In the Media

Blowout in special needs students

Tim Williams – Education Reporter | Sunday Mail

MORE than 12,000 students with verified disabilities are being taught in mainstream classes in the state’s public schools, alongside huge growth in “special units” and a boom in autism diagnoses.

In the wake of the outrage caused by One Nation senator Pauline Hanson’s call for segregation of students with disabilities, SA Education Department figures show an 80 per cent rise in special unit students from 551 in 2008 to 991 last year.

The 38 units are a long-term option within mainstream schools for children with “very significant or multiple disabilities”, and allow for some social integration with the rest of the student population.

Over the same eight-year period, the number of students in special classes in mainstream schools for less severely disabled students rose by more than 200 to 1257. Those in mainstream classes remained stable at more than 12,200.

The SA Education Department says it prioritises the wishes of parents in placing students. SA Primary Principals Association president Pam Kent said having children with disabilities in mainstream classes helped other students learn about diversity and tolerance, but posed challenges to teachers “to fairly distribute their attention and time”.

“The schools will tell you there’s not enough resources for special needs,” she said.

Senator Hanson this week sparked a national debate by claiming the majority of students in mainstream classes were being disadvantaged because teachers’ time was monopolised by those with autism and other disabilities.

Disability advocates including state Dignity Party MP Kelly Vincent hit back, arguing the solution was more classroom resources, not discriminatory segregation.

In just the past four years the numbers of autistic students receiving support across the public system – many with severe behavioural problems – jumped 56 per cent from 2653 to 4147. They accounted for 27 per cent of supported students last year, up from 18 per cent in 2013.

The department’s executive director for early years and child development, Ann-Marie Hayes, said many parents favoured special units because they were “a little bit integrated but in a way that’s safe”.

Ms Hayes said the rise in autism figures was partly because parents needed to have children diagnosed to receive National Disability Insurance Scheme funding.

The 15,447 students with verified disabilities was about one in every 11 public students last year.

Speech/language impairments remained the most commonly verified, making up a third of the total, followed by autism (27 per cent) and intellectual disabilities (17 per cent). Physical and sensory disabilities comprised fewer than a tenth of the statewide tally. There are now 150 special classes in 92 schools, including 25 new classes in country schools this year. The almost 1000 students across 15 stand-alone special schools last year was a slight fall on 2008.