Around one in every six students in the Australian state of Victoria lives and learns with disability. On 29 June 2018 the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University released a landmark report into the educational experiences and outcomes of these students within mainstream government schools.
Under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, together with state and federal anti-discrimination laws, students with disability are given the right to enrol and participate in education on the same basis as their peers without disability. The Victorian Department of Education and Training – and government schools – carry certain obligations to fulfil these rights by, for example, making reasonable adjustments to enable students with disability to enrol and participate on an equal basis. The Castan Centre Report found that in many ways, Victorian mainstream government schools, and the Victorian Department of Education and Training are failing to uphold these rights.
Based on almost 100 interviews with parents, school staff, former students with disability, and other stakeholders working to support schools and students, as well as a detailed review of relevant laws and policies, the report by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law found that students with disability often experience disadvantage, exclusion and discrimination in mainstream Victorian government schools. The report reveals how some government schools continue to turn students away because of their disability, with school leaders discouraging parents from seeking enrolment for their child on the basis that the school isn’t the right ‘fit’ for the student, or can’t accommodate the student’s needs. The report also shows how once enrolled and in the classroom, students with disability are not always receiving appropriately designed and implemented adjustments. Additionally, the report shows that many students with disability continue to be segregated from their peers in the classroom or playground. These practices not only contravene the principle of inclusion, but also contribute to the social exclusion of students with disability and are linked to the manifestation of challenging behaviours.
These findings are not new. There have been a range of other reports released over the past few years drawing similar conclusions about the disadvantage, exclusion and discrimination against students with disability in the Victorian education system, elsewhere in Australia, and around the world (for example, here and here). What sets this new, Castan Centre report apart, however, is the finding that sitting behind these repeated failures to meet the rights of students with disability is a long-standing commitment in Victoria’s education sector to devolving decision-making power from central and regional bureaucratic levels to the school level. ‘Devolution’ in this sense refers to the process of increasing the decision-making autonomy of schools in critical areas, such as infrastructure, funding, workforce management, operational areas, and curriculum, assessment and pedagogy.
This shift in power holds serious implications for the inclusive education agenda. Responsibility for reasonable adjustments and modifications to curricula, the disbursement of government funds to support children with disability and many choices about staffing support and professional development (such as whether to appoint a leading teacher for inclusion) are made at the school level. Critically, schools are left to discharge these responsibilities without effective oversight by the Department of Education and Training. Instead, they have largely been entrusted to monitor their own performance on these matters, including assessing their own fulfilment of their legal and policy obligations. Rigorous mechanisms to identify schools which are failing to meet these standards, and to compel improvement, simply do not exist.
While devolution can have positive effects, the report by the Castan Centre reveals that without accompanying oversight and accountability processes, devolution can lead to patchy and arbitrary implementation of policies across schools, and to inconsistent protection and fulfilment of students’ rights. Such findings have led the Castan Centre report to conclude that leaving schools to self-police their compliance with human rights and anti-discrimination laws simply isn’t working – at least not for some of the state’s most vulnerable students.