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Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7577

Senator TIERNEY (4:38 PM) —The inquiry of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee into the question of children with disabilities produced a fairly rare thing for this committee—a unanimous report. The last unanimous report that it produced was on children at the other end of the educational spectrum—gifted children. It has had two inquiries into atypical children at both ends of the spectrum: children who are gifted and children with disabilities.

The committee received evidence from right around Australia and we spoke to parents, teachers, administrators, academics and to concerned citizens. We developed a view that has produced a report with 19 unanimous recommendations. As I mentioned before, that is a rare thing for this committee. That has occurred because of our concern that children who fall outside the normal spectrum of learning across each state in this country are disadvantaged. There need to be major changes in the approach to pre-service education, in-service education, the diagnostic procedures and to the support for these children when they are at school.

One of the current problems in education that is exacerbating the situation for these children is the philosophy of inclusive education. Inclusive education means that the classroom teacher is expected to teach across the full range of abilities of children from those who are particularly gifted to those with educational disabilities and, in some cases, with profound disabilities. This philosophy can work if it is resourced properly, if teachers have appropriate pre-service training and if, after having got into the classroom and teaching in that situation, they have ongoing in-service education. We found uniformly around Australia that that was not the case, that the diagnostic implements used to assess these children were greatly inadequate and often applied far too late, that when these children were included in a classroom the teachers had not had proper pre-service training and, as a matter of fact, in many cases had not had any pre-service training in this area—it is not mandatory in any state with the exception of New South Wales and Western Australia—and that after teachers had begun teaching very little was done about their in-service training needs.

There is in Australia in relation to this issue confusion not only between state and federal levels of responsibility but also across the states on the relationship and roles of health and education departments. We received considerable evidence from parents who were not experts on medical and educational conditions but who sensed at a very early age of their child that there was something seriously amiss with their learning ability. They had sought help from the state education or health departments and on many occasions they expressed their extreme frustration that they could not find assistance.

What is particularly sad about this is that early intervention in many of these conditions can make a great difference. In particular, if a hearing disability in a child is picked up early, that can make an enormous difference to that child's education. Some states are now beginning to introduce screening of children at birth for hearing disabilities. This will make an enormous difference to children in these situations—even in very extreme conditions of disability such as autism. There is evidence that very early intervention for children with autism will make an incredible difference to their education and life outcomes. But very little work has been done not just in Australia but anywhere in the world on carrying out this identification of autism in children at a very early age and then putting in the programs to work with them.

The problems that the committee discovered in the city areas were even more profound in rural and regional areas. Because of the sparsity of populations and the geography of the country, it is often difficult to get the health needs of children with disabilities in regional and rural areas attended to within a reasonable distance and it is also more difficult to find an appropriate school for these children. The vastness of this country creates a particular problem for children who are in rural and regional areas.

One of the trends we found disturbing is a pattern of gradual shutdown of special education schools across this country. There is a very great need for parental choice in this area. In some situations it is better for a child to be in an integrated class situation, and that might be the wish of the parents. There are other situations where the parents may wish—and even educators see it as appropriate—that they are in a special school. But if these schools increasingly shut down, the chance of parents having a choice is diminished. Then if their child goes to a school where the teachers have not had proper pre-service training and have very little in-service training in disabilities then the educational and life outcomes for these children are greatly diminished.

One of the hopeful approaches we did see in special schools—and we advocate more of this—is what are called `lighthouse schools'. This is where the special education school becomes a lighthouse for in-service training in disability education for the surrounding schools. Courses can be run and offered by people in the special schools because these people do have specialist training that the classroom teachers do not have.

One of the very important things that we must ensure is that all the money that is allocated for disabilities education is actually spent for this purpose. One of the most disturbing things we found around all states was that, with the advent of global budgeting, it was incredibly difficult to establish whether the Commonwealth money that had been allocated to a child in a school in the area of disabilities was actually spent on that. Perhaps it was; perhaps it was not. There are no accounting mechanisms that show that this is happening. The committee is calling for the state governments to put in accountable processes so that the dollars sent to the school for disability education are spent appropriately. One parent I spoke to in Nowra said that according to the standards her child should have had $6,000 a year additional funding spent because of her disability. From the evidence there was no way that was happening. We suspect this is quite widespread. One of the most effective ways to get additional money into special education and teaching children with disabilities could be to make sure that the money that is allocated is spent appropriately on the children.

The final thing I want to touch on is the issue raised earlier about agreed national standards. Through MCEETYA the state and federal ministers have been meeting on this for six years and they have not come to an agreement. We must come to an agreed position at some time. The entire Senate committee urge MCEETYA to come to a nationally agreed educational standard and then work out between the state and federal governments, both of which have funding responsibilities in the area of disabilities, how that is going to be shared.

I commend this report to the Senate. There has been a lot of good work done. I commend the work of Senator Carr and Senator Allison, who were with me on this committee, and the secretariat. We have produced an excellent report with 19 very worthwhile recommendations. We urge MCEETYA to have a very serious look at these. Let's see if we can advance the cause of education and the possible life outcomes for the most disadvantaged people in our community—those that have an educational disadvantage.

Question agreed to.