Our Better Angels: Should We Include or Segregate Students?

A disputed recommendation from the Disability Commission’s Report is whether or not segregated education should be phased out from 2025. Those Commissioners advocating such a change are on the side of our better angels. It is proper to have an inclusive society and we should condemn any section of our community that segregates sections of the population. Any form of segregation evokes the injustice experienced when societies were divided by the colour of one’s skin. This segregation is motivated by a child’s ability, on the face of it equally offensive. So, why is there some support for segregation in education and why is this only a problem for students with disabilities?

In a recent article in The Conversation (Disability Royal Commissioners disagreed over phasing out ‘special schools’ – October 2, 2023), Catherine Smith, from the University of Melbourne and Professor Helen Dickson, from the Public Service Research Organisation emphasise the failure to mention the private sector in the discussions. It seems no one expects the private sector to enrol these students especially those whose disability is expressed in challenging behaviours.

Predominantly academics identify the villains in this debate as being the teachers. In the words of Linda Graham of the Queensland University of Technology, teachers are ‘dumping the students they don’t want to deal with’. She claims that the exodus of families from mainstream systems is driven by ‘a desire to find supportive environments for their children’; I assume she believes this migration is to the special settings.

This criticism is unfounded and serves no purpose other than to deflect the responsibility onto a predictable scape-goat! The overwhelming majority of teachers care deeply about all their students and want what is best for them. And, I suggest those who quickly assume they ‘don’t want to deal with them’ should spend year after year actually providing the attention they require in a class with thirty other needy students. They have to try to achieve this with little or no extra resources.

The reality is teachers want to help those ‘special’ students however, while attending to their extra needs they are unavoidably neglecting the rest of the class; where is the equity for these other children.

To be clear, I am an advocate for inclusion across the board. I find all forms of segregation offensive, students with disabilities should be part of their local school. By taking this stance I am comfortable I would be accepted as a member of the ‘better angels’. However, I wonder if my membership would survive when the ‘angels’ realise I find those other students segregated by attending private schools just as offensive? They are separated not because of their disability but by their parent’s ‘ability’ to afford the extra fees. These resource rich parent’s feel their child, by attending these privileged schools will have an advantage over others. I also find the existence of public, selective schools who enrol students with ‘superior’ abilities just as offensive.

Teachers, in particular need to be heard. Contrary to the fashionable blame game, teachers understand the developmental needs of all students. They appreciate the benefits when there is truly all-embracing schooling. These include:

  • Social Inclusion that fosters a sense of belonging.
  • The value of diversity in the classroom which creates a rich social experience.
  • In some cases, students with disabilities may perform better academically when integrated into regular classrooms because they share different ‘solutions’ to the goals of a lesson and they are often mentored by their peers.
  • Interaction across the range of personal characteristics, those with disabilities and those who are deemed gifted and talented can improve everyone’s level of inclusion leading to greater empathy, understanding, and acceptance of differences across all communities.

These effects apply equally to the integration of students back from special schools as well as selective and the private schools. There is a strong case to be made both ethically and economically for all funding for education to be distributed to local public, comprehensive schools.

However to achieve these outcomes those who control the public purse need to invest in public schools which can:

  • Provide a rich, diverse curriculum.
  • Provide realistic, supportive resources including, highly trained, special education teachers and support staff as well as specialised infrastructures and materials for all students.
  • Protect all students in a safe secure environment. For example, students with severe behaviours including autism may become physically or psychologically violent towards their peers and teachers; there is ample evidence this already occurs on a daily basis. Also, those students with disabilities need to be protected especially from being socially excluded or stigmatised.
  • Socially integrate all students. Children do not recognise inequality until they are taught to compare their living conditions, including the school they attend with others. They soon become aware of their value relative to others. Despite their best efforts of teachers, students attending elite private schools are surrounded by evidence of their superior worth. Likewise, kids who attend under-funded, run down schools in socially challenging communities are constantly reminded that they are not treated equitably and they can only conclude they are not worth it!

The current debate is, in a sense obscene. Of course I understand and support the case for equity as expressed in providing everyone according to their need; if this occurs then disadvantage would evaporate. I take the view that ability does not define worth and all students are not only treasured they deserve the specific resources they need.

It is no secret Australia’s public education system is in crisis. So far, with a change of government the noises coming out of both State and Federal Parliaments are positive but they are words and words are not enough. Jason Clare and his state ALP counter parts need to take a leaf out of Ben Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ speech. His mission statement for not only the ALP but all Australia was an ‘emphasis on selflessness, compassion and social justice’ and the ‘rejection of entrenched class divisions; equal respect for the highest achievers and values nurtured’. The place to start this change in in our schools!

John Frew

John Frew worked in public education, including as foundation principal at a secondary school for students with Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Disturbance. John has authored numerous books the latest being ‘Neuroscience and Teaching Very Difficult Kids’. His previous books ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ and ‘Insights into the Modern Classroom’ have focused on behaviour management in schools. Since retiring, he has founded the Frew Consultants Group which provides a range of supportive resources for teachers who manage children with severe behaviour problems.

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