As the school year gets underway, David Brady writes that education for students with a disability in NSW is a hotchpotch of success, misses, and failures.

David Brady

Since 2005 NSW governments both Labor and Coalition have overseen three inquiries, a Royal Commission, over one hundred million dollars spent on plans attempting to fix the issues, and recently another new plan for education for students with disabilities launched.

Sadly, this plan does not go far enough; it continues the reliance on the bureaucracy, school principals, and Department of Education personnel to allocate scarce resources to reduce learning dysfunction, whereas the students with disabilities and their families remain pawns without a voice, often having to wade through appeals and on occasions ostracisation because they want the best for their children. 

The effect of the pandemic

In these past years of pandemic-disrupted education, families have shared experiences of having to provide more evidence and information to bureaucracy year-in year-out to prove their child has an actual disability.

I, who have a disability myself through hearing loss, like others, remain baffled as to why bureaucrats across Australia have this belief that somehow, we will be cured of our permanent disability.

This provision of evidence is an ongoing burden for many and is in contrast to the approval process for entry into the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The support afforded by the NDIS that 75 per cent of students with a disability receive works very well right up to the school gates. Once past the school gate, one experiences a different system with a new set of rules. The independence and individualism afforded by the NDIS is not reflected in the Education Department’s management of the public school system which is effectively an inferior model and reflective of days of old.

The power of determination

Past the gate, the power of determination of choice and opportunities is shifted from the student with a disability and their families to the school principals and their school learning and support team. These teams are often staffed with special education teachers who are exhausted, overworked, and unable to do what they are trained to do, teach.

In many cases, the application process for a student with a disability takes 12 weeks to be processed from the day a child enters a new school. Therefore, a school term of between 10 and 12 weeks is lost. For a student, who is likely to have been accepted into the NDIS, long wait times are standard. This impacts the timely access to learning materials and specialist teaching resources. Parents feel powerless throughout this process as there is not one thing to speed it along.

Monitoring Outcomes

There is a significant issue in the public school system with the ongoing monitoring of each student with special needs. Students’ needs change from term to term and sometimes during a term. Currently there is no structured independent monitoring system to review and measure a student’s educational performance. This represents a massive knowledge gap with the result that many students are inappropriately and/or inadequately resourced. Consistency is lost and opportunities for improvement are minimal. 

For many students with a disability and their families, the freedom of choice afforded by the NDIS to choose their provider and work with them is not afforded in the NSW education system as parents often share experiences of their child with a disability being rejected from schools in their communities due to alleged “overcrowding”.

Families who have planned for all of their children to attend the same school in their local community are suddenly split, after a school says “no” to their child with a disability and “yes” to all their other children who do not have a disability. This is a regular story happening today from the inner suburbs of Sydney to the country towns in rural NSW. 

In some cases, schools have had to turn away students with disabilities as they do not have adequate facilities or are unable to cope. Classroom teachers share experiences of being overworked and unable to manage a classroom with several different types of disabilities. In some cases, being forced to be the “babysitter” for the student with a disability while risking leaving behind all the other students in their classrooms. 

Special needs education must continue to include dedicated classes for those students who struggle within a mainstream classroom setting with appropriate additional resourcing being supplied. However, they are at the mercy of school principals and the Department of Education who determine who enters, what support they receive, and how it is allocated. 

The new plan

Recently the NSW Government released the NSW Education Disability Inclusion Action Plan 2021 -2025 to meet the challenges facing students with a disability and their access supports to their education. However, it is not bold enough, it does not, like the NDIS, bring the student (and family) with disability into the decision-making process. It is simply an appeasing band aid solution to an ongoing problem in our schools.

If there is any challenge, it is this $380 million a year problem with teacher’s unions and education departments demanding more public funding to be thrown at the problems to solve the issues. The solution is not more funds and lies outside the school gates using the successful NDIS model as the way forward.

There is an opportunity for the NSW government, using their root liberal values, to work with the Australian Government to trial a NSW State education “top up” style supplement to the NDIS for NSW school students with a disability. It can use some of the current $380 million funding allocation towards this trial.  All our leaders, state and federal, preach the need to grasp innovation, implement digital solutions, and find better efficiencies.

Implementing and designing a NDIS style or complimentary top up system, based on similar practices, and boldly integrated with the NDIS, will provide a significant boost of choice and control for every student with a disability and their families. It brings in the key players, the students with a disability and their families, who will move from being powerless and, on the sidelines, screaming at their schools on what is best for their child, to being a real player at the decision-making table for their education needs. It is simply looking at creating an allocation of NSW education funding into a separate “Education Capacity Building” section in addition to their NDIS plan.  

To qualify, families and their child with a disability won’t have to undergo the humiliation of being regularly tested to prove they have a disability, as it has already been verified through the NDIS.  For those who are not on, they can apply to qualify as what is regulated now. More savings and less red tape of tests, evidence, and information which is already provided.

How the new model will help students

This new approach of involving the NDIS in the provision of education resources will bring savings, create jobs, have a higher chance of restoring balance, and most importantly cut red tape. The alignment of need with resources is indisputable under this model. Classroom teachers and special needs teachers will receive the appropriate support to be able to focus on all students and refocus the learning and support team towards working on a modified curriculum. Families will be empowered to work with their school from a position of partnership and bring in community support to ensure classrooms for their child with a disability is a place of learning for their development.  

The alignment of need with resources is indisputable under this model. Classroom teachers and special needs teachers will receive the appropriate support to be able to focus on all students and refocus the learning and support team towards working on a modified curriculum.    

For those students with a disability who have not qualified for an NDIS plan, they could access the NSW education supplement (only) and use it for the NDIS. It’s a bold move to tackle what is a complex problem simply by complimenting an existing national scheme which has changed the landscape for the better outside the school gate.

To ensure quality and assurance across the board, the NSW Government should empower an independent education for disabilities quality and assurance commission, operating similarly or even better working with the NDIA quality and safeguards commission.  

It’s time to let these children in, as it takes a community to raise a child and we do have the technology and knowhow to make this real. Yes, it is a hard sell to change this system to the new approach, there will be pain, but the implementation of the NDIS has shown the way.

If there is a legacy for education for the Perrottet NSW Government, it needs to be bold in order to make a real change to the way education for students with a disability is delivered in NSW and to create a model that can be adopted by the rest of the nation.

David Brady is Director of Advocacy and Engagement at The Shepherd Centre and Chair of Deafness Forum of Australia

David Brady


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1 Comment

  1. Well said David! Although I reside in QLD the educational issues for children remain. We truly need a national approach for disability supports in education because at present we are denying children their rights to equality in education, adding additional stress to families and traumatising many children. This leaves a legacy of mental health problems, lower employment and ultimately more costs to programs like the NDIS which then need to support participants for much longer.

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