To read on The Age website:
Lighthouse schools a beacon in a sea of exclusion
When Abigail Elliott walked her six-year-old son Fynley through the gates of the local inner-city primary school, she imagined she was at the start of a very long road ahead.
A mother of three, she envisaged that Fyn’s younger brother, Willem, would follow in his footsteps, as would their little sister, Imogen.
She was wrong. When the time came to enrol Willem, who has Down syndrome, the reaction she received from both the principal and vice-principal was lukewarm, to say the least.
Instead of him being welcomed with open arms – as Fyn had been – during the interview she found herself confronted with obstacles. What would he do during recess? The school wasn’t really set up for children like Willem. Had she and her husband thought about sending him to a special school?
Ms Elliott suggested the vice-principal meet Willem, aged six, to help alleviate any concerns, but her invitation was ignored. Her first request for an application form fell on deaf ears. « When we enrolled Fyn they were virtually shoving it in your face but this time we had to ask twice. »
Ms Elliott went home from the interview shocked. The world she imagined for the next 10 years, with the local school community at its hub, vanished.
Discrimination is a heavy word. According to Sue O’Riley executive officer of Down Syndrome Victoria, the Elliott family’s experience is not uncommon: « I get to hear stories from families about their experiences in both the public and the private sector which are often heartbreaking. Some schools are fantastic. Some aren’t. »
Often parents aren’t aware of their rights. The Disability Standards for Education, which came into effect in 2005 under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992, say it is unlawful for any school to discriminate against a child on the grounds of disability and must make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, but according to disability advocates, some schools are trying to shirk their responsibility by making children with additional needs feel unwelcome.
« It can be very subtle, » says Elizabeth McGarry, chief executive of the Association for Children with a Disability. « It can happen even just with body language or facial expressions. Then there are negative comments such as ‘I don’t know if we could do that’, or ‘I’m not sure we’d be able to attract extra funding to support your child’s needs.’ The conversations become very much focused on the obstacles and not providing the solutions. »
Not surprisingly, when parents do find a school willing to take their child, word gets around. Before you know it, that school becomes a lighthouse – drawing affected families far and wide into its beam.
« Parents find out which are the good schools and go there but this leads to a disproportionate balance, with other schools in the area avoiding their responsibility and that’s a concern, » Ms O’Riley says.
« Word of mouth is a very strong endorsement, » agrees Janice Szmal, principal of Mackellar Primary School in Delahey. Out of its 475 pupils, 60 have disabilities. She offers this information cautiously because « I have to be vigilant in ensuring that our school continues to be a representation of the community rather than an enclave of a special school. »
So what is it about Mackellar, nestled in former farmland in the far north-west of Melbourne that draws parents in? According to Ms Szmal, the school reflects a slice of community life in terms of ability, creed and colour, and is a place where all students learn to live alongside their peers. Inclusion is not about disability, it’s a matter of social justice.
« The notion of acceptance is really important. Children here learn that difference is quite acceptable and not out of the ordinary. »
Ms Szmal has toiled long and hard to build a such a school; doggedly working on submissions, building resources, making sure staff training is up to date. « I have built up an expertise and I have been able to retain staff who have continued their professional development, so that the fear factor goes away and we see the children for who they are, rather than their disability. »
But why aren’t all schools doing this? According to a report on inclusion by Macquarie University’s Institute of Early Childhood, part of the problem stems from outdated views with disability commonly being seen as »tragic », something that should be »ameliorated, cured, or indeed, eliminated ».
There is a widely held belief that children with lower IQs are better off in a specialist school. But is corralling all learning difficulties together under the collective heading »special » in anyone’s best interests? Indeed research points to the opposite; according to the charity, Down Syndrome Education International, there is no evidence of any « practical, personal or social benefit of being educated in a special school », while the Macquarie University study concludes: « With segregation comes devaluation, a loss in cultural capital for individuals. »
Still, in the hot-house culture in which schools operate, parents don’t often see it that way. Ms Szmal regularly runs the gauntlet of parents who are concerned that children with disabilities take up too much attention and prevent their own sons and daughters from getting top marks. Add to this the emphasis placed on NAPLAN it is no wonder that schools feel threatened by lower achievers. « We are all under a great deal of pressure to improve our academic results. »
Ms Elliott can’t help but wonder at the consequences of this philosophy. Like many parents of a child with a disability, she is aware that they are unwittingly our best teachers. « My husband was in the city the other day and he saw a blind guy struggling to cross at a busy intersection. Nobody stepped in to to help him. If everybody went to school where there was a lot more diversity, people would instinctively know what to do. »
Inclusion becomes even harder at senior level, where according to O’Riley, many parents just give up. Last year Joel Deane, father of Sophie Deane, the teenager who took the now famous photo of Julia Gillard, was enraged at the prejudice he encountered when he tried to enrol his daughter in a local secondary school in the north-eastern suburbs.
At an open night, he mentioned that Sophie has Down syndrome. »Immediately they wanted to know if she came with a bucket of money around her neck and if she didn’t then it was too hard. They weren’t looking at her as an individual. They saw her as someone who was going to be a drag on resources. »
Mr Deane, a former speech writer for the Australian Labor Party and now a novelist, responded with a widely circulated open letter in which he lambasted the school he named « Discrimination High » for its dismal record of inclusion (less than 0.3 per cent of its 1300 students had a disability).
« I felt that I had an obligation as a parent, when I saw a head that deserved kicking, to kick it as hard as I could. If a school’s first response to any child with a disability is to say it’s too hard then that is unacceptable. My view is that any school that takes government funds, private or public, has an obligation to reflect the community they are serving, » he wrote.
According to the Victorian Department of Education, there are around 23,500 students receiving funding through the Programme for Students with a Disability in the state’s government schools. While it cannot comment on the distribution of students for privacy reasons, it does acknowledge the existence of « good schools ». Education Minister Martin Dixon stated: « Any allegations of schools refusing access to students on account of their educational needs is concerning, and should be raised directly with the Department of Education. »
But what exactly is inclusion? The Macquarie University report makes clear it is not just about placement in a mainstream classroom, it is about the child’s full participation in all aspects of the educational setting. Yet with class sizes of up to 30 and teachers feeling under-resourced, is this actually humanely possible, or is it a case that schools these days have the children before they have the knowledge?
According to Ms McGarry, graduate teachers enter schools without the proper level of competency needed to support children in the classroom. »We are calling for mandatory training for all student teachers around disability so they are better equipped in the classroom. The level of confidence to work with all the children in the classroom needs to be greater than what it is at the moment. »