Kindergarten students sitting on the floor

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Inclusive schools: more than just words

How can we improve outcomes for kids – especially vulnerable children and young people – and their families? This is the question that drives the Go Goldfields Collaborative Table, which brings together community members from Central Goldfields Shire with leaders from key services and government agencies.

I’ve been a member of Go Goldfields for three years, and have also been working on VCOSS’s Stronger Schools inclusive schools campaign in the lead-up to the Victorian state election. Keen to hear first-hand what inclusive schools mean in a community like Maryborough, I recently visited Maryborough Education Centre, where I met with Principal David Sutton and Assistant Principals Andrew Tatchell and Julie Rieger.

The school is Prep to year 12, and also provides a specialist setting for students with disability. It’s been involved in Go Goldfields for many years and is a key community anchor for supporting children, young people and their families.

Students attending Maryborough Education Centre face a number of challenges.  Since the introduction of the Victorian Government’s equity funding, which provides targeted funding to help students facing disadvantage, the school has seen a boost of around $2 million per year. This has enabled supports including additional teachers in classrooms, speech therapists and psychology services, allowing the school to better assist the one in three students who need extensive adjustments so they can be included and succeed in school.

However, there is more to be done. The school has over 100 students supported by the Program for Students with Disability (PSD) and many more in need of funding, but much of the time and resources of the specialist student services employed by the Department of Education and Training is spent on the extensive paperwork and application processes involved in ensuring children are eligible for funding, rather than on providing actual services for students.

Principal David Sutton

This is exacerbated by a lack of health services in the community. According to David, the Principal, “there is a two to three week wait to see a GP and a three to six month waiting list to see a paediatrician. In terms of other services like psychology and speech therapists, we struggle for our students to get seen in the Maryborough.” He also noted, “The disability of students is compounded by the disadvantage experienced by families and the lack of access to services in the community. That is why the school is such an important support for children and young people.”

VCOSS has long argued for reform of the Program for Students with Disability. The PSD currently supports around 4 per cent of the Victorian student population, equivalent to 24,000 students. However, around 7 per cent of Australian children aged 0–14 years have some level of disability, and around 20 per cent of children have additional health and development needs (AHDN) and require extra supports to achieve their potential at school. Students with disability also face a double jeopardy if they come from families facing disadvantage: these families often don’t have the financial resources to fully support students so they can succeed at school.

“About 30 percent of our students need additional support, and would benefit from PSD funding,” says David.

There are also problems with the way the PSD functions: according to Assistant Principal Julie Rieger, who heads up the specialist programs at Maryborough Education Centre, “the deficit-based model of the PSD is just cruel: we have to label students and portray all the things that are wrong in order to get support, rather than look at their strengths and how through additional support we could help them with their education”.

There are also challenges around the interface between the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the PSD. “We have one student with autism who is eligible for the NDIS but not eligible for the PSD. This child needs support at school too,” says Julie.

VCOSS welcomed the Victorian Government announcement of a pilot, involving 100 schools, to better assess the learning needs of students with disabilities and additional needs.

Assistant Principal Julie Rieger

According to David, Andrew and Julie, for the community and the school to thrive into the future the community needs to be empowered to make decisions about local priorities. Local services and community members know what is needed. There should also be a strong focus on getting services operating in Maryborough and ensuring the service gaps are met, and capitalising on the opportunities for the school to be a community hub.

“A wraparound service model where services are located on the school site, like Doveton College, would help to meet the needs of the community,” says David. “It would be great if we could offer services for young children and their families before school and get them engaged early, and activities for parents such as skills building to get them ready for work. That has been a great success at Doveton.”

In the lead up to the November state election, VCOSS calls on all parties to:

  • Invest in school-as-community hubs and other integrated services models to provide children and young people with more holistic support, particularly in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.
  • Increase equity funding to support students facing disadvantage.
  • Increase funding and support to students with disabilities and/or additional health and developmental needs.
  • Adopt a functional and educational needs-based approach to assess eligibility and determine funding amounts. This would enable the full range of factors affecting a child’s learning to be considered (including their risk and protective factors such as level of disadvantage in the family and educational needs), rather than focusing narrowly on their disability diagnosis.
  • Continue to invest in place-based initiatives like Go Goldfields to help communities to thrive.