Help students with disability thrive in education Analysis

Help students with disability thrive in education

School has gone back for another year, but many students with disability are being left behind, without the support they need to participate fully and thrive in school life.

Around 4 per cent of Victorian students (roughly 24,000 students) are currently supported through the Victorian Government’s Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD). The PSD provides supplementary funding to schools to support students with disability, where they meet the eligibility criteria for one of seven disability categories (having a diagnosed physical, intellectual, behavioural, visual, hearing, or severe language disability or being on the autism spectrum).

However, there are estimated to be around 84,000 students with disability in Victoria, which means that some 60,000 students are missing out on the support that would help them participate fully in school life. While these students are meant to be supported through the global school budget, in practice this happens inconsistently and in many cases students are not being adequately assisted at school. More than half of parents surveyed by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2012 reported that their child had not been able to fully participate at school because the necessary supports were not available or because teachers lacked the time or capacity to modify their teaching to accommodate their child.

Some schools also continue to use ineffective or poor practices for students with disability, including short-day or part-time attendance arrangements, restraint or seclusion, or suspending or expelling students for behavioural issues related to their disability. For example, almost all of the 278 students who were expelled from Victorian schools in 2016 (93 per cent) were identified as having a disability or mental illness.

In Victoria, some 60,000 students are missing out on the support that would help them participate fully in school life.

Longer term, people with disability are less likely to have completed Year 12 and hold a tertiary qualification and are more likely to be unemployed, and the median weekly income of people with disability is less than half of those without reported disability. Educational outcomes are particularly poor for children with additional health and development needs or where their families are experiencing disadvantage.

It is clear that providing appropriate support is essential to enable students with disability to engage in learning and in the school environment successfully and to support more positive long term outcomes.

The Victorian Government’s own reviews into the PSD and school funding more broadly, and the recent Inquiry into Services for People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, show that we need to update the way we provide funding to support students with disability so they can learn and achieve at school. One way to start addressing this is to update the PSD so that it appropriately supports all students with disability, through a functional and educational needs-based assessment and funding model.

The current PSD model provides funding at one of six levels based on the applicant’s responses to the Educational Needs Questionnaire. Despite the name, the questionnaire largely focuses on the student’s disability and doesn’t adequately reflect their educational needs or consider the risk and protective factors they may have (for example, whether their family are experiencing disadvantage).

This approach helps to reinforce a negative culture around disability, by focusing on a child’s deficits, or what they lack, rather than taking a strengths-based approach and considering what they could achieve if properly supported. VCOSS members report that the current model requires families to ‘paint the worst case scenario’ for their children in order to obtain support.

Changing to a functional, educational needs-based approach would allow consideration of a broader range of factors that influence a child’s functioning, including their risk and protective factors, and their educational needs, when assessment and funding decisions are made. This will help to ensure children are supported appropriately and better target the support available to children most at risk. By reforming the PSD model to take this approach, the Victorian Government can help children with disability have the same access and opportunity to achieve in school as their peers.