In this post, Dr Glenys Mann discusses parental choice and the provision of special schools as an option for students with disability.
School choice is a defining feature of Australian education for many families but when it comes to choosing a school for children with disability, should segregated schools be on the menu?
The decision to maintain both mainstream and special schooling options is inconsistent with research evidence on outcomes for students with disability and for their peers, which is clear that inclusion is superior. The decision is also contradictory to Australia’s obligation to move “as expeditiously and effectively as possible” towards the full realisation of the legal right of students with disability to an inclusive education. General Comment No. 4 clearly stipulates that this obligation:
…is not compatible with sustaining two systems of education: mainstream and special/segregated education.
It is worrying that in the 21st Century, special schools continue to exist.
One justification that is often touted for the continuation of special schools is the rhetoric of parental choice. However, at this time of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the question must be asked as to why parents would be offered or willingly choose an educational option that is contrary to policy, legislation, international conventions and a growing evidence bank about best educational practice for students with disability.
Testimony from the first hearing of the Disability Royal Commission suggests that one answer to that question lies in the need for parents to escape or avoid the rejection, stress, and educational neglect that is possible in mainstream schools that are unprepared for students with disability.
It is understandable that parents want a school where their children are welcome and safe, and it is taken for granted that special schools fill this need.
But do special schools protect children from harm or does the choice between mainstream and special schooling leave parents caught between a rock and a hard place?
Some children with disabilities and their families are clearly bearing the consequences of systemic failures in the mainstream but parents’ experience tells us that special schools can also fall far short of providing the academic achievement, friendship and preparation for life that families want and expect for their children.
By their very nature, special schools are incongruent with current understandings of optimal education for students with disability, however, it has been suggested that they provide a pressure valve both for families and for schools. Students with disability and their parents look for reprieve there when enrolment in a hostile mainstream environment becomes too difficult to sustain, and teachers gain reprieve from the challenges of inclusive change when students with disability are no longer their responsibility.
This view of how to respond to the trials of inclusive reform loses sight of the devastating impact of segregation on people’s lives. History is forever stained by the extent of abuse and neglect experienced by people with disability in institutionalised settings and we are horrified that practices such as those recorded in Christmas in Purgatory could have ever been condoned. Yet condoned they were, and even rationalised by professionals who sought to maintain the status quo. How will our justification of ongoing segregated schooling, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, be judged by citizens of the future?
Deinstitutionalisation reform was well underway by the end of the 20th Century. It is a matter of shame that one of the last remaining champions of institutionalised thinking is the education system.
Neither mainstream nor special schools currently offer an acceptable choice for parents
Mainstream schools as they currently exist can struggle to consistently provide what parents want. But special schools do not and cannot offer an acceptable alternative. Our current focus on maintaining a dual system (ostensibly to keep all parents happy) dilutes our efforts for real change and distracts us from the critical work of making an authentic difference in the lives of students with disability.
For many years now we have recognised that a dual system ties up much needed resources and keeps the expertise of our special educators from where they are needed the most – facilitating the meaningful and valued participation of students with disability alongside their brothers and sisters and neighbourhood friends. More importantly, while special schools exist, we keep the message alive and well that someone needs to go there, that there are places where students with disability belong.
Such a vision of how to fulfil our obligations to these the most vulnerable of our students is short-sighted and reactive and explains the recent plethora of reviews into education for students with disabilities and their predictable findings. An unwillingness to overhaul an outdated, dual education system ties us to an endless cycle of review and impotent response, and dooms students with disability to be forever in a no-man’s land whether they be in mainstream or special schools.
When it comes to avoiding harm and making a positive difference in the lives of children with disability and their future adult selves, our eyes must be firmly on the creation of inclusive schools. Our hope lies with educational leaders who have the vision, creativity and courage to close segregated settings, embrace the inevitable challenges of systemic transformation, and boldly re-imagine schools where all students belong.
We know which way to go from here
Segregated schooling no longer has a place and mainstream schools as they currently exist are not enough. We have the lessons from history that tell us that we need to do something different and we have increasing evidence for the direction we must take. We have school leaders who are already taking us there.
It is time we all step bravely away from the special/mainstream dichotomy and stop laying the consequences of educational inertia on the already weary shoulders of parents of children with disability. This is not a choice they should continually be asked to make.
Dr Glenys Mann is Co-Leader of C4IE’s Inclusion and Exclusion Program and a lecturer in the school of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at QUT. Her background is in primary teaching, but she has also worked in advocacy and community organisations, and in early childhood and secondary settings supporting the inclusion of students with Down syndrome. Glenys’ research interests include the role of parents in an inclusive education context, the relationship between parents and teachers, and the inclusion of students with intellectual impairment.