Funding for students with additional needs

The current funding arrangements for students with disabilities, what teachers will be required to do for schools to receive funding, and the lost opportunities in the existing federal government approach. Journalist Sara El Sayed explores this topic.

Changes to funding for students with disabilities have brought with them an increase in the amount of dollars allocated, but have also meant the number of students now eligible to receive funding has increased.

Shift from deficit oriented to needs based

As of January 2018, funding arrangements changed to become needs-based, relying on teacher judgements and practices rather than medical assessments, and introducing the element of census data collection to the funding system.

Dr Kate de Bruin of Monash University’s Faculty of Education said this is a distinct change from the old model – which did not involve census data.

“Previously we had the Disability Discrimination Act, and the set of guidelines for its implementation called the Disability Standards for Education that outlined the human rights for children with disabilities, but we didn’t know how many kids with disabilities were in need of support in schools.

“Not all students were counted and identified.

“A student was only counted if they received funding, and they only got funded if they got diagnosed and their ‘deficit’ met a minimum threshold,” de Bruin said.

The diagnosis would come from a medical professional – who were often the people making recommendations for classroom support.

“Some of those professionals may have had an excellent understanding of how schools and classrooms work and some may not have.”

Some of those recommendations, de Bruin explained, were ‘one-size-fits-all’.

“The recommendation might say ‘this child has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder – we recommend putting a visual class schedule on the wall’.

“That might be appropriate in a primary school but obviously didn’t work in a high school.”

The deficit orientated approach meant there was pressure to maximise a child’s deficit – conflicting with teachers’ strength based approaches to educating.

“The worse a child scored on a test, the more likely they were to get a diagnosis and get some funding.

“This works against the way schools, and teachers, are geared to operate.

“The old model was not aligned with high quality professional practice or how schools run,” de Bruin said.

The new model

Through the new model a base amount is provided for every student with additional loadings for disadvantage, including students with disability.

The additional loading is determined through the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD).

Through the NCCD system of funding, teachers are expected to make adjustments in the learning environments based on how they perceive the needs of each student. They are to then report the data of these adjustments to school management, where the data should be collated and submittedto the NCCD.

de Bruin said the new approach is an improvement on the deficit oriented model.

“We now have a system that allows schools to contribute to a census and identifies children who have rights under the Disability Discrimination Act.”

More students considered in need of funding

Under the new system, a diagnosis from a medical professional is not needed, but the student must meet the definition of having a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act.

de Bruin noted that ‘imputed disability’ can also be considered in the NCCD.

“An example of imputed disability might be a refugee family that has arrived in Australia from a war torn background.

“In all likelihood a child from a refugee family could be traumatised but there may have been no PTSD diagnosis made on their arrival.

“Teachers will observe the need in the child and make arrangements accordingly to support that child emotionally.

“Such adjustments can be provided under the Act even if no formal diagnosis has been obtained,” de Bruin said.

While it is positive that the system acknowledges the diversity in student experience, it could mean that more students will need to receive funding.

It is therefore important to consider how the allocation of funding will meet the increase in the levels of need.

IEUA Federal Secretary Chris Watt expressed the concern that the current funding arrangement was being sold as more than it’s actually worth.

“The ‘bucket’ of funding for students with disability has increased marginally, essentially by only the indexation rate.

“Students identified as needing ‘extensive’ adjustment using the new Levels of Adjustment model will get substantially more and that there are more students who will now get something, but 90% of students identified as needing adjustments in the classroom will now get less than they are currently getting.

“The Federal Government argues that these students are currently ‘overfunded’,” Watt said.

Teacher’s responsibility vs school’s responsibility

Watt referred to the Levels of Adjustment framework – a model that teachers must now use to group students and make adjustments based on their needs.

These levels include:

support provided with quality differentiated teaching practice

supplementary adjustments

substantial adjustments, and

extensive adjustments.

IEUA-QNT Branch Executive member and teacher Luke Vanni said a needs-based approach would work well in theory, but how well the new funding arrangement will work in practice is yet to be seen.

“Teachers would be the first to agree that all students have varying needs, and an approach to funding that addresses the complexity of those needs is promising; however, what we don’t yet know is how the actual levels of funding, and allocation of funding, will help support our students, and help to equip teachers to address those needs,” Vanni said.

The Federal Government recommends teachers moderate with their colleagues to ensure checks and balance of adjustments are made for students.

It is assumed that schools would provide time release for teachers to perform this moderation – but there is no clear obligation for schools to do so.

There is also a recommendation that teachers take part in professional development in order to become familiar with the funding arrangement.

Again, while a policy initiative is implied for schools on a local level, there is no clear obligation for employers to provide time release for this knowledge development.

“There is a problematic notion that seems to permeate education today: that infinite time is available – that teachers can continue to take on extra tasks with little to no consequence,” Vanni said.

“Allowing for the professional judgements of teachers to be the basis of funding in this regard is a step in the right direction – and there is nothing inherently wrong with funding students based on their level of need.

“However, teachers are often left to manage their desire and duty to support their students with additional needs, in conflict with their capacity to do so with limited resources and time.

“Are teachers in the best positions to make these judgements of their students?


“Are they allowed the time and resources to be able to do this?

“Not always.”

Vanni said transparency is key.

“There needs to be a transparent process where the resources coming into the school for those individual students are then allocated in a way that can be seen to directly address their needs.

“It also needs to be made clear that schools will support their staff in participating in relevant training, and providing time release where necessary.”

Does NDIS play a role?

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a ‘bucket’ of federal funding that is detached from the education context once a child begins formal school.

That is – if a child’s need is related to their education, it should be captured through the NCCD. All needs supposedly unrelated to education should be addressed through the NDIS.

But anyone who understands the nature of a disability would know that it’s not easy, nor is it necessarily productive, to silo the needs of children as being related to school education, or as unrelated.

Dr Ben Whitburn, co-author of The policy problem: the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and implications for access to education, said that while placing funding in the hands of individuals is a progressive policy move, having these separate buckets of funding creates missed opportunities to properly support young people with disabilities.

What comes as a result is detachment and disruption, as there is no chance for a child to have continuity because of this policy obstacle.

“With the current approach, education sits in one realm and belongs to one jurisdiction, and any external needs sit in another realm and are covered by the NDIS.

“My concern is that there are opportunities being missed.

“There’s a big focus on resources, in particular through the NDIS, which addresses important needs such as the need for assistive technology for people, or access to particular format of material.

“But it is quite often something as simple as an iPhone or iPad that can assist people with disabilities in a particular way – and yet if it was funded by the NDIS it would have to sit on a child’s desk at home.

“If it were to be funded through the school it stays in the school context.

“What comes as a result is detachment and disruption, as there is no chance for a child to have continuity because of this policy obstacle.

“If a family who has a child with a disability could work with the school in a collaborative way that informs teachers of what their child needs, as well as giving teachers the opportunity to provide input, the approach to disability support would be much more inclusive and productive,” Whitburn said.

At the time of writing, funding for the NDIS continued to be of concern, as the Federal Government alleged “a focus on a stronger economy” would fund the NDIS, in the place of the Medicare levy surcharge that would have provided direct funding certainty.

With a federal funding approach that lacks certainty and holistic perspective to addressing the needs of people with disabilities – the ability of Australia to support some of the most vulnerable people in our communities remains in question.


Ben Whitburn, Julianne Moss & Jo O’Mara (2017) The policy problem: the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and implications for access to education, Journal of Education Policy, 32:4, 467-479, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1280185