Couple insensitivity with ignorance and very little good will follow. With a little luck, we will avoid the worst of the damage that could come from Senator Pauline Hanson’s public outburst, in which she argued for the removal of children with autism from mainstream schools. The public outrage her remarks evoked has been encouraging.
Distilling the varied sentiment expressed by the public, at the core, most dominant is the view that the default position is that if a child can be part of the mainstream system, then that ought to be the case. Many years in the school system have confirmed for me that this is as it should be.
Experience has also brought the saddest and most frustrating of realisations home to me, and dare I say countless others. That is, we have not only let down children with conditions such as autism, intellectual and physical disabilities, but also their families, teachers and fellow students far too often. To date, the provision of adequate and proper resources to meet the individual needs of these children too often fails to match the administrative paperwork, diagnostic reviews and countless meetings that overwhelm all involved – parents, teachers and dare I say, even the bureaucrats. If it did, more of these children would be doing so much better and we’d all be winners.
Most unhelpful about Senator Hanson’s remarks is the breathtaking simplification that she makes –autism is a complex lifelong condition and the word ‘spectrum’ is used in association with autism for the very fact that the range of difficulties that people on the autism spectrum may experience and the degree to which they may be affected is wide ranging. That alone should have prevented Senator Hanson from lumping all students with autism under the one banner and with that the unhelpful call for the removal of those children from mainstream schools.
As is well documented, the main areas of difficulty for those children on the autism spectrum are in social communication, social interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests. Noteworthy too is the fact that about one per cent of Australians have autism – that’s almost 230,000 people, an awful lot of us to have had to complete our school education in non-mainstream schools. Of what benefit in the majority of cases would that ultimately be? Certainly not the enhancement of an inclusive and integrated society let alone the opportunity for children with autism to develop those social skills with which they have difficulty, in mainstream society.
Undoubtedly there are children for whom a special setting school is their best option and we have come a long way in making these schools the best possible learning environment for these students. Staff to student ratios in special setting schools are the envy of every mainstream school, and they should be. Having visited several most recently built, it is impossible to argue that the facilities and resources are in any way inferior to those of mainstream schools. They are rich and stimulating learning environments with dedicated and highly trained staff who do marvellously well with their students. Importantly, as good as they are, and as appropriate as they are for some students, we should not then fall into the trap of wishing away children from mainstream schools based on the simplistic segregationist solutions held by some.
Senator Hanson, it could be argued has plunged in head first, and this is the danger that exists when, for too long, successive governments of all persuasions have short-changed too many children with special needs that would be best served in their education in a mainstream school. It’s quite fair to say that teacher burn-out, student alienation, classroom disruption and negativity toward some children with special needs in mainstream schools exists. That’s sad and the pity of Senator Hanson’s comments is that they make no distinction between those fewer children for whom a special setting school is appropriate and those many for whom it would be a short cut to a diminished education.
The fact that for some students with extreme challenges, enrolment at schools tailored specifically to meet their individual needs does not make it a solution for all. It’s certainly a simple solution, but in the majority of cases it does nothing but create division amongst us.
What then for our children with special needs? There’s certainly more money under Gonski 2.0 and via the National Disability Insurance Scheme to encourage hope that a better world in education may be beckoning for them. The proof, as always will be in the pudding. In that regard, we must remain vigilant and disavow views that serve to divide and exclude and, even more so, ensure that conditions do not exist that lend themselves to such opportunistic and inappropriate ideas.
Berwick Lodge Primary School