International special education expert and University of Canberra academic Tony Shaddock will chair the ACT government's review of special education in the wake of a primary school erecting a cage to contain a student with autism.
The review comes at a time in which the ACT is dealing with an unprecedented number of students with disabilities and special needs - particularly autism.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch wants the expert panel to look at how Canberra schools respond to meet the needs of "students with complex and challenging behaviours including the use of withdrawal spaces".
The panel will also include specialist paediatrician and child welfare advocate Sue Packer while ACT Human Rights Commissioner Alasdair Roy, who originally raised an alert about the cage to the Education Directorate after receiving a complaint from a concerned member of the school community, has also been invited to take part.
Meanwhile, Ms Birch said an independent investigator was being sourced through ACT Government Shared Services to conduct an urgent inquiry into the school which erected the cage as well as the Education Directorate's management of the issue.
Ms Burch said the cage had been a shockingly inappropriate response to a child with complex needs and she wanted to the inquiry to report to her within weeks.
The Shaddock review would be far more wide-ranging and would include community responses to special education practices across the territory. Ms Burch said she would hope it would be completed within six months "to allow us time in this calendar year to seek Assembly support to set up a select committee to consider its recommendations".
"This is above politics," she said. "It is about how we as a community understand and better respond to children with special needs and make sure best practice in place."
The inquiry takes place at a time of unprecedented demand for special education services within the ACT across both government and non-government schools.
According to the most recent 2014 census of enrolments, there has been a 25 per cent increase in children with special needs over the past four years across ACT schools – to 2934 students.
This growth far outstrips overall enrolment growth in the ACT of less than 8 per cent over the same period.
The ACT's four dedicated specialist schools, Malkara, Cranleigh, Black Mountain and The Woden School, have also reported a 6 per cent increase in enrolments over the past four years – to 440 students. These schools cater expressly for some of the ACT's highest need students, while the majority are educated in mainstream classrooms or in 49 learning support units or specialist classes within mainstream schools.
Professor Shaddock was appointed in 2009 to review special education in the ACT after the then education minister Andrew Barr called an urgent review into how the ACT could best cope with a sharp rise in students with complex needs and, in particular, autism.
At the time, the ACT had logged a 25 per cent increase in students with disabilities over the seven years from 2002. But there are now more than 1000 new students in the system with complex and high needs.
Now, as was then, possible reasons for the rise include increased medical interventions and advances that have improved survival rates for babies with profound disabilities. The ACT has also followed a national trend towards increased autism awareness and diagnoses. Anecdotal evidence also suggests interstate parents are moving to the ACT to access the high level of services for students with disabilities.
In his previous review, Professor Shaddock found the most marked increase in students with disabilities was coming from those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, accounting for one in 160 students in the ACT. He said he was also aware of an increase in students with mental health issues and noted students at both secondary and primary level were "presenting with some challenging mental health issues".
His report provided 68 recommendations ranging from substantially improving professional development for teachers to boost their ability to cater for students with disabilities with schools urged to provide a bigger focus on inclusion and funding more therapists.
Ms Burch said she believed the ACT had considerable special education expertise built into the Education Directorate following the first Shaddock review – which made the cage decision even harder to understand.
The ACT government then injected $20 million in the 2011 budget to better support students with disabilities over the four years to this year.
Ms Burch said it was timely to conduct another review.
"It is always good to go back and recalibrate our response."
She had made personal contact with the family of the boy at the centre of the controversy and was very mindful of protecting their privacy.
"Suffice to say they have been very appreciative of the support we have put in place for them."