Thousands of students with disability will spend 2017 without the resources they need at school – due to the Federal Government’s refusal to properly fund disability.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham finally released data at the end of last year confirming that more than half of students with disability or learning difficulties who need funded support in our schools are not getting it.
Properly funding disability is a key part of the Gonski reforms. The current loadings simply do not reflect the huge numbers of students who need help and extra resources to succeed.
That’s why states and the Federal Government began the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Disability (NCCD) in 2010. The idea was to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of need in our schools, so we could increase and target resources to meet it.
However it now seems that Minister Birmingham wants to ignore the data saying that it is unreliable and that there is a ‘long way to go’ before it can be used as a benchmark to lift funding.
While there are inconsistencies between the states, this must not be used as an excuse for inaction, when the fact that disability is underfunded is so obvious.
The NCCD data for 2015 finds that 12.5% of students needed supplementary, substantial or extensive support for a disability or learning difficulty – more than twice the number currently receiving funded support in our schools.
The most recent research from the Productivity Commission found that only 5.1% of all students received funded support for their disability in 2014.
That adds up to over 270,000 students with disability not receiving the funded support they need.
How can governments simply ignore the needs of these children, and their right to support at school?
Coalition’s broken promises
While there are many barriers facing students with disability, including a lack of understanding, limited training of teachers in disability issues and a need for cultural change in some schools, lack of resources is the key issue.
Providing in-class support, developing individual learning plans and appropriate equipment or other support costs money, and too often it is money schools don’t have.
In April last year, the Australian Education Union’s State of Our Schools survey found that 87% of principals reported having to shift funding from other parts of their school budget to assist students with disability, up from 84% in 2015.
Surveys of parents of children with disability also find that lack of resourcing is a key issue for a majority of students.
That’s why the Gonski Review recommended a new, comprehensive loading so that ALL students with disability could get the support they needed. Both major parties went into the 2013 federal election promising to provide this funding.
So what has happened since?
The Coalition has offered a series of excuses and delays, often saying we had to wait until the full NCCD data was collected.
Even in 2015, then Education Minister Christopher Pyne said that from 2016:
Education Minister Christopher Pyne said as recently as June 2015 last year that from 2016:
‘Every child in Australia with disability will be able to receive the correct loading, as they should, to match their disability’
But that promise was quickly abandoned and last year’s Budget confirmed the Federal Government had no intention of delivering a full loading until 2018.
Action needed now
Disability organisations are now concerned that the federal government’s claim that the NCCD data is inaccurate – due to discrepancies between the states – will be used as another excuse to delay proper funding for students with disability.
It seems inexplicable that federal and state governments could spend six years working out a data collection process – only to find that what they have ended up with is unreliable.
If that really is the case Minister Birmingham needs to deliver a full explanation of how this has happened, and tell us what he is planning to do to fix it and ensure that all students with disability get the support they need at school.
Funding shortages are recognised by principals, educators and parents who struggle with a system that does not recognise the cost of providing support to students with disability or learning difficulties.
The saddest thing about this is that it does recognise the huge benefits that our country gains from ensuring students with disability get support as early in their schooling as possible.
Children with disability or learning difficulties want to learn and can learn given the right support. Early intervention and individual support for autism, speech difficulties or other conditions, can make a huge difference to children.
Ensuring that students with disability can leave school with the ability to work and lead as independent a life as possible is something that will save governments money in the long-term.
Students with disability have been waiting for too long for the support they need, and we need all levels of government to work together to tackle this problem.