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Can we ever really be together, apart?

Can we ever really be together, apart?

Last week South Australia’s school-based Autism Intervention Program closed down. Many parents were upset and this was understandable. Dissatisfaction with schooling provision had previously been expressed during the Select Committee Report into the Experiences of Students with Disabilities across South Australia.

My research has explored and analysed the submissions of parents who have a child on the autism spectrum. In particular I’ve become interested in forms of advocacy and what makes parents take the time to “put pen to paper”. Some clearly felt their experiences made them well placed to help identify improvements. There was also broad parental criticism of schooling – ranging from critiquing the rigidity of educational systems, to what they identified as inadequate teacher preparation.

“Children like my son are being failed by the State’s education system”

Parent submissions also shared successes, and celebrated positives encountered through their child’s schooling.

– and he was the first principal who actually asked what my son liked and welcomed us into the environment”

The concept of ‘school choice’ was raised on multiple occasions, with parents keen to clarify that decisions to move children into increasingly segregated environments were not made easily. Homeschooling, for example, was a decision made in full realisation of what it meant financially for families. Those parents who desired mainstream schooling for their child, experienced attitudes from educators that ranged from tolerant to outright hostile:

“You have made your choice to go to mainstream, so now you have to deal with it”

None of this is really new.

I know of a school psychologist who suggested special schooling at a time when the ‘problem’ was actually a teacher not knowing effective, inclusive behavioural management strategies. Thankfully the school principal recognised this, supported the teacher, and there was therefore no need to remove the child.

I know of administrators who consistently guide parents towards increasingly segregated environments using the reasoning of ‘better resourcing’.

And I know of a principal who turned an autistic child away from his school, simply because he felt they didn’t have the appropriate fencing in place.

That last example constitutes what’s colloquially known as ‘gatekeeping’, where administrators or school leaders attempt to coerce who can come in, and who can stay out. Joel Deane provided a great example of   on the sadly defunct Ramp Up website – dubbing it ‘soft shoe discrimination’ by schools.

On school choice

Advocates for providing an increasing range of schooling options (from mainstream to segregated), have argued that parents desire greater ‘choice’ of where to send their child. The selection of segregated schooling is, however, highly influenced by both gatekeeping practices and previous poor experiences with mainstream schooling. It should be critically questioned as to whether it constitutes a ‘choice’ indeed.

When a school is not being inclusive, then we should address this, not apply greater pressure in order to remove the student (i.e. gatekeeping conversations, or repeat suspensions).

Currently, however, Australia is responding by actually increasing alternative schooling provisio. This is a significant worry, given the clear benefits of inclusive education for not only students with disabilities but also their peers without disabilities. It is also a worry given that we are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which highlights segregated schooling as a genuine barrier to equality.

The UN Convention has called for resources to be transferred from segregated to inclusive schooling options. Clearly this is not happening. From 2009 to 2016 the number of special schools in Australia grew from 415 to 461.

Whilst internationally, evidence-based and rights-based inclusion is gaining traction, Australia is showing little sign of slowing its march towards increased segregation.

There is a mistaken belief that Australia can meet its requirements under the Convention, through both a combination of inclusive and special schooling options. This is a furphy. It is not supported by evidence, and it doesn’t pass the pub test either:

How can we grow together as a society, if we are increasingly separated?

I explored these issues at a last year. Inclusion is to the advantage of everyone. We develop and demonstrate empathy with one another when we play, learn and work together. These are the connections that can last a lifetime. Inclusive schooling shapes a more inclusive society.

We need to make genuine progress towards the commitment that we have made as signatories to the UN Convention. A political response is called for.

Why are attempting to re-frame isolated provision as an ‘inclusive practice’?

Why are we building more special schools during a period when we have committed to inclusion?

In doing so, why are we ignoring the evidence that shows the benefits of inclusion to all students?

These are all fair and reasonable questions to ask, and it’s time for us to ask them.

Peter Walker 
Special Education Lecturer
Flinders University