Olivia lives with the rare Kleefstra Syndrome.

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Creating an inclusive education system for students with additional health and development needs

Access to and success in education is critical in eliminating disadvantage and giving every child the opportunity to reach their full potential.  All children and young people, including those with disabilities, have a right to quality education. Yet too many students with disabilities or with additional health and development needs are being denied the opportunities afforded by a quality education.

There are significant barriers to education for students with disabilities, including funding limitations, lack of specialist supports, inadequate knowledge and training in disability among teachers, lack of time for teachers to provide an individualised approach for students with disabilities, and discriminatory attitudes. The Program for Students with Disabilities is not achieving its intended aim of reducing these barriers.

Over half of parents surveyed as part of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) report, Held Back: The experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian schools, stated that their child had been unable to fully participate at school because the necessary supports were not available or because teachers lacked the time or capacity to modify their teaching to accommodate their child.

Australia has the highest rate of poverty among people with a disability in the OECD, and one of the highest rates of unemployment. People with disabilities are less likely to have completed Year 12 and hold a tertiary qualification and are significantly more likely to be unemployed.[1] This disadvantage begins early in life and is too often compounded during a person’s time at school.

The PSD currently supports around 4 per cent of the student population, equivalent to 24,000 students.[2] However, around 20 per cent of children have additional health and development needs and require additional supports to achieve their potential at school.[3] This means that a substantial proportion of students are not getting access to support through the PSD. The current model also doesn’t recognise that students from disadvantaged families require greater support. Families experiencing disadvantage may not be as well equipped to support their child’s learning and therefore schools should provide additional assistance.

Educational outcomes are particularly poor for children with additional health and development needs (AHDN) from disadvantaged families.[4] A student’s functioning is influenced by a range of risk and protective factors at the personal, environmental and family level. [5] The combination of AHDN and a low socioeconomic background can create a potential “double jeopardy” for these children. These children require additional assistance to help them to overcome the barriers they face to fully participate and succeed in education.

Given the prevalence of additional health and development needs most schools will have children and young people with these needs, yet the current PSD program only support a small percentage of these students. Our current system does not provide an appropriate level of support and is letting too many people down.

Issues with the Program for Students with Disabilities

VCOSS has prepared a submission to the review of the Program for Students with Disabilities. VCOSS members highlighted a number of issues with how the PSD currently operates. Of key concern was that too many students with disability and additional health and development needs are not being well supported by the current program.

There was feedback from VCOSS members that the criteria for the PSD program are too rigid and inflexible, excluding many students and making it difficult to apply for and access support. For example, students with an acquired brain injury are generally not supported under the PSD unless they also have a secondary disability under which they can apply. Even within the disability categories eligible for support under the program, not all students with that disability diagnosis were able to receive funding. For example, the description for the language disorder category is considered to be too narrow and excludes many children and young people with speech difficulties and communication needs. Similarly many children with autism are excluded from the narrow criteria, such as those with Asperger’s syndrome.

Research also suggests that a significant proportion of Australian children with emerging developmental problems are not being diagnosed prior to school entry but are then presenting at schools with special health care needs.[6] Due to a lack of diagnosis, these children are generally ineligible for additional support, yet children with emerging development needs are particularly responsive to early interventions.[7]

VCOSS members also highlighted that the program’s emphasis on the student’s disability diagnosis, rather than the educational/functional needs of students. This supports a deficit view and doesn’t sufficiently focus on educational needs of the student.  VCOSS members were concerned with the lack a focus on educational outcomes as well as the low educational expectations for students with disabilities.

For example, a VCOSS member provided an example of a student whose skill level was assessed as three years below her peers. This was not considered an issue by the school yet would have been of serious concern if the student did not have a disability. There was also significant inconsistency in how well schools implemented Student Support Groups and Individual Learning Plans, leading to poor practice, including parents not being sufficiently involved in the process and a lack of focus on educational outcomes. For example, one student’s individual learning plan identified that they should take photos of other students undertaking education tasks, with no focus on the student actually learning themselves.

There were also concerns that not all schools have inclusive and supportive learning environments, including proper training and support to build the capacity of teachers. As a result, inconsistent practices exist among schools and that how a student is supported varies considerably depending on which school they attend. Further, while some schools were using robust, evidence-based interventions to support their students, too many schools implemented ineffective or poor practices, including restraint and seclusion of students or expelling or suspending students for behavioural issues which are directly related to their disability.  Feedback suggested that some schools have employed martial arts people to train staff to ‘help’ them to manage students with challenging behaviours.

Members also indicated that the PSD application and funding process is opaque, complex and administratively resource-intensive, both for families and for education providers. This is particularly difficult for alternative education providers which are generally smaller and do not have the same level of administrative support or experience in applying for funding as schools. A related issue is that some schools are either subtly or blatantly discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling at their school, because they are concerned that they will not be able to obtain PSD funding to support them.[8]

VCOSS members highlighted issues with the current PSD review process in relation to both the focus and timing of the review, and suggested that students and their families should be better supported in the key transition periods.

It was also felt that a lack of accountability about how funding for the PSD program was used, combining with a lack of monitoring of student outcomes, contributed to funding not being spent effectively in some cases. For example one school used PSD funding to purchase Lego with the intention of developing the motor skills of students. While this was beneficial to some other students at the school, the student who actually attracted the funding was unable to use Lego due to their disability and therefore their support needs were unmet by the school.

This submission outlines VCOSS’ recommendations for the PSD to help create a more inclusive and supportive education system for all students with additional health and development needs, particularly those experiencing multiple disadvantage. It also builds on other recent VCOSS submissions to the Education State, the Schools Funding Review and the Strengthening DET Regional Relationships and Support Review.

This submission outlines potential funding models that could better serve the interests of children with additional health and development needs and their families.

Fundamental change to the PSD has been recommended based on feedback from members and the research evidence base. For students with disability and additional health and development needs the issues of stigma and discrimination remain common and significant changes are required in how the PSD is used to help address these barriers and support all students.

These changes need to be underpinned by a significant cultural shift in how the education system, and society more broadly, perceives and supports students with disability. To achieve this requires:

  • shifting from the rigid eligibility criteria and deficit-based PSD funding model to a functional and educational needs-based approach that supports all students with additional health and development needs
  • creating a more inclusive education system that optimises the educational, social and wellbeing outcomes of all students
  • building the capacity of schools and teachers to implement evidence-based practice and eliminate poor practice throughout the education system
  • building stronger engagement and support for families, particularly families experiencing disadvantage
  • improving the transition process for students with additional health and development needs
  • strengthening the transparency and accountability of how funds are used to support students
  • better monitoring student outcomes to identify and address systemic issues to give every student the opportunity to achieve their potential.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Education’ Disability, Australia, 2009 cat. no. 4446.0, available at http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4446.0main+features102009

[2] PSD Review Team, Program for Students with Disabilities Review: In-person Targeted Stakeholder discussions, 2015, p.  3.

[3] S Goldfeld, M O’Connor, M Sayers, T Moore, F Oberklaid, ‘Prevalence and correlates of special health care needs in a population cohort of Australian children at school entry’, Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 2012;33(4):319-327.

[4] Australian Early Development Census, Research Snapshot Shaping learning trajectories for children with additional health and developmental needs, 2014, p.1.

[5] S Goldfeld, M O’Connor, M Sayers, T Moore, F Oberklaid, ‘Prevalence and correlates of special health care needs in a population cohort of Australian children at school entry’, Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 2012;33(4):319-327.

[6] S Goldfeld, M O’Connor, M Sayers, T Moore, F Oberklaid, Prevalence and correlates of special health care needs in a population cohort of Australian children at school entry. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. 2012;33(4):319-327, p. 326.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.