Gatekeeping the enrolment of students with disability

In this blog post, Associate Professor Shiralee Poed discusses the issue of enrolment gatekeeping, a practice that is unlawful in Australia, under the Disability Standards for Education 2005.


Recently, on social media, the issue of gatekeeping in Australian schools was again raised. On this occasion, a parent of a primary-aged student with disability was advised that it would be unlikely that a local, private, mainstream school would be able to provide their child’s secondary education. Instead, it was recommended by a member of the primary school’s leadership team that the family seek enrolment in either a government special education unit located in a mainstream secondary school or in a segregated specialist setting.

Let’s take a moment for a few key points to sink in

First, these recommendations were made by a professional employed in a leadership role within their school, where their key responsibility is to promote and support inclusive practice. Second, the education system that employs this professional has a policy on inclusive education, though the hyperlink to access this policy, at the time of writing, was inactive. Third, this professional was either a) making ableist assumptions about students with disability, or b) based on experience, expressing that the local non-Government schools lack the skill or will to enrol students with disability, highlighting significant systemic issues. And finally, since 1992, Australian students with disability have had a legislative right to enrol in the school of their choice “on the same basis” as their peers.

Australian legislation

Two pieces of Federal legislation apply to the enrolment of students with disability in Australian schools. First, section 22 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 explicitly states,

  • It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the grounds of the person’s disability:
    • by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student; or
    • in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.

Further, Part 4 of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 sets out legal obligations for enrolment, and measures by which schools can demonstrate compliance. Both legal instruments have the imprimatur of the Parliament of Australia. The Standards explicitly state that children with disability should be able to enrol “on the same basis as a prospective student without a disability, and without experiencing discrimination” (Part 4, s1a). As a measure of compliance, school systems must provide information about the process for enrolment in an accessible format for the student and their family. Advising this family that mainstream secondary would be unable to cater appropriately for their child would seem ill advised considering the law and school system policies. It further undermines hard-won gains of parents, educators, and advocates, erodes public faith in school systems, and closes the gate on rights, access, and justice for children with disability.

The prevalence of enrolment gatekeeping

It might be possible to dismiss the actions of this one professional as an anomaly within a system that promotes inclusive education. Yet, the research evidence shows otherwise. Our recent survey of 745 families of children with disability found that over 10% reported their enrolment in a mainstream school had been refused, 28% indicated their attempt to enrol in a mainstream school had been discouraged, and over one third of respondents stated they had been encouraged to transfer their child from a mainstream to a segregated setting. And to show the results of this survey were not unique, you may also want to read this, and this, and this.

How do Australian families of children with disability achieve their legislative right to enrol their child in the school of their choice “on the same basis” as other families? Suggestions include discussing the issue with the staff member, or their Principal, to reinforce the family’s desire for their child to continue their education in a mainstream, non-Government setting. It is further recommended that this discussion would assist in ensuring the student continue to be provided an education program that prepares them for an inclusive secondary education, rather than risk expectations being lowered for the remainder of their primary education.

It is also recommended that a complaint might be escalated to the school system level sector level, given the serious policy and legislative breach. All school systems should provide clear procedures by which parents can make a complaint and they should enable a fair hearing of that complaint. However, these recommendations are typically viewed cautiously by families with prior experience of gatekeeping, citing fears of retribution and lack of action generally taken by education sectors in relation to gatekeeping. Litigation, while a possibility, rarely results in a satisfactory outcome for families.

It is anticipated that gatekeeping will be an area of focus for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. Further, the Disability Standards for Education 2005 are presently under review. This will be the third review of the Standards since they came into effect. Refusing to enrol, and discouraging the enrolment of, students with disability were fundamental concerns in the 2010 and the 2015 reviews. In the 2015 review, some families reported that they were incorrectly advised that the Standards did not apply to non-Government school settings. Both reviews called for clarity on information provided to families regarding the right to enrol.

Yet, there are secondary school websites that state that the acceptance of a student with disability is conditional on whether the prospective student would require adjustments, and the capacity of the school to provide these when weighted against the benefit to the prospective student and the broader school community. Frustratingly, many of the submissions made to the previous reviews of the Standards have been ignored, and recommendations contained within the Government responses have not been enacted. Action is overdue. Children with disability have both a human and legislative right to enrol on the same basis as their peers in the school of their choice. It is time for school systems to act on the known gatekeeping practices used to exclude students with disability.


Shiralee Poed is Co-Leader of C4IE’s Inclusion and Exclusion Program and an Associate Professor within the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education at QUT. She is also a Director and Chair of the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia. Her career spans 30 years and includes working as a teacher and leader in Australian state, Catholic and independent primary, secondary and special schools. Her research interests include disability discrimination, reasonable adjustments, eliminating the use of restrictive practices, and using PBIS with fidelity.


  • Bianca GASSON

    This is still happening! Only just this Thursday 19 May 2022, my husband, our son (3) and I had a meeting with the primary school principal regarding enrolment in 2024. He attends the ELC on the same grounds/campus and we were hopeful he would continue his schooling career right through to year 12 with peers he’s known since he started at the ELC. We were told that the school was not equipped to educate him, they had no avenues for funding for aides, NDIS financed aides wouldn’t be accepted as the possibility of numerous aides in the room becomes an issue should their doors be opened for kids with addition needs.

    It stunk of elitism and ableism, however, rock and hard place, why fight for a space for our son in a place he is so clearly not wanted and I am very worried about the ramifications for our older son who attends the school already, should we take up the fight.

  • David

    Shiralee, fellow QUT grad here, What is the best way to raise this issue with Qld education. We’ve had a similar experience to other commenters with our child and a local private school with an outright refusal to admit a child with disability.

  • Kerry Boland

    As an oshc provider for a mainstream and autism friendly school we welcome children with a diagnosis. Firmly I believe as humans on the spectrum we all have our unique strengths and weaknesses just for some it’s more obvious. Therefore children with a disability should not need inclusion like they are on the outside and have to be brought in. Ideally schools should be child fit not children being fit to attend. Reality is on a given day we can have up to 10 children with a diagnosis attending and I am being told by inclusion support services that our funding will be cut to 2 educators, when in reality I could have 1 educator extra with only one child enrolled. Some our children need 1;1 support at times to be successfully engaged and have their personal and emotional needs met. Every child deserves to experience belonging and success. Those possibilities are being eroded by limited funding pools that stretch our resources and risk safety and cause emotional stress for the child, peers and teachers/educators.
    Generally all of our children are very calm, confident and engaged. The peer culture is amazing they look out for a friend in need. Building that takes a lot of work where sometimes we feel like a duck frantically paddling under water. We do it because there is so much pleasure in making a difference for each and every child and supporting parent in the role.
    Now I am being told that due to high numbers of children with a diagnosis, we are at risk of being called a disability service and should consider how many we enrol!!! Also as children are doing so well the additional educators can be cut back.
    Gatekeepers you’re right this needs to be addressed at a govt and funding needs to match the policies. If funding is cut I am in a position if I don’t say no to the children attending of asking parents to fund the additional educators required. That is neither fair nor equitable. Am I to say of course your child can attend for $20 more as we deem they need extra care because asd diagnosis.
    One thing to consider parents is what is best for your child of course you have a right for you child to attend mainstream schools, but if the school doesn’t have the attitude or aptitude or willingness to supply resourcing your child needs to experience success, please don’t ask ur child fight the battle. Find a place where they will be seen for who they are, be valued and flourish. In many cases sadly mainstream schools just aren’t set up as good environments, there is to much sensory stimulation and the mindsets are just not there yet. If the gatekeepers are out say good riddance u don’t deserve to have my child. We have to get excited about the gifts diverse learners bring to the whole community and their kwirkyness enhances learning opportunities for the whole community. Just know we are welcoming of all abilities, but in the background like parents, we are fighting a constant battle to continue to offer what we do. Keep talking and striving, I am in awe of how parents advocate for their child ? & it’s not ok to say no they should go elsewhere. We have to be the voice for change, where the industrial model that is failing all our kids is gone and personalised, child centred learning is the norm.

  • Shiralee Poed

    Belinda, I wish I could say that I was shocked, but sadly I’ve heard these experiences repeatedly. To outright refuse to enrol a student is illegal. I feel angry, sad, and frustrated to keep hearing this. I know parents have fought hard (including through litigation) only to be burnt by the process. I hope that by collectively shining a light on enrolment gatekeeping we can force change. I hope you find a place where your son is welcomed and thrives.

  • Belinda

    I was turned away from a school by the Principal as soon as I told them my son had ASD. They never met him and didn’t even give us a school tour. They basically said they didn’t want him flat out.

    Just left another school due to constant discrimination. He struggled with changes to routine in pandemic. Instead of support we basically got chucked out. They also refused any outside help from professional services paid by ndis. They don’t want training or support, they just don’t want to have to deal with kids with special needs. Everything you say is spot on in your article. I’m glad this is now coming out of the shadows.

  • Shiralee Poed

    Ceri, sadly homeschooling has become the solution for many families.

  • Shiralee Poed

    Fiona, I am so sorry this has been your experience.

  • Shiralee Poed

    Selina, I hope that day comes soon.

  • Ceri Wood

    Yes, this matches our experience. Admitted to a private school with the goal of a stable environment for K-12, in kindy, pre disability diagnosis. Post Autism diagnosis in Grade 1, we were initially assisted with an aide for part of the school week. Then in Grade 3, we were squeezed out by a teacher and Special Needs Ed co-ordinator who refused an IEP, although they had a bright child who was failing dismally, and tried to stop us communicating with the aide (who was also a friend) about Caiden’s needs. Requests for his accommodations were ignored, he was disciplined for his autistic behaviours, the teacher twice refused to accept free autism training, offered by the Autism Association, as part of our in school services supports, and I feel that my son and we were treated appallingly and disrespectfully. I have no doubt in retrospect that it happened all the time. They didn’t want us to stay.

    Again, after trying a public school and getting the same result over time, we realised we needed to manage things ourselves, and now homeschool. It’s not perfect, it’s a huge commitment, financial sacrifice and often stressful, but it is still better than battling a system and a stressed out child..

  • Shiralee Poed

    I agree Karli. I, too, have witnessed schools with fantastic enrolment processes. Now if we could only scale those practices across all schools.

  • Fiona

    This has happened to me, I’ve had very awkward conversations with 3 schools, 1 was a special school which really surprised me as you’d think they would be capable of catering for a range different needs. It is one of the worst feelings knowing I have to enrol my child but why is so hard? I’ve found a small out of zone school, which so far seems to have a better idea about inclusion, but I’m still worried as I’ve lost a lot of trust with the department of education. The discussions I’ve had with schools have made me feel very concerned about the safety and wellbeing of students with disabilities.

  • Selina

    I can only hope that one day schools across Australia, and the world, will live into their “posters on the wall” and truly recognise that we all have the right to be included and valued. It’s one thing to say you’re inclusive but it’s another to prove you truly understand what that means and more importantly show it through your actions. Thank you Shiralee .. for supporting the growth of that understanding so beautifully.

  • Karli Rutherfoord

    Thanks Shiralee. I long for the day when ALL children with disability are not just “permitted” into mainstream schools and classes, but are welcomed and seen as valuable members. I have been fortunate enough to see this on occasion, and when it does happen, it’s amazing for everyone.

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