In 21st century Australia, students with a disability (physical or intellectual), students with health-related conditions, learning difficulties, a language disorder, a mental health condition or autism are just as entitled to a high-quality education as every other student.
“These children have every right to be in the classroom, they have every right to be in school, they have every right to be in society,” says Bruce Rowles, a retired IEU member with a 45-year career in the sector, most recently as Executive Principal of Aspect Education, which specialises in educating children with autism. “There needs to be opportunity for all children to have their needs met.”
But all children haven’t always had their needs met. Up until the 1970s, children with disabilities were largely excluded from mainstream education, with little option but to attend schools that catered to specific disabilities (such as schools for children with sight or hearing impairments) which were often run by charities or voluntary organisations. Some children were institutionalised, some didn’t even attend school.
All this began to change when state governments started setting up special schools, then establishing special education units within regular schools. Now there is barely a classroom in Australia that doesn’t include a student with extra needs, and the terminology has evolved along with the practice: from disability education to special needs education to inclusive education.
Success in this field starts with one key attribute. “Awareness and acceptance of people who are perceived to be different,” says IEU member Dianne Smith, who teaches at a big high school in the ACT. (We have changed her name to protect her students.)
Rowles and Smith can trace the trajectory of special needs education alongside their respective 45-year careers in the sector. Their combined knowledge and experience is unparalleled.
“I began with teaching in a rural setting where there was no provision for students with additional needs,” Smith says. “Then I went into a specialist segregated school, then from segregated schools within a school, or units within schools, to special classes in regular schools under the term of integration.”
Next came mainstream classes that adopted the withdrawal of special needs students for individual or small group tuition, then mainstream settings with no withdrawal. “Students with needs were placed in the bottom level class in each grade in a streamed setting, and this model was referred to as ‘learning support’,” Smith says.
“From here the schools moved to all students in mainstream classes under inclusive practices.”
The notion of inclusivity has also evolved. “There has been a broadening of the concept to cover marginalised groups of students whose needs must also be met,” Smith says.
Rowles began his teaching career in 1977 with the Department of Education in the Wollongong area, and his second school focused on special needs education. He then joined the Wollongong Catholic Education Office and became manager of the Learning Centre for students with special needs in a big primary school.
Coordinator roles followed, then 11 years as Special Education Coordinator for the Wollongong Diocese. Deputy Principal and Acting Principal roles preceded his 13 years as Principal with Aspect’s South Coast and Riverina schools. For the final two years of his career, Rowles was Executive Principal with Aspect Education, which welcomes 1200 pupils with autism across eight schools.
Rowles supports inclusion, but also recognises the complexities. “Inclusion is a great goal for all of us to achieve,” he says. “But the realities are that sometimes there needs to be specialised classes and specialised schools. We need to have the range, so we know we’ve got opportunities for all of the children.”
It’s the law
In 1992, the tireless work of disability advocates was enshrined in law when three brief clauses in the Disability Discrimination Act made it unlawful for schools to discriminate against a student on the grounds of disability. Schools could neither refuse admission to a student with a disability, nor develop any curricula with content that would exclude a student with disability from participating.
“So we had to grow,” Rowles says of his time at the Wollongong Diocese. “And we grew rapidly – when I started, I think there were probably around 50 to 60 students with disabilities across the whole diocese and when I walked out the door, I think there were 370.”
Things have changed for the better, he says. “We’ve still got a way to go, I know that, but fortunately all of the systems now take the education of students with disabilities seriously, and there’s legislation that says they need to do it too.”
It turns out inclusive education is beneficial not just for students with disabilities – it also offers great benefits to their mainstream peers. Rowles talks about the process of welcoming a child with special needs into school.
“There was a family who wanted their little girl integrated into kindergarten, so we sat down with them and worked out the best way to approach it,” he says. “It wasn’t without its challenges for the first six to eight months, but at the end of that, the principal said, ‘you know what, we’ve done a lot for her, but by jeez, she’s done a lot for us’. She really enriched the school.”
Central to this, Rowles says, was teamwork. “We thought it was going to be a difficulty, but we realised we’d approached it the right way, we’d sat down and worked as a team,” he says.
The inclusion experience at Smith’s school echoes this. “The whole class will benefit by having a student with a disability,” one teacher says.
Rowles offers another example of teaching a Year 5 class that included a student with quite severe disabilities. “His needs were challenging, but the other kids in the class were wonderful in the way they supported him and looked after him – they even rostered themselves to look after him at lunchtimes,” he says.
“They were fantastic, they just accepted him. He was quite a handful, he could be difficult, but the other students made it so much easier because they saw it as part of their responsibility as well. It worked well.”
Rowles says that despite this student’s difficulties, acceptance among his classmates was transformative. “They learned a lot from having him in their class,” he says. “There was a small group that probably had him in their class for a couple of years and they were still the main drivers of looking after him. It was just wonderful to see.”
How it works
Responsibility for educating students with needs in any school does not rest with an individual teacher or even a team, it permeates the entire school community.
“Ownership must come from all levels, all curriculum areas and from the executive team,” Smith says. “Just like we acknowledge that all teachers are teachers of literacy and numeracy, all teachers are responsible for all students learning in their classrooms – from students on modified programs, differentiated curriculum, mainstream students and the gifted and talented.”
Inclusivity is a diverse field requiring practical adaptations and expertise. “Schools are expected to consider access, participation, equity and social justice issues for students with disabilities and learning difficulties whether they are diagnosed or imputed,” Smith says. “There is an ever-growing and ever-widening sense of the concept of inclusion in schools and in society.”
The Inclusive Education Team at Smith’s school comprises two resource teachers of many years’ experience, five full-time Inclusive Education Assistants (IEAs), and one who is a trained teacher but working as an IEA. There are also three part-timers who are studying to be teachers. And, of course, there is Smith herself.
“We support the teacher supporting the students,” one IEA says. “This can include helping to modify classwork and assessment tasks, making sure students understand the activity or assessment and what is expected of them, helping students to take a step-by-step approach to their tasks, and helping to run a reading program for students who are struggling with literacy.”
Successful inclusivity relies on recognising that all students are individuals. “But work you prepare for a student with needs will also help other students in the class,” another IEA says. “Have high expectations, and if something doesn’t work, change your strategy.”
The IEAs share their observations of students with the teachers so they can work together to help each student reach their full potential. “We’re part of their journey through school, and we help prepare them for the world outside school,” an IEA says.
Another IEA encourages all students to have a go at everything. “I read the other day that if a student is not given the opportunity to do a task, the moment is lost,” the IEA says. “Also allow students to make mistakes, that is so important. Students need to know it is fine to make mistakes.”
The team also develops incremental autonomy in students. “We support independent learning,” an IEA says. “I allow students the space and time to use their brain instead of mine.”
Smith lists the skills and qualities she considers crucial to effective inclusivity. “You need to be organised, creative, highly intuitive, calm-natured, detail oriented, deadline oriented, adaptable, even tempered, have a good sense of humour, and truly love children.”
Yes, it’s quite some list; and yes, these attributes take time to cultivate. But the rewards are great. “We learn so much from these students,” an IEA says. “We are better people because of them.”
Unfortunately, inclusive education also comes with quite a workload. “There are a whole lot of legislative requirements (read: paperwork) around documenting what is being done and for whom,” Smith says.
She’s referring, of course, to the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on students with a disability, known as the NCCD. Its aim is to enable schools, education authorities and governments to understand the needs of students with disability so they can support them through funding. But in practice, it’s onerous.
“Many people are unaware of the level of reporting and evidence that is required to get funding,” one IEA says. “Providing evidence for the NCCD is a huge undertaking to make sure all students are being supported, including following up with teachers with evidence of modifications, administering and recording data – all of this then needs to be collected, uploaded to students’ individual plans.”
Another IEA agrees about this administrative load. “There seems to be a huge emphasis on the reporting and administration requirements placed on the teachers in this area,” the IEA says. Enrolments of students with needs are increasing at her school, a testimony to the team’s great work. But of course this adds to the NCCD load.
“A lot of work goes into understanding the process around the NCCD, so much paperwork and time goes into planning, assessing and identifying special needs students,” another IEA says.
The IEU is acting on the concerns of school staff around the NCCD. In late 2020, the union’s NSW/ACT Branch formed a working group and conducted a survey to understand the impact of the NCCD process.
“The findings couldn’t be clearer,” IEU Education Coordinator Veronica Yewdall says. “The survey indicated that the NCCD process has a significant impact on workloads for learning support teachers, with nearly half of all respondents reporting they receive no additional release time for undertaking five or more after-school hours per week to complete the process.”
That said, survey participants were overwhelmingly supportive of the aims of the NCCD and were committed to securing the support their students need. Survey respondents were not just concerned about their own excessive workloads, but also about the impact on students as the NCCD diverts teaching time into administrative tasks.
The IEU compiled a list of demands arising from the survey, headed by workforce planning to staff the NCCD process in schools so teaching wasn’t impacted. “Other recommendations focus on providing sufficient release time, clarifying and streamlining the evidentiary requirements, and avoiding the layering effect of duplicating data,” Yewdall says.
As a result of this survey, the IEU made recommendations to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) and all Catholic Dioceses during Term 2 and early Term 3 of 2021. Meetings have been productive, with considerable support for the IEU’s requests to clarify guidelines and eliminate unnecessary or duplicative collection of data.
DESE has asked the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch NCCD Working Group to identify the areas of greatest concern and provide more feedback on possible amendments to the guidelines.
Rowles too would like to see greater resourcing, starting with more in-depth training for pre-service teachers. “Up to 10 to 20 percent of the school population will have some learning need or disability – that’s a massive chunk of your population,” he says.
“You really need a dedicated team and that’s why the pre-service training needs to be a core subject that should probably go for three years, because there’s a lot to learn.”
Then there’s that all-important classroom experience. “I’m not sure pre-service teachers are getting the exposure they should be getting, the time in classrooms,” Rowles says.
“We need to make sure our young teachers are equipped, because they’re not going to get a classroom these days without a student who’s got disabilities of some description. It just doesn’t exist, thank goodness. But teachers need to be better equipped to manage it, and schools need to have the resources.”
Employing more IEAs would make a big difference, too. “How great would it be to have one in every class?” one IEA asks. “The feedback I’ve received from teachers is that it takes a lot of pressure off them and they feel the students as a group are receiving more support.”
Download the IEU’s Report on the survey into the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) process in NSW and ACT schools: bit.ly/3xyD7bG
NCCD process impacts workload of learning support teachers: publications.ieu.asn.au/2021-march-newsmonth/news2/nccd-process-impacts-workload-learning-support-teachers/