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Reversing the disability disadvantage in education

Cultural change is vital to including children with a disability, STEPHANIE GOTLIB writes

Last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the fundamentals of the Gonski Report would be accepted. Schools will receive a base level of funding per student and there will be additional money to support those with higher needs - such as students who have a disability or those who live in remote or low SES areas.

This shift to include funding for higher needs as a core component of a new system, rather than an add-on or temporary program, is what makes the Gonski solution potentially so powerful.

It is designed to minimise the impact of a child's background on their performance - something

we have, until now, sadly failed to do.

The recognition of disability as an area of disadvantage and specific associated funding is to be commended, but for Australia to really reform education for children with disability, it is essential to recognise the extent of discrimination and exclusion that is a regular part of their education experience. Doing this won't cost a cent.

At Children with Disability Australia, we hear daily of the shameful education experiences of students with disability. It is common for children to only be ''allowed'' to attend school part time. Families are told: ''No school would tolerate your child,'' or ''Why do you want your child to learn how to read?'' There are worse examples, and the experience is often upsetting and traumatic for some young students.

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Children with disability are typically positioned as a cost and challenge to a school community. The area of disability is one of the most complex and difficult parts of the present education reform process. It is vital that there is a shift in status so these students move to being valued members of a school community. Inclusive practice should be a core expectation of all schools. A disability loading won't do this on its own and cultural changes are just as important.

My son will never score highly in NAPLAN or PISA. Adam has a disability which means he learns differently to many other children and requires significant supports to access his education. His educational outcomes will not follow the same trajectory as many other kids but his right to a quality education which enriches and extends him remains the same as any other child in Australia. This was the message that was not strong enough in Prime Minister Gillard's response to the Gonski review of school funding.

Ensuring students excel in maths or can access science laboratories is important, but has little relevance for the families who, at the moment, cannot even access full-time education for their child with disability.

The education disadvantage associated with disability is unique. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 15 per cent of Australian students need some form of additional support due to disability, impairment or learning difficulty. Under the current funding regime only about 5 per cent of students receive funded supports. The landmark ''Shut Out'' report in 2008 called the experience of schooling for people with disability ''the wasted years''.

I know firsthand what can be achieved through proper resourcing and support. Adam is currently completing grade 6 at his local primary school. Adam has a quality education program with clear academic aims, that is provided in an environment which is inclusive and greatly values his equal participation. Prior to Adam attending the school he was disengaged with his learning, had limited peer connections in his local community and it was difficult to ascertain what progress he was making academically.

Over the last four years he has flourished emotionally, socially and academically. He has developed a strong sense of belonging, is engaged in his learning and is happy at school. Having this education experience is life changing for Adam. It has had an immeasurable positive impact on his well-being and future life opportunities.

I am acutely aware that his education experience is extremely rare for a child with significant disability in Australia. Adam is one of the lucky ones, for which I am profoundly grateful. But his experience should be the norm, not the exception. Students and families now largely rely on luck that they are in a school with a committed principal and teachers with special education experience. These schools are certainly out there but not all schools in all systems can boast this mix.

School completion for students with disability in Australia is significantly lower and 63 per cent of students with disability express difficulty fitting in at school. Poor outcomes in school directly affect the employment opportunities for school leavers with disability, and with greater numbers of people on the Disability Support Pension than unemployment benefits, education reform in this area is an economic as well as an educational imperative.

We would not tolerate this for other groups of students, but it is all too common across Australia for students with disability. Our schooling system should offer a quality education to every student. When Gillard described the forward vision for education reform, disability was part of the agenda, but we must ensure it is front and centre and not left on the periphery.

Stephanie Gotlib is executive officer of Children with Disability Australia.