainstream settings.

    I know the international conventions and principles, but I will not push my vulnerable son into a life of struggle and 'fighting' for so-called rights when he is best served - not me but him - in a school that wholly embraces him as he is. I wish you all the best but there is no way your daughter is in the care level of my son so we can only go by our different circumstances.

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