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Equal access to schools, use of restrictive practices and lack of supports seen as key issues as Disability Royal Commission releases report into inclusive education hearing

The Royal Commission today released its report on the public hearing ‘Inclusive Education in Queensland – Preliminary Inquiry’ held from 4-7 November 2019.  Key concerns identified in the report include:

  • discouragement of families seeking to enrol students with disability in mainstream schools of their choice.
  • a lack supports and adjustments for students with disability; and
  • low expectations of students with disability leading to poor educational outcomes.

The Royal Commission heard evidence about the bullying and belittling of students with a disability; complicated and inconsistent processes for seeking adjustments, inappropriate exclusions including as suspensions; and use of restrictive practices, including physical restraints and confinement.

The hearing was the Royal Commission’s first opportunity to examine the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), including the obligation to ensure an inclusive education system.

Queensland was selected as the location of the hearing due to its adoption of an Inclusive Education Policy in 2018, which could provide a potential model for other states and territories.

Several witnesses said that poor educational experiences can have significant negative impacts, not just on the student’s enjoyment and full participation in school life, but also on the life-course of students with disability, including future employment and mental health.

One witness told of her daughter, a person with Down’s syndrome, being frequently removed from her mainstream class, “babysat” in the school’s special education unit, and being dragged down a set of stairs “at a pace she could not maintain”.

Another, a special education teacher and mother of five children with disability, told of two mainstream Queensland private schools failing to provide adjustments to support her children’s learning needs, leaving them feeling belittled or punished.

She said while the introduction of the Inclusive Education Policy in Queensland was a step in the right direction, there was still “a long way to go”.

There was poor understanding of and inconsistent attitudes among school staff towards students with disability, including complicated processes and inconsistent approaches to adjustments, poor communication, and inaction when raising issues, she said.

Advocacy groups told the commission of ‘gatekeeping’ practices, with students with disability being allowed to attend school on a part time or transitional basis only; of inadequate training of staff, and lack of funding for, or gaps in, supports and adjustments.

They also spoke of rejection and devaluation of students with disability by school staff, bullying, breakdowns in communication, and use of restrictive practices.

Academic witnesses said inclusive education - having students in the same classroom wherever possible – had a long-term positive impact on the life opportunities of students with disability.

Heads of inclusive education at government mainstream high schools spoke of continuously working to create a more inclusive learning environment, embracing cultural and structural reforms in many different ways.

They said every student is supported to participate and that they had not encountered “any instance” where students with complex disabilities could not be accommodated at their schools.

The President of the Queensland Teachers’ Union, Kevin Bates, argued that there was a lack of resources, “both physical and human”, to support students with disability, which needed to be addressed to provide more inclusive opportunities.

Mr Bates said QTU viewed “special schools” as a critical part of the offering in education in the state system, saying that he would only support a hypothetical move to phase out special schools if every child’s needs were resourced adequately.

The report identified several key drivers of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of students with disability occurring in school settings; including bullying, gatekeeping, informal and formal exclusion of students, mistreatment by school staff and other students, funding complexities, use of restrictive practices, lack of adjustments and insufficient training.

It pointed to future directions for the Royal Commission, saying it would continue to investigate such practices.

The Royal Commission held a second public hearing on Education from 12-16 October 2020.  A report of that hearing will be published in due course.