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Inclusion in education? Not without a revolution first



As a secondary school teacher, I am not unfamiliar with blinkered policy made from a distance, but I reserve the right to be infuriated when it doesn’t work precisely due to the same fact. So what makes me nervous in light of the recent Royal Commission’s recommendations regarding inclusive education, namely, the ending of separate, specialised educational settings for students with disabilities is the government tendency to roll out policy while ignoring what's on the ground. Because from where I stand, we cannot address inclusive education without addressing the current crisis in education. 

And while I largely support the commission’s broader recommendations for changes in access, funding and practice, it  frustrates me to see them made as though in a vacuum, seemingly divorced from the fact that our entire education system is fundamentally broken. Despite numerous teacher strikes and actions, the government has responded with little more than the promise of a wage shift. 

To labor what has been repeatedly said but clearly not heard: public schools are woefully under-resourced. Thanks to a longstanding political climate that  neglects funding in the name of the public good, teachers are leaving in droves. An ongoing trend of neoliberalism, obsessed with efficiency and standardization, has led to overcrowded classrooms and places extraordinary pressure on teachers. They are expected to push students through a crowded, outdated curriculum while at the same time manage classroom spaces, containing students of varied ability, and are ill-fitted to student needs.   

Attendance rates are at an all-time low. In NSW secondary schools, only 36 per cent of students attended more than 90 per cent of the time last year, and in the 2022 Mission Australia youth survey, young people listed schooling as the greatest challenge they face. Additionally, 41.8 per cent of students feel they faced barriers to access and success at school (the top barrier being mental health) and 40 per cent of young people experienced a mental health disorder between 2020 and 2022 (a figure that has grown by 50 per cent over the last 15 years).

Despite this desperate situation, the teachers that I know at least, strive for inclusion and care deeply for all of our students. 

In my current role as a support teacher in a mainstream high school, I am employed three days a week and I have a case load of nearly 200 students with identified disability. This grew by 170 per cent this year, possibly due to increasing levels of diagnosis, as well as growing need. This figure overwhelmingly consists of students with cognitive and socio-emotional disabilities (illnesses or disorders impacting emotions, judgement and behaviour) with physical disability accounting for a small percentage.

We have a total of three to four (mostly untrained) Student Learning and Support Officers available each day to support these students, and one of these is solely dedicated to one particular student, leaving approximately two to three individuals to support the remaining 199 students with identified additional need on any given day. The teacher is therefore left with a classroom of thirty students, many of whom have additional need. But there's no corresponding support, other than an individual learning plan that states what is ideally provided, not what necessarily can be provided. 


'We should look towards radically new models of personalised learning that centre student wellbeing and personal growth.'


To obtain additional support for students with disabilities, we must apply for Integrated Funding Support. Not only are these individual applications a slow and agonising administrative nightmare, but they also require categorising the severity of need against ‘domains’ and criteria that are outdated and restrictive. This forces us to find ways to make student need fit the current provisions, rather than having provisions tailored to meet student need. For instance, while we are increasingly seeing students with disabilities arising from issues with mental health, the department’s funding applications lack criteria directly relating to this. As a result, to successfully secure often inadequate funding we must get creative.

For one student with four disctinct diagnosed disabilities, we received only $15,000 for the year. This amount, aside from being clearly insufficient, does little to address inherent structural barriers such as physical space, class size, timetable and curriculum constraints. Consequently, ‘integration support’ doesn't really translate to genuine integration. 

As a result of these challenges and limitations, some students are referred to specialist settings, the ones that certain Commissioners are advocating to dismantle. In my experience, these referrals haven't been made for the reasons some disability advocates suggest, or indeed as outlined in the summary of the royal commission reports — that is, that we 'fail to promote positive attitudes', maintain 'low expectations' for students with disabilities, or refuse to involve parents in decision-making processes.

Nor, in my experience, has this been a systematic outcome of 'gatekeeping' — defined by the commission to mean obstructing a child or young person's enrollment in mainstream schools. The real reason, sadly and simply, is that mainstream schools are critically under-resourced and ill-equipped.

Professor Roger Slee has written extensively on inclusive education and believes that the persistence of specialist settings due to regular schools' shortcomings is not justifiable. He quotes Bourdieu saying that, 'given the choice of two evils, I refuse to accept the lesser.' I appreciate Slee’s arguments. Ideally, specialised settings should not be needed, and in a fundamental way, they are predicated on principles of exclusion. But in our journey towards this ideal, the nuance and complexity of current realities must not be overlooked.   

In a decade of teaching, I've encountered a myriad of complex situations including students attempting to jump off buildings and making suicide attempts on site. Other challenges have included students absconding, threatening teachers with scissors, suffering from psychosis and delusions about staff, engaging in self-harm and subsequently using their blood to create distressing imagery on classroom walls, publicly defecating, banging their heads against walls and surfaces, and some being in catatonic or non-verbal states. I also have a nephew, in a specialist setting, who is non-verbal, seriously physically and intellectually disabled, has frequent seizures and relies on tube feeding.

Considering these experiences, and others like them, achieving genuine and meaningful inclusion will need to entail balancing a diverse range of competing needs in a way that provides a safe and effective learning environment for everyone. It will require a transfer of knowledge, experience, and expertise from specialist settings, with a paramount focus on comprehensive trauma-informed practices.

But above all else, this transformation will require resources. A great deal of resources. I’m all for education receiving its due amount of funding (instead of seeing teachers buy their own tissues, white board markers and hand soap for staffrooms). But if we are going to indulge in that dream, lets indulge in this one too: we need to wipe the entire slate clean.   

We cannot ignore how dire the situation in education is and throw money and ideals at the system as it stands. We must reimagine it entirely. While disability advocates rightly insist that the voices of students with disability must be at the forefront of this transformation, I’d urge that we add the voices of teachers too. As to the voice of this particular teacher, I say do away with the obsolete, and in fact harmful, industrialised model of schooling that is failing so many students. Instead, we should look towards radically new models of personalised learning that centre student wellbeing and personal growth. That is, revolutionise the lot.  




Michele Freeman is a high school support teacher with a lived experience of disability. This article was written in a personal capacity and does not represent the views of the NSW Department of Education. 

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Michele Freeman, Inclusion, Education, Disability, Funding



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Existing comments

Freeman's article does credit to ES! (Three pieces proposing school-change published within the same month! WOW!) Her proposal, taking issue with Slee, exposes a factor unaddressed in Slee's research, which is the cost of inclusive curriculum and pedagogy.

Not only must more well-trained support-workers be employed, but 'one-size-fits-all' direct instruction should cease to hold sway as the sole solution to the complexity of challenges on view in the comprehensive school.

The attack on comprehensive schooling commenced in the UK, with the advent of the Thatcher-Baker National Curriculum Reforms, ideologically attuned to the spread of neoliberalism throughout the West. Australia, which never had a comprehensive school system, slavishly followed suit, with the state simply focused on the unrealised bounties supposedly unleashed through deregulation.

Freeman's experience and impressive analysis calls for a multifaceted approach to school renewal that I have already researched in my doctoral work (UQ, 2001) and flows from the recent contributions by Klenbort and myself to ES.

The root cause solutions are sourced in the patch-work of funding deals, the product of a complex history, which must be dismantled. All publicly-funded schools, whether government or non-government administered, must be fully-funded, fees dispensed with and state-aid to private schools discontinued.

Michael Furtado | 13 October 2023  
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yes, how wonderful it would be to see state funds to private schools be discontinued. freeing up some much needed money to do away with the 'one size fits all' approach

michele | 23 October 2023  

Big issue & having worked in SSPs for a long time I have witnessed firsthand the incredible value of these settings and how they have supported and transformed young people lives at times when they needed it. And I’ve also experienced the failings of mainstream settings and can see that dramatic change needs to happen. If something is fundamentally problematic, then rebuilding from the ground up is a sound way forward.

Michael Moebus | 20 October 2023  
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Can you imagine what we have seen at worked with in SSPs being left to the mainstream system to deal with? Impossible! Oh, but wait... it happens in mainstream all the time for the many students and families who indeed actually want placement in specialised schools but can't get one due to shortages.....Something has gotta give

michele | 23 October 2023  

Thanks for raising an important issue and talking from a position of experience. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think we need to be very vocal in saying if full inclusion is not funded and resourced properly then students with and without disability will be worse off. Governments are very good at using the cover of social “goods” like inclusion to actually diminish state provision of services. We also need to be conscious to listen to all parents of children with disability, and not assume the lobby group who currently has the ear of government are truly broadly representative.

David Leys | 20 October 2023  
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this is such an important point. i have worked with *many* students and families who express very different views than those promoted in the RCs reports and the media reports that followed.
and yes, in any case, getting it right is no easy answer, but full funding and resourcing is a must

michele | 23 October 2023  

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