A report by the Australian Education Union (the AEU) has found that eight out of ten principals do not have the resources they need to educate growing numbers of students with a disability.
The 'AEU State of our Schools 2015 Report' (the Report) includes findings from a survey conducted online between 25 February and 14 March 2015 involving 3,339 respondents, 22% of which were principals.
The survey was conducted on public schools. Given that the Federal Government provides funding for all schools with students with disabilities (which also receive State and Territory funding), its findings provide a relevant insight into the current issues affecting the delivery of education services to students with disabilities in all sectors.
Key findings of the Report
The Report contains some telling statistics, including the following:
- 84% of principals need to reallocate funds from other areas to assist students with a disability at their school;
- 79% of principals reported not having enough resources to meet the needs of students with a disability;
- principals in both high and low socioeconomic status areas believe that they lack the resources to meet the needs of students with disability; and
- when respondents were asked what they needed, the top four responses were:
- assistance for teachers in the classroom - 82%;
- specialist support - 56%;
- funding to pay for the professional development of classroom teachers - 56%; and
- dedicated programs - 45%.
In a press release, the AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe said that 'there are over 100,000 students with disability whose schools receive no support funding - one-third of the total number of students with disability - and many other who get less than they need'.
Schools 'need in-class support, trained professionals like occupational therapists and speech therapists, as well as ensuring that all teachers are trained in how to teach students with disability and that professional development is available'.
Duty not to discriminate
All schools must comply with the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (Cth) (the Standards) under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) (the DDA). As we previously reported, the Standards clarify the obligations which schools owe to their students under the DDA.
The Standards seek to ensure that students with a disability can access and participate in education on the same basis as other students. Under the Standards, education providers have three main types of obligations. They must:
- make reasonable adjustments; and
- eliminate harassment and victimisation.
Reasonable adjustments can include specialised technology or computer software and equipment, modification to physical barriers to ensure access to facilities and additional personnel such as tutors.
The obligation for non-government schools to comply with the DDA and the Standards is reinforced by registration standards in most States and Territories.
Schools can avoid complying with the Standards where it would cause 'unjustifiable hardship'. According to the National Disability Coordination Officer Programme, some examples of unjustifiable hardship include cost and safety.
This means that a school can legally discriminate against a student with a disability if the cost of providing the support for that student is so high or 'unfair' that the school cannot do it.
While a school must prove, using evidence, that it will suffer 'unjustifiable hardship' and therefore cannot easily rely on the exception, the Report demonstrates that the lack of funding for support services for students with disabilities is a significant issue which may result in schools suffering hardship at unacceptable rates.
Multiple sources of data collection
The information collected by the AEU precedes the future findings of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (National Data Collection). According to the website:
- the National Data Collection will commence this year and all schools are required to participate in the collection process to collect data to 'give governments, schools and education authorities information about how many students with disability are enrolled in Australian schools, where they are located and the level of adjustments provided for them to participate in schooling on the same basis as other students'; and
- the data will be used to gain a clearer picture of the needs of students with disability, and give more support to schools so that they can better understand and implement their core responsibilities under the DDA and the Standards.
The aggregated, school-level data collected in 2015 is expected to be available on the My School website from 2016, subject to the confirmation of data quality.
It's expected that the findings from the National Data Collection will influence disability funding for schools. However, given the findings of the Report, it seems that in the meantime, the education standards of students with disabilities are suffering. And due to a lack of resources, any delay in a review of Government funding will only prove more detrimental to their standard of education.
Funding and politics
School funding, for all students across all school sectors, is a hot political topic at the moment at both a Federal and State level. In the lead-up to the NSW State Election this weekend, the amount of funding given to non-government schools is under the microscope, as the Sydney Morning Herald outlines.
However, for those students with disabilities, and the schools who do their best to educate them, the potential delay for increased funding, contingent upon the results of the National Data Collection, is a long time to wait especially when their need for improved services is so desperate.