Some parents of children with disabilities said they felt pressure to remove their child from school. (AAP: Dan Peled)
Children with disabilities are being turned away from or discouraged from enrolling in mainstream Victorian schools — and once enrolled, many are being socially isolated or not receiving the support they need to learn, according to a new report.
About 15 per cent of parents interviewed by Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law said they had experienced difficulty enrolling their child in a mainstream Victorian government school.
A similar proportion said they had felt pressured to remove their child from school once they had been enrolled, according to the report, based on interviews with almost 100 parents, former students, school staff and others.
The researchers found many school leaders discouraged parents from enrolling their child on the grounds that the school wasn’t the right “fit” for the student or that the school could not accommodate the student’s needs.
But this often happened without a proper analysis of the adjustments needed by the child, and whether they could be reasonably provided by the school, the researchers found.
‘Dumbing down’ tasks
The report said once they enrolled, many students were not receiving appropriate adjustments to their lessons. Instead, teachers were simply “dumbing down” tasks.
“In the case of one of my clients who was in high school, while the rest of [my client’s] class was learning about medieval history, this [student’s] aide has got [my client] to make a castle with icy-pop sticks,” a disability advocate told the researchers.
The advocate said the teenager had ADHD and a severe language disorder but was “quite smart”. “And then, in geography where everyone was learning about geography, [my client’s] aide has [them] colouring in countries with coloured pencils.”
The researchers said many of the problems were linked to flaws in the way funding was provided for the one-in-six Victorian students with disabilities.
A 2016 review found while 15 per cent of Victorian students needed support due to disability, only 4 per cent received funding under Victoria’s program for students with a disability
“You have to … demonise your child in order to get the appropriate funding for them,” one parent, Veronica, told the researchers.
Feeling pressure to pay
Other parents told the researchers they felt pressured by their school to pay for support for their child out of their own pocket.
One mother, Jemma, said during a period before her child qualified for funding “there was immense guilt and pressure put on me from the school as [my child’s] needs ‘were costing the school money’.”
Mel Spencer said she had to pay for support out of her own pocket to keep her son in a government school. (Supplied: Mel Spencer)
Mel Spencer, who has three children with autism, said she had to pay for therapy and other supports while her son was attending a government school.
“He was too high functioning for a special school or an autism-specific school but he didn’t meet the criteria for funding in government schools so we were left with spending an extraordinary amount of money privately in order to keep him at school,” Ms Spencer said.
She said she felt she had no choice but send her children to non-government schools when they started secondary school.
“I couldn’t send them to a government school because they wouldn’t ever get support and we weren’t setting them up for success really,” she said.
“I had to find a Catholic school within the area we lived because I knew they’d get support and funding they didn’t have access to at a government school.”
Cut off from classmates
Several parents reported that their children were isolated from their classmates by being placed in separate areas of the room — such as in the alcove where school bags are kept — or other rooms.
Parents also reported pressure to withdraw their children from NAPLAN tests.
“We had the principal call and say that [my child] was too stressed and anxious to complete NAPLAN,” one parent, Kathy, told the researchers.
“[My child] didn’t even know anything of NAPLAN at that point.”
Parents told the researchers of their children being isolated from their fellow students. (Flickr: Sharon Mollerus)
Castan Centre director Sarah Joseph said while the Victorian Government had made progress in recent years to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities, they continued to face obstacles that potentially breached children’s rights under Victorian and Commonwealth human rights and anti-discrimination laws.
“Children with disability have the right to access a quality education on the same basis as their peers without disability,” Professor Joseph said.
“The Victorian Government — and government schools — are legally responsible for realising these rights — but our research shows that too often the system is letting children and their families down.”
The researchers found that successive governments’ policy of devolving responsibility to schools meant individual schools were entrusted to assess their own inclusiveness, and faced few consequences for failing to meet their obligations.
“We think many parents would be shocked to learn that the Department of Education and Training does not have comprehensive systems in place to make sure that all schools are doing the right thing by children with disability,” report co-author Eleanor Jenkin said.
The report recommends inclusion training be made mandatory for school staff. (Flickr: Howard Library System)
Department has ‘more to do’
The report makes a number of recommendations, including changes to the funding model for disability support, mandatory inclusion training for school staff, and improving access to information about children’s rights and the support available to students with disabilities.
A spokesman for the Department of Education and Training said it was already acting in line with many of the report’s recommendations, and would carefully examine what further lessons could be learned.
“We recognise there is more for the department to do and we’re continuing to work to improve outcomes for students with disabilities,” the spokesman said.
“The department takes seriously its legal obligations to treat all students without discrimination, including in relation to enrolment and participation.
“We would encourage anyone who thinks they may have been treated unfairly by their local government school to contact the department though the school’s complaint system.”