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.
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.