Inclusion Now 68

Green Shoots of Inclusion in Australia and Ireland

By Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion


Reports in Ireland and Australia to Government based on examining special education and discrimination towards Disabled students demand reform. Both reflect the slow germination process of change set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Article 24 on inclusive education, and learning from progress towards fully inclusive systems in Newfoundland and Portugal.

The Australian Royal Commission report

The Australian Disability Royal Commission report, Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, was tabled by government in the Australian Parliament on 29 September 2023.

Elly Desmarcelier, an Australian disability rights activist, wrote about the outcome of the Royal Commission in The Guardian:

“On special schools, despite the overwhelming consensus of people with disability that harm is done when children are separated from their peers without disability, the royal commission was split on phasing out segregated education. In the end, three commissioners, including two who live with disability, recommended phasing out special schools by 2051.

The next few weeks and months will see ongoing debate over whether these plans to end segregation move quickly enough and pressure will be put on governments at all levels to commit to specific timeframes. But the truth is, segregation isn’t turned on or off. We can move all Disabled people into open employment, but that doesn’t end segregation if workplaces won’t adapt to meet a person’s disability accommodations.

We can move all Disabled students into mainstream schools, but that doesn’t end segregation if parents are teaching their children that Disabled kids are a disruptive burden on the classroom.

It is on all of us to embrace our fellow human beings as equal and worthy as they are. The disability royal commission gives us a pathway to break down systems that harm people with disability.

The question remains: will the Australian people join us on a journey to breakdown the cultural barriers that harm people with disability, so that we can all benefit from an inclusive Australia?”

Between 2019 to 2023, The Australian Disability Royal Commission investigated the key areas:

  • preventing and better protecting Disabled people from experiencing violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation
  • achieving best practice in reporting, investigating and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of Disabled people
  • promoting a more inclusive society that supports Disabled people to be independent and live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation.

The Commission was well funded and employed up to 200 people, 20% of who were Disabled. They gathered evidence in all six Australian states, and across 33 separate events. This involved gathering personal testimonies, while implementing a legal change to ensure confidentiality, as well as creditability of the evidence and statistics. The Report found many examples of discrimination across all areas, however our specific focus is on education. Overall, the Commission made 222 recommendations in Report Volume 7, introduction to findings on inclusive education (Word document).

Part A states:

“There is an increasing number and proportion of students with disability in our schools and increasing demand for higher levels of adjustment.  In examining inclusive education, we discuss how a rights-based approach requires a safe, quality and inclusive school system for all students with disability. Students must be provided with effective school supports that meet a diversity of needs. Schools must promote positive attitudes and behaviours that embrace diversity and inclusion. Students should be able to achieve their individual educational goals, and positive social outcomes in and beyond school.

Today, Australian schools do not consistently deliver an inclusive education that protects students with disability from violence, abuse and neglect. Students with disability face multiple barriers to inclusive education, underpinned by negative attitudes and low expectations. Schools systematically exclude students with disability. They do this by not providing appropriate adjustments and supports to enable their participation in classrooms and in the broader school community. In many cases, through gatekeeping, students with disability are channelled into special/segregated schools and classes. Schools fail to engage students with disability and their parents in decision making. They use and misuse exclusionary discipline on students, and fail to plan and support students’ transition to further learning and work.

A safe, quality and inclusive education can only be delivered through significant transformation of the school system. In Part A, ‘Inclusive Education’ we recommend legislative and policy changes, improved procedures and support services, and changes to culture, capability and practice ‘on the ground’. We recommend that these changes are embedded in school practices through enhanced workforce training and support, improved data collection and use, stronger oversight, and greater accountability. Reform at the scale we are proposing requires careful prioritisation and a coordinated approach.

All Commissioners agree that mainstream schools need major reforms to overcome the barriers to safe, equal and inclusive education. However, Commissioners have different views on whether inclusive education is consistent with maintaining systems of special/segregated education settings, separate from mainstream schools. The Commissioners explain their differing views”.

The Commission, made up of six Commissioners, had been fought for by the Australian Disabled People’s Movement over a number of years. On education, despite all agreeing with implementation of Article 24 of the UNCRPD and General Comment No 4, which advocates for a mainstream inclusive mainstream system where all attend and have their needs met, the Commission was split as follows:

  • The Chair, (Sackville) and Commissioners Mason and Ryan consider the policy choice is not a simple choice between (a) a non-mainstream school whose students are completely isolated from their peers and (b) a fully inclusive school system in which all students, regardless of the nature of their impairment or the complexity of their support needs, are educated together at all times. They consider that educational authorities should ensure students with complex support needs engage regularly with their peers in mainstream schools in a variety of contexts. They also consider this to be consistent with the goal of a more inclusive society.
  • Three Commissioners, Bennett, Galbally and McEwin, consider that to achieve inclusive education, all special or segregated education settings must be closed over a period of 28 years (beginning in 2024). They consider the segregation of people with disability, including in education, to be a significant human rights issue linked with violence against, and the abuse, neglect and exploitation of, Disabled people.

It is important to note that Bennett, Galbally and McEwin are Disabled people. Sackville, the Chair, for many years has operated under a medical model approach. Mason, who represents Indigenous people, and Ryan, a teacher for 40 years, should have known better. As the Chair had 2 votes the full inclusion view was described as a minority report.

Nicole Lee, the president of advocacy organisation People with Disability Australia, was quoted in The Guardian as saying the ‘council being set up by the federal government’ should include Disabled people:

“We don’t want to advise into any reporting mechanisms or any councils or any oversight bodies that have been developed moving forward.We want to be in the room alongside government, with the bureaucrats, making the decisions for our lives – that impact our lives. By us, for us.”

She also stated that receiving the report was a matter of “pride, but also grief” for people in the disability community:

“I don’t think any of us in this room today are surprised by the gravity of the stories that are contained within that report.  We know what our lives have been like, we know the violence that we’ve been subjected to. We also want to see a future that is fully inclusive – not more inclusive, we want a fully inclusive future and completely desegregated environment and community.”

Ireland moves to progressive realisation of inclusive education

In Ireland, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has launched a “landmark” policy advice paper recommending an inclusive education system which would see all schools catering to all students. The advice paper, ‘An Inclusive Education for An Inclusive Society’ holds out the promise of a truly inclusive Ireland and would see schools resourced and equipped to educate all children in their local community, including children with special educational needs.

The paper’s recommendations represent a substantial systemic reform for Irish education which will impact curriculum, school buildings and facilities, as well as professional standards for teachers. There are now almost 3,000 special classes attached to mainstream schools across the country providing for over 18,500 children, while the number of special schools will increase to 134 in September, providing for 9,000 students. The resourced classes have been prompted by a huge rise in the number of students with neurodiversity.

The advisory paper proposes that children labelled with special educational needs be educated in their local schools “rather than having to travel long distances to access a special class or special school”. The NCSE believes this would also help to create a greater understanding and respect for those who experience exclusion and discrimination within the education system.

The paper also recommends establishing a strategic planning group to oversee the development, as “bringing about an inclusive education system in Ireland will not be a straightforward or short-term process”. “It was clear” from consultations that shortcomings relating to therapy services and behavioural support for students with special educational needs prevail, and these services and supports should be expanded and rolled out to all schools.

This recommendation will require the employment of a significant number of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, behaviour practitioners, and NEPS psychologists over time.

Teacher professional learning

The advisory paper further recommends the enhancement of teacher knowledge, skills, and competencies to support the education of students with special educational needs through career-long professional learning. This would involve a detailed audit and review of established learning programmes, including special and inclusive education modules in undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The NCSE states that the Teaching Council should set out standards for the knowledge, skills, and competencies required by all teachers, so they can provide education appropriate to all students. Although special schools and special classes will continue to be part of the provision for students with special educational needs, schools will require support to ensure that students are appropriately placed and that such places are based on student need.

The NCSE also said student placements should be reviewed annually, as concern was expressed that once a student is placed in a special school or special class, only on very rare occasions does this student transfer to mainstream education.

Furthermore, it was noted that many school buildings were old and despite some adaptations having been made, accommodating Disabled students with access needs remained an issue due to some buildings being inaccessible.

NCSE Chief Executive John Kearney acknowledged there will be “significant challenges in achieving the ambitious goals of this policy advice”.

The Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support (DG Reform) Office has appointed the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education to provide support to Ireland to progress the development, which will take account of the NCSE’s findings and recommendations. The European Agency vision for an inclusive education system is one in which “all learners of any age are provided with meaningful, high-quality educational opportunities in their local community, alongside their friends and peers”

Education Minister, Norma Foley, welcomed the report. However, they believe that special schools will continue to play a vital role in meeting the needs of children with the most complex educational needs well into the future.

In summary, Education Minister, Norma Foley, stated emphasis lies on promoting dual education system rather than attempting to phase out segregated provisions: “To the greatest extent possible, we want children, whatever their ability, to have the opportunity to learn in their local school with their siblings and peers, be it in a mainstream class or a special class.” (The Irish Examiner, 16th January 2024).

By Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion