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28 November 2014
by Correna Haythorpe

Students with disability

Children with disability need the same things at school all children need – to feel accepted and happy, to learn to the best of their ability, and to get an education that equips them for life and work after school.
Unfortunately this is not happening for many, despite the efforts of teachers, principals and support staff.

To give an idea of the scale of the problem, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found there are over 290,000 children with a disability in schools in Australia, yet the number receiving any kind of funded support, no matter how small, is just 183,000.

Half of all parents of a child with disability say their child has not been able to fully participate at school, due to a lack of necessary support. At the same time, over half of educators believe they do not have the support, training and resources they need to teach students with disability well.
These findings, from a 2012 Victorian Human Rights Commission report, show the human cost of our neglect of students with disability.

Every year this neglect continues another cohort of students with disability will leave school with their potential untapped and their prospects for higher education or work needlessly damaged.

Changing attitudes to disability remains important, but we cannot fix this problem without finding funding for better facilities, more support staff and training for teachers.

Chronic underfunding of students with disability has been a long-term problem in Australian schools. We have a mess of different definitions and funding systems between States. Many students with disability aren't eligible for assistance and, for others, the funding their school gets does not cover the real cost of meeting their needs.

Fixing it will take time, money and political will, but it is something we must do.

This is why the recent announcement, from a meeting of Christopher Pyne and State and Territory Education Ministers, that an increase in funding through a "disability loading" will not happen in 2015 as promised, is such a setback to the cause of giving students with disability the education they deserve.

A "disability loading" simply means giving schools which educate students with disability funding which actually reflects those students' real needs, and lets them participate in school on the same basis as other students. This sounds like basic fairness, but it is not happening now.

The Gonski Review recognised the huge shortfall in funding for students with disability which meant their basic needs were not being met.

It said we should introduce a disability loading urgently, as part of its broader recommendation that all schools should be funded on the basis of student need.

Both major parties recognised the crisis in disability education and the Gonski Review's disability loading became a bi-partisan position in the lead up to the 2013 election.

The Coalition stated that: "We have long argued that the current funding arrangements for students with disability and learning difficulty are unfair and inequitable. If elected to Government the Coalition will continue the data collection work that has commenced, which will be used to deliver more funding for people with disability through the 'disability loading' in 2015."

An interim loading – a flat rate based only on the number of students already getting funding – was introduced in 2014, with the significantly bigger loading, based on actual need, to come in from 2015.

Despite their promise, the Abbott Government did not set aside any money in the 2014/15 Federal Budget to fund the needs-based loading, and has tried to muddy the waters by claiming that extending the interim loading to 2015 is all that was promised.

However the announcement from the Education Ministers meeting confirmed this was not the case, and blamed poor data collection for the delay. Data collection has been an issue for too long, and the lack of urgency to improve it should not be used to short-change students with disability.

The key issue is that overcoming a shortfall in funding is likely to be expensive – bureaucrats have privately estimated it could cost $2 billion per year across Australia – and there is no commitment from the Abbott Government to needs-based funding.

We are already seeing the results of this underfunding, and the frustrations it causes for students, parents and teachers.

The latest PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that, in some cases, schools were meeting the needs of students with disability from within their own already strained budgets due to a lack of targeted funding.

We should not have a situation where a lack of support means students with disability cannot be properly included in school life and are denied the full education others take for granted.

To fail these children is not acceptable. Properly funding students with disability will cost billions of dollars, but is an investment in their future and in basic justice, and it is an investment we must make.