Disability cash dilemma

Kerri Carr

Merrylands East PS principal John Goh has 64 students with disabilities needing support

With the Federal Government failing to deliver a students with disabilities Gonski loading, principals are taking dollars from other areas to support those students, the Senate inquiry into students with disability in the school system heard on September 18.

At the Sydney Senate hearing Merrylands East Public School principal John Goh said his school has employed occupational therapists to help 48 students and speech pathologists to help 31 students on a limited basis, but the funds have been taken from other Gonski funding loadings.

Mr Goh reported the school has 64 students needing support for physical, cognitive, sensory, social and/or emotional needs — about 17 per cent of the school’s student population.

“Ten of those students needed substantial resourcing to make extensive adjustment. Again, we have had to take resources from one area from our school to meet those children’s needs,” Mr Goh told the hearing.

Mr Goh said he was not alone in this situation.

“Many [AEU members] who are in principal positions are struggling with the same type of dilemma,” he said.

The AEU’s written submission to the inquiry said 84 per cent of principals report having to divert resources from other areas of their budgets to assist students with disability.

Australian Education Union Federal President Correna Haythorpe told the hearing chronic underfunding of students with disability meant “many students get no funded support at school while others get a level that does not actually cover the cost of the adjustment required for their disability”.

“We believe that this breaches their rights to a quality education which allows them to reach their full potential and also that it will have long-term economic costs for Australia because of the effect on workforce participation of people with disability,” she said.

“Year 12 completion rates among people with a disability are 36 per cent compared to 60 per cent for those without a disability, and that flows on to reduced employment rates and to greater poverty,” she also said.

Ms Haythorpe told the Senate inquiry the Gonski review “found that fixing the situation of disability was a matter of urgency”.

“We are concerned about the current government’s failure to deliver on its 2013 election promise to implement Gonski’s recommendation of support funding for all students with disability who need it, because it means that the situation for students with disability has not changed. Despite promises to introduce and deliver this support in 2015, schools are still waiting for that funding,” she said.

Minister warns funding would come at cost

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham told a Senate Estimates Committee hearing last Wednesday that the federal government was preparing a new model of schools disability funding but that money would be reduced in other areas to pay for it.

The new model could result in “greater generosity and support”, he announced but indicated that gains would mean losses in other areas.

“You shouldn’t automatically assume the new model equals guaranteed new money,” Mr Birmingham said.

The AEU expressed concern that the losses could be inside the education sector.

“We already have huge underfunding of disability in schools and further cuts would leave thousands more children without the resources they need to benefit from school and make the most of their ability," Ms Haythorpe said.

“Schools who struggle to find the resources for their students with disability will be shocked to hear that the federal government is considering making cuts to this area.

“In-class support, equipment, individual learning plans and increased professional development for teachers can make massive difference for students – but all of these things take time and money that many schools don’t have."

At the hearing, Mr Birmingham acknowledged that a survey started by the previous minister, Christopher Pyne, to record the amount of disability facing teachers in schools, was still incomplete. The survey is meant to inform the long-delayed Commonwealth funding decision.

Outrage came from disability advocates at a stray comment by Mr Birmingham at Wednesday’s hearing but his office said the remark had been misconstrued and had simply reflected his concern about students who needed care.

“I look at some friends who have children with varying abilities and I thank my lucky stars that’s not me,” Mr Birmingham told the estimates committee.

Children with Disability Australia CEO Stephanie Gotlib told media the comments set a damaging message to people with a disability and that she had telephoned the minister’s office to protest.

Wish list

The AEU’s recommendations to the inquiry include:

  • the Commonwealth Government introduce in 2016 a loading to fund all schools for the adjustment they are required to make for all students with disability;
  • the Commonwealth Government commit to implementing the full six-year transition to the Gonski funding model enshrined in the National Education Reform Agreement and the Australian Education Act 2013;
  • that all teachers receive high-quality, regular professional development to assist them to support students with disability.