The problem when it comes to “fixing” education is where to start. Schooling future citizens for a diverse society is a difficult exercise further complicated by the quest for simple solutions realisable within short electoral cycles.
Add to this the sheer breadth of the educational field. In sum, we cannot hope to fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction; even if we were to have a “revolution” in our schools.
Pragmatism requires even the most optimistic of us to acknowledge that there will be the usual selection of priorities which will add to the perennial to-do list and force further adjustments to which systems must constantly readjust.
On the eve of the Federal Government’s Education Revolution, the most important job therefore is to make sure critical cases make it onto the priority list. One of these must be to work out how to provide support to children who need it, but at the same time reduce incentives for schools to label and further stigmatise those very same children. But first, some background.
Driving Miss Diagnosis
Globally, the categorisation of children with a medical diagnosis of disability has risen markedly and Australia is no exception.
Some argue that the increase is an indication that diagnostic practices have improved and/or developments in neonatal and pediatric health care have resulted in higher survival rates.
Perhaps this is true to some extent, however international research looking at the categorisation of children in schools shows that normative disability categories are on the decline while non-normative categories are rising.
This means that “low-incidence” disabilities (hearing, vision, physical, and intellectual impairment) have tended to remain steady or have decreased, whereas “high-incidence” disabilities (sometimes called “soft” or “judgmental” diagnoses) have risen. These diagnoses represent children who are described as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.
In some regions, the rise has been dramatic - as has the increase in special education funding. The categories responsible are behaviour disorder, emotional disturbance and autistic spectrum disorders. To illustrate, let us introduce New South Wales as a case in point - although we hasten to add that the point could be illustrated by drawing data from any other Australian education jurisdiction.
A brief survey of annual report data shows that NSW, with 5.6 per cent of the government school student body carrying a recognised diagnosis of disability eligible for additional support funding, is second only to South Australia (8.2 per cent) - the state with the highest proportion of students diagnosed as “disabled”.
Since NSW and SA have comparatively similar proportions of students with disabilities enrolled in special schools (0.5 per cent and 0.6 per cent respectively); the variance between these two states lies mainly with those enrolled in the mainstream.
Queensland, with 4.4 per cent of her student group carrying a diagnosis of disability also has a relatively small proportion in special schools (0.6 per cent). With respect to students with disabilities enrolled in regular schools, these three states show a fair degree of variation in the number of students with a diagnosis of disability: SA (7.6 per cent), NSW (5.1 per cent) and QLD (3.2 per cent). Victoria and Western Australia are different again with 1.4 and 1.5 per cent of students enrolled in special schools, but just 1.8 and 1.3 per cent enrolled in regular schools.
This piece is extracted from a research paper that will be presented at the 2008 American Educational Research Association in New York in March 2008.
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