Classroom inclusion is key to education

Wherever possible, children with learning disabilities should have the chance of mainstream schooling, writes NADJA FLEET

If Canberra’s Parliament House was a classroom then, in the eyes of many, Pauline Hanson would probably be a regular in the naughty corner. The One Nation politician is known to divide, not unite.

She wants the voting age to be raised to 21 to ban “no-clue” youth and has attacked Asians, indigenous people and Muslims. And, in a speech to Parliament last June, Hanson ostracised children with a disability, particularly those on the autism spectrum.

“These kids have a right to an education, by all means but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention,” she said as she expressed her support for the Gonski 2.0 reforms.

“It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.

“We cannot afford to hold our kids back. We have the rest of the world and other kids in other countries who are going leaps and bounds ahead of us. Unless we keep up a decent educational standard in this country, we will keep going further backwards and backwards.”

At the time of Hanson’s speech, Cheryl’s son Zachery was working well in his classroom at a private school in Adelaide. The seven-year-old had overcome struggles with the transition from play-based kindergarten to a structured school environment.

He was able to sit still and talk when appropriate. Minor adjustments, such as a picture on his desk reminding him to raise his hand and a facilitator in the classroom, helped the process.

Zachery was diagnosed with autism less than a year earlier but mum Cheryl never considered sending her son to a special school.

“He needs good examples to look at,” she says. “If he’s looking at other children with special needs and watching their behaviour, he would also model that behaviour.”

Cheryl understands how diverse the autism spectrum is and says not every parent might want to keep their child in mainstream school. The mother-of-three has a daughter, Breeanna, who also has autism.

The now 11-year-old is not violent but she switches off, is in her own world, has meltdowns and used to wander off the school grounds. The public school system was unable to provide the care Breeanna needed. Now she goes to the same private school as her younger brother.

Looking out for her children is Cheryl’s No.1 priority but is it coming at a cost to the other children in the classroom? Cheryl doesn’t think so.

“My son’s actually shown them some really out-the square thinking, which expanded the classroom,” she says. “To move him and put him in a special class will not be good for him and it’s not good for the class. It narrows their world. By having him there, it expands on their learning and then it expands on their understanding.

“We have a very diverse world and very diverse people in that world, and it will give them more understanding and empathy in that world later in life. It’s about inclusiveness, diversity and celebrating differences.”

Cheryl’s claims are in line with international studies. Research, published in the Education Research Review in 2009, says students with disabilities have little or no impact on the learning of other students.

“Children without special educational needs in inclusive classes are more positive about children with special education needs, but they are still less positive about them than their peers without special educational needs,” the research says.

A study by Harvard Graduate School of Education reviewed evidence from more than 280 research studies conducted in 25 countries. It found consistent evidence that inclusive education confers substantial short and long-term benefits for children’s cognitive and social development.

But, despite the evidence, the report found students with disabilities “continue to face challenges in accessing high-quality education”.

“Longstanding misconceptions regarding the capacities of children with intellectual, physical, sensory and learning disabilities to benefit from formal education have, for generations, led educators to deny these students access for formal schooling,” the study says.

There were nearly 15,500 students with disability in public schools in South Australia and 80 per cent in mainstream classes last year, figures from the SA Education Department show.

Schools cannot refuse enrolment for children with special needs if reasonable adjustments can be made and they apply for support through the Education Department.

Last year, the department allocated $10 million to improve special education services. But a parliamentary inquiry into the access to the SA education system for students with a disability, released in May this year, has heard children with disabilities are being repeatedly suspended, denied support and even restrained.

The committee also heard that, despite good intentions, teachers struggle to support special needs children especially as class sizes grow.

Dignity Party’s Kelly Vincent MLC, who has cerebral palsy and also attended mainstream classes as a child, was on the committee which, she says, recommended equipping teachers with additional resources and cultural change to support students with disabilities.

“We often have parents who are being called halfway through the day and asked to support their child feeding or toileting because the school doesn’t have adequate resourcing to do that,” she says.

“And, of course, that impacts not only the student but also the family, particularly if they have to pull out of paid work. “It’s about how do we give teachers the right tools in their kits to actually respond to the needs of students, whether they have a diagnosed or undiagnosed disability, even a trauma background.”

Vincent says she was “disheartened” by Hanson’s comments in Parliament. “Kids with autism and any other disability or learning difference are our kids and they have just as much right, morally and legally, to an equal education as anyone else,” she says.

“To hear not just a member of the public but a member of the Federal Parliament disregarding laws and policies that are in place to protect the rights of children with disabilities is very concerning.

“It’s so ignorant not seeing supporting children who are autistic as an investment. The more we enable students to be educated, particularly with a disability, the more likely they are to be independent; the greater their employment chances will be; and the more skills they have that will make them less reliant on government-funded support in the future.”

For Cheryl, it wasn’t a matter of special versus mainstream schooling but an early diagnosis and streamlined funding that would have made a difference in her children’s lives.

Her daughter showed signs of autism as a baby but she wasn’t diagnosed until 2009. And it took two years to diagnose Zachery – a delay that severely impacted on the child’s learning.

He had to repeat his reception year. “He wasn’t picking up on the learning and then reaching those goals he needed to reach,” Cheryl says.

“I was working with him at home but I still didn’t know what I was dealing with. “If I had that diagnosis and help, chances are he wouldn’t have repeated reception. Things would’ve been a lot

Did You Know?

There are 15,500 students with disability in SA public schools. About 80 per cent of them were in mainstream classes last year. Schools cannot refuse enrolment for children with special needs if reasonable adjustments can be made and they apply for support through the Education Department.