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An independent review into students with complex needs and challenging behaviours has called for major reform of the territory's schooling system, including an urgent review of funding for students with special needs, training for teachers and aides on the front line and far greater support for principals trying to balance staff safety with potentially violent student behaviours.
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Cage review handed down
Tony Shaddock explains the flaws in the system dealing with children with complex needs.
The review, headed by University of Canberra disability education expert Professor Tony Shaddock and including specialist paediatrician Dr Sue Packer and ACT Children and Young People Commissioner Alasdair Roy, provides 50 recommendations among nearly 280 pages of findings.
It has called for all schools to put students first, to focus on positive behaviour support and to prevent challenging behaviour arising.
The government has agreed with all of the recommendations – agreeing in-principle where recommendations call for cooperation with non-government schools or independent authorities.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch announced $7 million in new funding for the area on Wednesday - $3 million of which has been earmarked to "enhance and develop sensory spaces in schools."
Ms Burch said that with almost 3000 students, or 4 per cent of total enrolments, identified as special needs, she accepted "opportunities to improve" highlighted in the review and looked forward to reporting on progress made in systems and supports for these student.
The recommendations include the ACT Government develop a legislative framework to regulate the use of all restrictive practices in schools.
The panel warned there was currently "a general lack of documentation, monitoring and oversight of the use of restrictive practices in ACT Schools.Transparency and accountability are vital to reduce the use of restrictive practice and to avoid situations where a well-intentioned response is inappropriate or becomes abusive".
The review recognised that school staff were sometimes exposed to risk from students.
"(Schools) have a duty to protect the safety of staff and others in the workplace, through appropriate risk management. Employers must not allow staff to be subjected to violence without taking measures to minimise this risk, regardless of their dedication or willingness to tolerate this."
The report made just one direct reference to the use of a cage in a Canberra school which created headlines around the nation when it was revealed in April – and which sparked the review being called.
The reference was not unsympathetic to the principal at the heart of the matter despite the directorate removing her from the school and an internal government inquiry blaming her as the sole instigator of the cage.
"Without commenting on the individual circumstances of this case, which have not been investigated by the panel, it should be noted that the education and training directorate does not have a clear policy regarding the escalation of behavioural issues that cannot be resolved by the Network Student Engagement Teams, and it is not clear what further support can be provided in these circumstances.
"A number of school leaders commented to the panel that ultimately they felt that they were left alone to solve the more difficult problems, without the resources to properly meet the needs of some students with the most complex needs and challenging behaviour.
"There are currently no formal oversight mechanisms for decisions about restrictive practices, which are left to the judgement of individual teachers and school leaders."
The review said increasing school autonomy – where principals were required to make complex decisions about almost all areas of their school - needed to be accompanied by "effective central policy making, oversight, evidence-based advice and timely support as there will be times where a school may struggle to meet the complex needs and challenging behaviour of a particular student or students from within its existing resources."
The review recommended all schools provide withdrawal spaces for students with sensory and other complex needs so they could reduce their exposure to stimulation in a safe environment.
But these spaces had to be designed and monitored carefully "to ensure consistency with human rights and discrimination obligations and that they support students' behaviour and learning."
More broadly, the review recommended the ACT meet the nationally recommended standard of 1 school counsellor for every 500 students. Currently in the ACT that ratio is 1: 750.
The common practice of suspending students for extreme behaviour was actually increasing their risk of disengagement with the panel calling for students to be suspended "in-school" with temporary additional staffing for support.
It called for an urgent review of the Student Centred Appraisal of Need funding model, in particular the appropriateness of the eligibility criteria, adequacy of funding and impact on parents, carers and students.
It also called for the government to fund a longitudinal study into post-school outcomes for students with complex needs and challenging behaviour, noting that many were cast out without a safety net once they left the school network.
In an effort to ensure report recommendations were followed through, the review recommended an advisory group be established to monitor progress on the implementation of review recommendations across the territory and report annually for the next three years.
Ms Burch said Professor Shaddock had been appointed to this advisory group and she would receive three-monthly reports on progress.