Monday, 18 January 2016

Of Gatekeeping and Other Things

Given that I've been working in the field of education of students with disabilities since 1971, I've put a fair bit of blood, sweat and tears into the activity.

The irony for me is that I fell into the field almost accidentally on return from Vietnam. In the space of a few months I went from involvement in an activity that was completely futile to something that had a positive result for me and those I was working with.

On the upside, I've found it immensely fulfilling and perhaps along the way my humble contribution has made a positive difference to the lives of many of these kids. The fact that I'm still doing the work and still enjoying most of it is testimony to the fact that on the whole, opportunities are improving for this vulnerable cohort of the population, but there is still a long way to go.

On the downside, families with children with disabilities still have a convoluted and difficult road to follow to gain access for their kids to the same privileges and opportunities taken for granted for the parents of kids who aren't diagnosed with a disability.

In forty plus years I've seen the opening up of schooling to all children, irrespective of disability. In 1971 there were still kids considered "ineducable" who were relegated to training centres. I've seen the move towards training of most teachers in support for kids with special needs. I was one of the first teachers to be taken off stream for a year's training in this in 1976. I've seen the opening up of regular classrooms to students with disabilities, and was one of the first Advisory visiting Teachers appointed in 1974.

Having seen all this positive activity, there are still many barriers presented to these kids and their families. As recently as 2004, as a special school principal in Toowoomba, a city replete in what are euphemistically called  "private" schools, I would attend meetings of principals from both the private and public sectors.

It was always interesting to ask the private school principals if they had enrolments of students with disabilities. The stock answer was always "No" usually with the clarification "We don't cater for them".

It always got interesting when my next question was "Why not?". I never got a straight answer, and that was usually the end of the conversation.

That particular barrier (the enrolment exclusion) still exists, as has been highlighted by the report of the Senate Committee -

Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability.

This particular barrier is highlighted in the report -

1.14 The practice known as 'gatekeeping', whereby families of students with disability are informally and unofficially discouraged from enrolling their child at their school of choice is another major barrier. For many families, merely enrolling their child in a school was the first of many battles they have to fight in order to ensure their child receives anything like an adequate education.

Absolutely correct - and there is no situation which illustrates this more clearly than that operating in Toowoomba. I daresay, it's not much different anywhere else.

The "private*" schools are quite happy to accept taxpayers money, but aren't prepared to offer places to the sons and daughters of all taxpayers, about 7% of whom have children with disabilities. 

*(These schools should more accurately be called "subsidised" schools, because that is, in fact, what they are). They receive vast amounts of taxpayers' money.

Also worth considering are some of the recommendations of this bipartisan committee -

Recommendation 1
4.75 The committee recommends that the government contribute to schools on the basis of need, according to the Gonski Review.

4.76 The committee recommends that the government fund all students with disability on the basis of need by reversing its cuts to final two years of the Gonski Reforms.

Such recommendations are interesting in the light of recent announcements about Gonski.

Anyway, these issues remain close to my heart, and I intend to pursue them at every opportunity. 

These kids and their families could do with your help, gentle reader.


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