Government denies resources to students with a disability

Claudia Vera
City Organiser

Theresa Duncombe (right) and her son Benjamin at the Gonski Disability Forum.

The Federal Government has broken its promise to students, parents and school communities in failing to fund the implementation of the Gonski disability loading outlined in the National Education Reform Agreement.

The Abbott Government’s deceit was confirmed when it failed to announce in the Budget the additional funds required to implement the needs-based loading. Instead, desperately needed resources for students with a disability will be cut.

On budget eve, May 12, the Gonski Disability Forum was held to call on the Government to keep its promise of implementing the disability loading from the beginning of 2015.

The Australian Education Union (AEU) and Children with Disability Australia co-hosted the forum, which was held at Parliament House in Canberra. Guest speakers were Gonski review panellist Dr Ken Boston, Victorian principal Geoffrey Warren and Coffs Harbour parent Theresa Duncombe.

The need for the disability loading is urgent due to the high level of unmet need and the poor educational outcomes of students with disability. The Gonski review identified disability as a factor of disadvantage that has been proven to have a significant impact on educational outcomes in Australia. Only 30 per cent of people with a disability aged 15 to 64 had completed year 12 in 2009 and only 15 per cent had a bachelor degree or higher. The report warned that the “comparative lack of educational attainment has a negative effect on the employment prospects and level of income for people with
disability”.

Children with Disability Australia executive director Stephanie Gotlib said: “Our message is simple — we need adequate funding to start flowing now to address the gross disadvantage being experienced by too many students with disability.”

AEU Federal President Angelo Gavrielatos said: “It is estimated that at least 100,000 students with disability are not getting any extra funding.

“We do not want Tony Abbott to walk away from providing a decent education for students with disability. Children with disability have the same right as other Australians to an education that allows them to reach their potential, and which treats them with dignity.”

Dr Ken Boston described students with disability as each being “individual emergency patients. They each individually require immediate and specialised intensive care if they are to access the benefits of education as a public good. If their needs are not adequately addressed, the situation only worsens.”

Theresa Duncombe, whose son Ben attends Toormina High School and has a moderate intellectual disability, spoke of her motivation to share her and Ben’s story.

“Families across Australia are expecting change and indeed have been promised it … Our goal in coming here today is to bring the perspective and insight of students with disabilities. As families we need the very best education for our children to reach their full potential. For many years this group of students have been underfunded and left to learn in under-resourced classrooms with no support. The Gonski reforms are needed to lift expectations and put our children in an educational environment to enable them to learn. In Benjamin’s future he dreams of having paid employment. He wants this so that he is not dependent on welfare. This is his right to enable him to live and participate in his community with respect and dignity. Surely from a financial perspective this is and would be seen as cost effective. Spend more while he is at school and then he will not require more to be spent in the long term. Ben is in year 10 currently so effectively the implementation of the Gonski [disability loading] reforms may only come into effect after he leaves school but thousands of other students sit in classrooms across Australia with little or no support to enable them to learn. This is not acceptable.”

Prior to the federal election, the Coalition made its commitment to a disability loading clear, with then shadow education minister Christopher Pyne stating: “we have long argued that the current funding arrangements for students with disability and learning difficulty are unfair and inequitable. If elected to Government the Coalition will continue the data collection work that has commenced, which will be used to deliver more funding for people with disability through the ‘disability loading’ in 2015” (media release, August 23, 2013).

Since the election, the Coalition has not made clear its position in this area. It has indicated that the finalised loading may not be made available for discussion with state and territory leaders until January 2015, which would make it impossible for the revised loading to operate for the 2015 school year. This further delay is despite the fact that work on the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data has kept to the original timelines set under the previous government, which would see the loading ready to be delivered from the beginning of 2015.

Federation wrote to NSW Education Minister Piccoli on April 22, requesting information detailing the key steps the State Government and Department are taking to ensure the disability loading is implemented in NSW public schools from the beginning of 2015 and the date each step is expected to be completed.

The disability loading has already been delayed by a year, with interim arrangements made via a lump sum of funding for 2014, which was a nominal figure based on existing expenditure and numbers of students with disability in each state. This measure was only ever to be used in the short term until such time as the nationally consistent data informed a new funding formula. A report on the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data has already shown that there is a significant under-reporting of students with a disability, equating to a conservative shortfall of $2 billion in funding per year that is not reaching our schools to support these students.

The Schools Funding Review panel emphasised that it is the responsibility of all Australian governments to progress a nationally consistent approach to identifying students with disability and highlighted the National Disability Strategy overseen by COAG, which specifies that increasing the educational outcomes of students with disability is a priority for all Australian governments.

Delaying the disability loading is to deny the necessary resources to provide students with disability the same educational opportunities as everyone else; an act of discrimination from which our students are supposed to be protected against under law. Committing to the necessary funding will see the Federal Government investing in the wellbeing, potential, aspirations and life satisfaction of people with disability, their families and the communities who will benefit from their valuable contributions.

David Gonski breaks his silence