Somewhere in this wealthy country, a shocked Tony Vinson found, was a school that segregates some students behind a wire fence.
The students were difficult to understand and to control, and Professor Vinson, who encountered this school while undertaking a survey of public education and the support available to special needs students, was dismayed at his discovery.
“My initial shock at the adoption of a measure seemingly more appropriate in a penal establishment mellowed as I discovered the unavailability of mental health back-up services for the school,” Professor Vinson told Annual Conference in July as he endorsed Federation’s Special Education Position Paper calling for systemised care in schools for special needs children.
Astoundingly, and in reinforcement of Federation’s initiative, he added of this troubled school: “Twelve years later, I am given to understand that those circumstances remain substantially unaltered.”
Many people are oblivious to the enormous problem because of the geographic pattern of children with disabilities — a pattern that made it much easier for some schools to fund supplementary resources for such children in mainstream classes. Professor Vinson’s research showed that in western and south-western Sydney, 30 per cent of schools had 20 or more students with disabilities in mainstream classes, compared with 1 per cent of schools in northern and southern Sydney.
Despite expressed support for the recommendation for systemised help for students with language difficulties in his initial Public Education Inquiry of 2002 and a follow-up inquiry Professor Vinson said he was dismayed to find schools struggling with as many difficulties when he undertook a further survey in 2011.
In the 2002 survey he had found a surprising number of pre-schoolers who could not articulate words or engage in expressive communication. He realised he was witnessing the birth of the problems he had seen during his time as head of the NSW Department of Corrective Services — the “classroom to gaol pipeline”.
In 2011 he undertook a further study of 51 public pre-schools, half of which were in the 20 per cent most disadvantaged places in the state: the results were “an indictment” of the education system. Some schools had even gone backwards from a decade ago.
Principals and teachers said the biggest problems were the delay in getting support for children with a disability, for speech therapy and other specialist medical help. It took 18 months at least for families to get help for speech-impaired children through a community centre, and they could not afford private care.
These children were starting formal schooling without being able to communicate properly — this “negates the whole intent of laying down a good foundation for formal schooling”.
Teachers told him the only sure way forward was to employ speech pathologists within clusters of schools to provide direct services to affected children and work in a concentrated way as partners with early childhood educators.
“We are encouraged to retreat from weighing the inevitably many-sided, complicated nature of social issues,” Professor Vinson said.
“Fortunately, in our state, there are groups willing and able to conduct logical and moral analyses of existing social arrangements. I place the report of Federation’s Inclusive Education Policy Working Party in that category.”
Professor Vinson succinctly analysed Federation’s arguments: “The position taken by the Working Party … is that schools are inescapably a participant in the formation of citizens capable of living a fulfilling life that expresses their values and choices. Students with a disability share these aspirations and are entitled to equal access to the educational resources — skilled personnel, timely specialist interventions, inclusive curriculum and appropriate specialised settings — that facilitate their personalised learning.”
Australia must not thrust its disadvantaged children “into dead-end bays”, he said.