Parliament: Other Speeches

Select Committee on Access to the South Australian Education System for students with disabilities

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I move:

That the report of the select committee be noted.

It is a pleasure to be tabling this report today. It is one that, due to a high level of interest and the number of stories that needed to be shared, has been some time in the making. I begin, of course, by thanking my fellow committee members: Tammy Franks, Tung Ngo, Stephen Wade and Jing Lee. I give special thanks to the committee staff—our secretary, Leslie Guy, and researcher, Andrew Ross—for their contributions, and for the comprehensive report that has resulted from it.

I also wish to thank the teachers and staff in schools across the state, the vast majority of whom have done, and continue to do, a good job in providing students of all ages and all abilities with a positive schooling experience. This inquiry was never about bringing into question the commitment or the skill of the teaching profession. In fact, I struggle to think of a profession that I respect and admire more than teaching. The goal of this inquiry has always been to highlight areas in need of improvement for the benefit of students and school staff alike.

Of course, perhaps I most of all want to thank the individuals and organisations who shared their stories with us. They were often grim stories, stories that I can well imagine were very difficult to share, but that is indeed why it was so important to share them. Of all the people who came forward, whether they were parents, students, teachers or representing a peak body they did so freely and generously, but also, I believe, out of a sense of obligation to assist in creating a system in which their negative experiences are not repeated but the positive ones can be duplicated many times over.

Students in our education system, be they in public, private, religious or independent settings, are all different. They are different ages and different genders, they come from different cultural backgrounds and they have different interests and different aspirations. No matter who they are, these students all share two very important things in common. The first is their right to formal schooling and education, in which they are accepted and respected for who they are, where their voice and their skills are encouraged, and perhaps even more importantly, where they are pushed to achieve, where their capacity to continue to develop is truly believed in by those around them.

Of course, the second important thing that these young people all have in common is that they rely on people like us here today in this chamber to give them that experience. While I have said that I know that there are many people working to ensure that that is the case, unfortunately it seems clear that on the whole we are not delivering students with disabilities in particular that vital opportunity. Over the course of the inquiry, the committee heard distressing and repeated examples demonstrating this.

I do not intend to go into every detail of this 161-page report today, nor do I intend to outline every single one its 94 recommendations and findings. What I am going to do instead is to try to identify and outline key themes and some of the most important issues that we need to work on. Firstly, it should come as no surprise that the committee quickly identified the need to invest in children’s education and welfare very early on in the child’s life, in order to give them the best possible start.

We have recommended that the Minister for Education and Child Development and SA Health should increase resources for home visits particularly in the first year of a child’s life to facilitate early identification of disability or other risks and invest in the prevention of future disabilities, learning difficulties or developmental delays. The committee also heard evidence of the importance of using play as a type of education for young children in particular and has recommended that educators should be made more aware of the value of play-based curriculum as an instructional method for all primary school aged children.

With regard to a student’s fundamental right to access school, I think the general consensus is that this right is well laid out in existing law and policy, including the Disability Discrimination Act, the Disability Education Standards, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What is lacking, according to the real lived stories of those who presented to the committee, is an awareness of those rights and obligations, and an understanding of how to implement them to benefit students, families, and school communities alike.

Therefore, the committee has made a number of recommendations about the need for education authorities and legal service bodies to develop easily understandable and easily accessible information about a child’s right to access school, including enrolment and admission, and ongoing support while at school. It is vital that this information is easy to get and easy to understand because many parents, particularly parents who have just been told that their child is going to have a disability, have enough on their minds without having to dig deep to find even the basics of how to support their child’s schooling.

As well as measures to increase awareness of rights, the report also recommends measures to ensure that properly resourced advocacy bodies exist that can be called upon if someone feels that their rights are not being met. Importantly, this awareness must also spread to teachers and other school staff, so that they are aware of their entitlement to seek additional support, resources and advice about how best to work with their students. The report suggests that discretionary funding, appropriately acquitted, should be made available at the school level to support students who in this case do not have a formal diagnosis yet but display an obvious need for additional support.

Members might be aware that the Disability Discrimination Act allows an exemption from making modifications for access to businesses and institutions such as schools, as long as they can prove that making the requested adjustment would cause what is termed unjustifiable hardship—that is to say, it would cost more than they can afford or it would disrupt other people too much. However, it would appear from the evidence received by the committee that, in the context of schools, this clause is sometimes used as an excuse not to make even minor modifications. I want to share just one quick anecdote that illustrates this.

One person who presented to the committee told us that their young daughter’s disability means that she finds social interaction overstimulating. The parents requested that, if she became overstimulated, their daughter be allowed to take a short break from group activity and work quietly on her own while listening to calming music on headphones—a girl after my own heart! I understand that the school attempted to claim unjustifiable hardship, saying that it would be unfair on other students, who may wonder why they too were not allowed to listen to music while working.

With respect, this example perpetuates what I think is the mistaken belief that all people learn the same way, can learn the same way and need to take in information in the same way. One person might find music distracting, while another person finds that it helps calm them and helps them concentrate. Additionally, it does not put a financial impost on the school to provide this particular accommodation and, most importantly, the student and those around her, thanks to the use of personal headphones, can continue to work.

Whilst the Disability Discrimination Act is a federal law, and so the state parliament has no power to change this clause itself, the committee recommends that students, parents and schools should be given clear guidance as to the meaning of ‘unjustifiable hardship’, such that it cannot be used to disallow modifications for learning, point blank.

Transition, both in and out of the school system, was frequently raised with the committee as well, in particular the need for greater flexibility in transition into school and, where possible, avoiding arbitrary time lines for progression through that process. The report also recommends that an online portal or electronic portable record be established as a repository of school information, assessments, education plans and behaviour support plans to avoid reassessment upon entering a new school, so that all relevant information is widely known to those who need to know it and easily accessible to help ease the transition to a new school.

The fact that students with disabilities are home schooled more often than those without disabilities was also raised on multiple occasions, and the committee makes recommendations in this respect, including that the Department for Education and Child Development should record the specific reasons why students leave formal education settings to commence home schooling, including but not limited to disability, bullying, geography, economic hardship, behaviour and simple personal choice.

With the transition of older students out of the school system and into employment and other opportunities, measures were identified, including that transition arrangements for school leavers should be incorporated into negotiated education plan processes, with a sufficiently long lead time, and that the post-school experiences of people with disabilities should be monitored, including at the individual school level, to help all of us identify trends and opportunities for improvement, as well as what government should be doing more of.

The committee also heard concerning reports of students with disability being actively discouraged from participating in school events, including NAPLAN testing. The report stands strong against this, as we all should. After all, the very purpose of tests like NAPLAN is to identify a student’s current level of understanding of the material they are learning. If a student is not doing as well as might be expected, and if they might be able to do better with better supports around them, let this be shown.

Negotiated education plans (NEPs) was another frequently-raised, hotly-debated topic. While views on their effectiveness are certainly mixed according to the evidence, the committee’s final view is that they remain important documents for recording and tracking student needs and achievements, with some room for improvement. In particular, the committee repeatedly heard the view that NEPs are all too often static documents, not updated regularly enough to accurately reflect a student and their changing needs, or give staff the best idea of how to work with them.

The report makes a large number of recommendations about NEPs, including that each plan should be focused on the student, helping them fulfil their capacity and pursue their aspirations. As their maturity allows, the student should be asked what they think they are capable of achieving. Planning should involve cooperative engagement of all the major contributors to a child’s education, including the student, their parents, therapists, teachers, leadership teams and disability coordinators.

Planning meetings should also seek consensus about developmentally appropriate approaches, goals and curriculum modifications. A cooperative approach means that decisions should not be predetermined. As part of the NEP process, an individual sensory overview document should also be included, including but not limited to a student’s hearing, sight, self-awareness, motor skills, sensory-related likes, aversions, as well as strategies for improving these skills which should be completed and updated as part of the NEP as the student develops.

Importantly, the report also recommends that the students themselves, as well as their families, are given a greater say in the development of their own NEP. Specifically, the report recommends a model in which at least three goals are identified: one chosen by the student; one by the family or guardian; and one by school staff. In the case of students under guardianship, in recognition of the additional challenges that they can face, the student can select two of their own goals.

Increased in-school support, both from assisted technology and with increased funding to the Special Education Resource Unit, better known as SERU, and that provided by speech pathologists and other allied health professionals, was also identified in the report as critical. Additionally, recognising the impact a less than optimal schooling experience has not only on the student but on their family is highlighted in the report which recommends increased support for parents and siblings. It also recommends that there be a study into the economic impact of families and students with disability, including their capacity to participate full-time in the workplace.

I hope that this will go some way to address another area of concern raised in the report; that is, the situation where schools rely on parents and guardians to provide regular support to students during the day, including feeding and toileting supports. The committee sees this as highly inappropriate as it detracts from a positive, normal schooling experience for the student as well as the workforce participation of their guardian.

The report makes a number of recommendations in relation to school leadership and teacher training and support. Indeed, a common theme was that where school leadership was strong regarding the inclusion of a student with disability, great things are already happening, and I thank those school staff for that. To use one example, the report recommends the increased investigation and rollout of the interoception program, teaching students skills such as proprioception (awareness of their body in space) and emotional regulation which with a whole-of-school approach seems to be highly beneficial for all students both with and without an identified disability.

Suspension and inclusion from school is another area of great concern. As well as the positive behaviour support measures I have mentioned earlier, which I hope will reduce and eventually eliminate restraint and seclusion as well as exclusion on the grounds of disability, the report also makes a number of specific recommendations which include the following:

that policies should ensure that schools accept their responsibility wherever possible to see out the day, where they have accepted the student at the beginning of the day;

that these policies do not use exclusion or suspension from school as the default behaviour management strategy for students with disabilities and what are named ‘challenging behaviours’; and

that the policies demonstrate that they have developed and implemented formal behaviour support plans before any moves to exclude or suspend a student with disability from school are considered, and that disability and education standards are reflected specifically in those documents.

As I have already said, it is not my intention to outline everything the committee heard or recommended today, but rather to give a broad overview of some of the important issues covered. But I hope that what I have mentioned and the rest of what is in the report will go a long way to improving school life for all. We all stand to benefit from providing a better education for young people as they will have more independence, socially and financially, better job prospects, and decreased interaction with the justice system, for a start.

Although it would be nice to believe this, I am not naive enough to believe, either, that everything that could benefit students with disabilities and additional needs is in this report. That is to say, the answer to every problem does not lie in this report, however comprehensive it might be. Nor should it, because if the report shows us one thing very clearly it is that we cannot and must not blindly accept the status quo when it comes to supporting and respecting students of all types in our schools. Fittingly, it is up to all of us to keep learning new facts, new methods, new ways of respecting people and responding to their needs and challenges as they arise.

Again, I thank everyone involved in this important process and very much look forward to working with all members to ensure that we implement these changes and more. Let’s all show South Australian students across the state that we believe them when they tell us what does and does not work for them. Most importantly of all, let us show them that we believe in them.