27 October 2023

Schools' disability assessment distressing for families, audit report says

| Ian Bushnell
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student inn wheelchair at school

An audit report has urged the Education Directorate to upgrade its approach to students with a disability. Photo: iStock.

The way ACT public schools assess and provide support for students with a disability has been criticised as burdensome and distressing for families by ACT Auditor-General Michael Harris.

Supports for students with disabilities in ACT public schools found the Education Directorate’s processes for assessing students’ eligibility for specialist programs place administrative and financial burdens on families and schools and risk unequal outcomes for students.

The report found the Education Directorate’s assessments focus on what students with disability cannot do rather than on the “reasonable adjustments” that can be provided so they can be at school on the same basis as their peers.

The audit also found the Directorate does not provide sufficiently clear and accessible written information for students with disability and their families about students’ rights, schools’ obligations, and the educational settings and supports available in ACT public schools.

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Mr Harris said the report identified actions the Education Directorate should prioritise under its new Inclusive Education Strategy.

The audit says the ACT Student Disability Criteria and Disability Education Program Application requires a medical diagnosis, which can lead to long wait times and significant expense, to access the relevant medical specialists, disadvantaging less well-off families.

School psychologists are required to complete the Disability Education Program Application to confirm eligibility for disability education programs, which imposes an administrative workload that diverts them from providing direct psychological and therapeutic services.

The audit says the SCAN tool used to assess students’ level of needs does not focus on what adjustments a student needs to learn specific skills and achieve specific goals but focuses on what students cannot do.

“The template uses negative, deficit-focused language to describe students’ characteristics and behaviours. This deficit-focused approach to the SCAN appraisal meeting can be distressing for families,” it says.

Appraisal reports also do not explain the resourcing and adjustments that students with different assessed levels of needs will receive, and schools report that the purpose and outcome of the meetings are unclear, frustrating efforts to decide on what a student may require.

The audit says the Directorate does not provide sufficient, clear and accessible information to schools and families about the minimum physical help or upgrades available or the minimum specialist furniture, equipment and assistive technology available for ACT public schools.

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The Directorate’s information for students and families was found to be untimely, inconsistent and inaccessible.

For example, the Directorate’s website is lacking when families are seeking urgent information at the end or beginning of the school year.

Families find information can be different between schools and the Directorate, and written material can be filled with jargon and hard to understand.

The report makes eight recommendations about providing clear and accessible information to students and families, implementing new needs assessment processes, and providing effective professional learning pathways for Learning Support Assistants.

In response, the Directorate said work was underway to improve the supports provided to students with disability and much of this is aligned with the audit’s findings.

“The development of the draft Inclusive Education Strategy demonstrates the Directorate’s commitment to strengthen inclusive practice to ensure students with disability can access and participate in education on the same basis as their peers,” it said.

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