While there is currently no agreed definition of inclusive education in Australia, the accepted meaning has shifted to include the provision of high-quality education for all students. In this respect, the Council of Australian Governments maintains in its 2010–20 National Disability Strategy that an ‘inclusive and accessible educational culture based on the principle of universality will assist students of all abilities’ and allow teachers to ‘meet the diverse educational needs of all students.’
Provincially, in Queensland, and similarly in South Australia, the government states that ‘students experience inclusive education when they can access and fully participate in learning, alongside their similar-aged peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs.’ The government identifies the following groups to be considered for inclusive education: rural and remote students, students with disability, cultural and linguistically diverse students, students with mental health needs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, LGBTQ+ students, students in out-of-home care, refugee students, and gifted and talented students.
The Department of Education and Training of the Northern Territory states that inclusion ‘starts from recognition of the differences between students and builds on such differences to minimise barriers in education for all students.’ In Victoria, inclusive education means that ‘all members of every school community are valued and supported to fully participate, learn, develop and succeed within an inclusive school culture’, and in Tasmania, inclusive schools demonstrate respect and support for diversity through the school’s inclusive beliefs, actions and structures: ‘In these schools everyone is welcome, has a sense of belonging and is engaged in respectful learning experiences.’
Special education needs
While there is no national definition of ‘children with additional needs’, children identified as vulnerable to sub-optimal learning and life outcomes include those with disabilities or serious medical conditions, children presenting with developmental delays or challenging behaviour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and children from refugee or humanitarian backgrounds.
Provincially, in New South Wales, children with a disability, learning difficulties and/or a behaviour disorder are referred to as ‘children with special learning needs’. In Queensland, students with special needs include those with English as a second language in need of language assistance, indigenous students and students with disability.
Since the 1980s, the education of children with disabilities in regular schools has been promoted. In this regard, the 2005 Disability Standards for Education underline the obligations of education to ensure that students with disability are able to access and participate in education without experiencing discrimination. At the provincial level, each of the eight educational jurisdictions offers either fully inclusive (full participation in the curriculum and activities of that classroom) or completely separate education models for students with additional needs and has its own set of criteria for placement. Victoria and Tasmania also offer ‘partial inclusion’ in special classes, units or centres situated on the grounds of a regular school. In this setting, students may spend part of the school day in a regular classroom or spend break times with the other students.
The following table provides an overview of the different placement options by province and territory.
In some provinces and territories, such as Western Australia, students must meet eligibility criteria to access special schools and centres (see, for example, the Framework for Eligibility Criteria and Enrolment Processes in Education Support Schools and Centres). In Tasmania, provision for students with disability consists of enrolling a student with disability at their local school or special school. However, the policy framework and commitment to inclusive education recognizes that ‘placement of students with disabilities in regular schools is the preferred educational option’.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest that more students are being placed in segregated settings, including in New South Wales and Queensland. Since 2000, the number of segregated schools has increased by 13%, while the total number of schools has decreased by 1.3%.
State governments have their own education acts to make provision for education, but the federal government has some constitutional capacity to influence education policy through the Constitution, the 1986 Human Rights Commission Act and the 2012 National Education Agreement. This agreement aims to promote social inclusion and to reduce the educational disadvantage of children, especially indigenous children. That said, there are no national laws guiding compulsory attendance at school between the ages of 6 and 16 and no legislated ‘right’ to an education. Additionally, there is no legislation that mandates the provision of inclusive education. However, the Australian government expresses its commitment to inclusive education in a range of documents and policies which recognize the importance of responding to student diversity, including the 2010–20 National Disability Strategy, the Australian Curriculum, the 2018 Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, the 2018 National Quality Framework and the 2009 Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.
Since 2016, the Inclusion Support Program has aimed to include children with additional needs in regular services and to provide them with an opportunity to learn and develop alongside their peers. In addition, the 2018 National School Reform Agreement ensures the well-being of all students and supports and facilitates the achievement of priority equity cohorts, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students living in regional, rural and remote locations, students with a disability and students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. The 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians outlines two goals for education: Goal 1 – Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence; Goal 2 – All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.
The 1992 Disability Discrimination Act, amended in 2005, and the 2005 Disability Standards for Education protect the right of children to attend their local government schools. The act states that it is not permitted to deny or limit a student’s access to any benefit provided by the school (e.g. excursions, sports or extracurricular activities, areas of the school), to expel a student or to develop curriculum content that excludes a student from participation. The latter specifies that discrimination in education is unlawful and provides minimum standards to be met by educational institutions to achieve non-discriminatory education for people with disability. In this regard, Australia also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. The 2010–20 National Disability Strategy ensures that the principles underpinning this Convention are incorporated into policies and programmes affecting people with disabilities.
One of the central outcomes of the Strategy is to ensure that people with disability achieve their full potential through their participation in an inclusive high-quality education system that is responsive to their needs, and that people with disability have opportunities to continue learning throughout their lives. In May 2019, Australian Labour announced policies for inclusive education for students with disabilities. The government committed to review the processes related to the National Consistent Collection of Data, which requires schools and governments to report on the number of students requiring an educational adjustment, and to adopt new initial and ongoing teacher education standards with emphasis on inclusive education. Furthermore, a National Evidence Institute for Schools will conduct a ‘review of the efficacy and most effective use of learning support staff’.
Provincially, all states adopt their own legislation. For instance, Victoria adopted the Equal Opportunity Act (2010), which makes it unlawful to discriminate against students with disabilities in their education. From a policy perspective, Victoria (2019), the Australian Capital Territory (2008), New South Wales (2016–20), South Australia (2019), Tasmania (2014) and territories have adopted inclusive education policies for students with disabilities.
That said, all states and territories provide individualized planning for students with different educational needs, using different terminology, such as IEP (individual education plan or programme) in Queensland, EAP (education adjustment plan) in the Northern Territory, NEP (negotiated education plan) in South Australia and ILP (individual learning plan) in the Australian Capital Territory.
In 1984 Australia signed the Sex Discrimination Act, which includes a section on sexual harassment in educational institutions. This act states that it is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a student ‘on the ground of the person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, or breastfeeding ... by refusing or failing to accept the person’s application for admission as a student or ... in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.’
The Affirmative Action Act (1986) aims to ensure equal opportunities for women and prohibits sexual harassment of students and staff in educational institutions. Australia also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1983 and adopted a Gender Equity framework and a National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools (1987).
Provincially and territorially, different policies and frameworks are in place. In the Australian Capital Territory, the 2016–26 Women’s Plan aims to increase girls’ access to education through measures to facilitate girls to excel in subjects including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It also aims to reduce attitudinal and structural barriers to the full participation of women with disability and to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to ensure their full inclusion in education. In Victoria, the LGBTIQ Student Support policy aims to ensure schools support students' gender identity, including those with intersex status, in line with the 2010 Victorian Equal Opportunity Act. It states that schools must support students who want to affirm or transition gender identity at school and must respect privacy and confidentiality in relation to all students. Schools are charged with working alongside students affirming their gender identity to create a student support plan, and gender identity specialists are available through Royal Children's Hospital and Monash Medical Centre to support the preparation of such plans.
In New South Wales, the 2018–22 Women’s Strategy explores partnership opportunities with private industry and the education sector to promote entrepreneurial opportunities and develop networks for women. Finally, Western Australia produced fact sheets for students, parents and staff concerning sexuality and gender-based bullying, Tasmania published Guidelines for Supporting Sexual and Gender Diversity in Schools and Colleges and the Australian Capital Territory recognized the value of individual differences, including sex and gender identity, within the school culture through the 2016 Safe and Supportive Schools Policy.
Ethnic and linguistic groups
Australia adopted the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone to education, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin. Additionally, the Australian government supports the teaching and learning of minority languages through the Australian Curriculum, which enables all students in all schools to learn local languages. In parallel, a School Languages Programme was created to support the teaching and learning of Asian, European and Australian indigenous languages and Auslan in schools and community language programmes in ethnic schools. Finally, the Asia Education Foundation develops educational materials on the languages and cultures of Asia, promotes studies of Asia with teachers and school leaders and educates the broader community about the importance of an Asia-literate society.
In 2015, Australia adopted the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy to accelerate the rate of improvement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes. Initial actions focus on attendance and engagement, transition points, early childhood transitions, workforce and curriculum. Other federal programmes, such as the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program, the Sporting Chance Program and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Pathways Project, also support indigenous students to attend schools and aim to close the gaps in indigenous educational disadvantage. Finally, through the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, all governments in Australia committed to specific targets and timelines. For instance, two objectives are to ensure that 95% of all indigenous 4-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education (by 2025) and to halve the gap for indigenous people aged 20 to 24 in year 12 attainment or equivalent attainment rates (by 2020). Monitoring reports are published annually by the Productivity Commission.
People living in rural or remote areas
In 2000, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched the National Inquiry into Rural and Regional Education to improve access to education for schoolchildren in rural and remote areas. In 2014, Australia adopted the community-focused Remote School Attendance Strategy (RSAS) to ensure all children go to school every day. There is currently ‘no uniform national policy in relation to the staffing of rural and remote schools’.
The 2014 development policy document Australian Aid: Promoting Prosperity, Reducing Poverty, Enhancing Stability states that education that increases children’s ability to participate productively in their community is the best investments a society can make. In parallel, the 2015–20 Strategy for Australia’s Aid Investments in Education promotes the use of innovative approaches and partnerships, including with the private sector, to deliver comprehensive and high-quality education services in Australia, particularly for girls and people with disabilities in disadvantaged areas.
The federal government plays a major role in policy setting and programme development for inclusive education. Consultation and collaboration on education between different levels of government are carried out through the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood, which reports to the Council of Australian Governments. Since 2014, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group has provided advice to the government on ‘how teacher education courses could better ensure new teachers have the right mix of academic and practical skills needed for the classroom.’ The Australian Human Rights Commission is responsible for investigating and resolving complaints of discrimination in violation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.
The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians lists the responsibilities of the provincial and territorial education ministers, which are to support quality teaching and school leadership, to promote world-class curriculum and assessment and to improve the educational outcomes for disadvantaged young Australians. Under the Inclusion Support Program, an Inclusion Agency aims to help eligible services build their capacity to provide and integrate inclusive practices in the delivery of their early learning and care programmes. An Inclusion Development Fund Manager is also contracted to the department to provide ‘nationally consistent and equitable management’ for inclusive education, through assessing applications for funding and communicating outcomes to services. Then, seven Inclusion agencies work with early childhood and childcare services ‘to build their capacity and capability to provide and embed inclusive practice and address barriers to inclusion experienced by children with additional needs.’ These agencies ensure the Inclusion Support Program is delivered consistently across the country.
In New South Wales, the Department of Aging, Disability and Home Care coordinates a number of post-school option programmes for young people with disability, including transition-to-work and community participation programmes. In South Australia, the Verification and Professional Support Team is responsible for verifying eligibility for support services and the levels of support required.
In the case of non-government organizations, at the federal level, All Means All works to implement an inclusive education system and to remove the legal, structural and attitudinal barriers that limit the rights of some students to access full inclusive education in regular classrooms. Similarly, Inclusive Schools Australia aims to support children to access and achieve from the same curriculum and to uphold their rights to an inclusive education.
Infrastructure and services
The Inclusion Support Program provides support to services through the Specialist Equipment Library and the Inclusion Development Fund. It aims to equip schools and classrooms with portable ramps, standing frames and full support swings (to allow a child with high physical needs to participate in daily activities) as well as hoists, slings, harnesses, change tables, toilet sets or steps, mobile stools and seating or posture aids for educators to assist them to lift and transfer children safely. It also provides communication cards or charts and Auslan dictionaries to enable pupils and educators to communicate effectively.
In Victoria, the School Provision Planning Guidelines for Students with Disabilities (2016) and the Building Quality Standards Handbook (2021) ensure that all schools accommodate the diverse needs of students and are planned and built to be inclusive. In New South Wales, a range of support services, such as physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and counselling, are provided to students through both government and private providers. In Queensland, students with disability in regular schools may be assisted through a variety of supports, such as guidance officers, specialist teachers, speech-language pathologists, behaviour support teachers, teacher aides, assistive technology, alternative format materials and special provisions for assessments.
Curriculum and teaching and learning materials
Since the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals, Australia has had a national and consistent curriculum across the nation. It was developed on the premise that: ‘All students are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning programs’. To ensure the curriculum is accessible to all students, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority publishes advice and examples on the Student Diversity page of the Australian Curriculum website. In this regard, the Disability Standards for Education 2005 states that ‘ ... education provider[s] must take reasonable steps to ensure the course or program is designed in such a way that the student is, or any student with a disability is, able to participate in the learning experiences (including the assessment and certification requirements) of the course or program, and any relevant supplementary course or program, on the same basis as a student without disability, and without experiencing discrimination’ (p. 23). In 2015, Australia released the National Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages to support the teaching and learning of the indigenous languages.
In Victoria, the Curriculum Foundation-10 (F-10) provides necessary adjustments to the standard curriculum for students with disabilities. It also generates data on students with disabilities, which contributes to the development of teaching and learning programmes adapted to current student outcomes. It uses Abilities Based Learning and Education Support (ABLES) resources to support students with disability and to assist in the development of an individual learning plans for students. The New South Wales Board of Studies provides another example of alternative curriculum based on life skills. Finally, in 2018 Victoria adopted a school policy on Using Digital Technologies to Support Learning and Teaching, while a Digital Learning in Schools policy dates to 2020. In parallel, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority website provides the framework for curriculum development in ICT, and a school policy on bullying aims to create safe and respectful school environments and prevent bullying, cyberbullying and other unacceptable behaviours.
At the federal level, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership supports the implementation of the 2018 Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and the 2011 Australian Professional Standard for Principals. These standards for teachers include three domains: professional knowledge, professional practice and professionnal engagement. Focus areas 1.3 to 1.6 aim to support the inclusion of students from diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; students of all skill levels; and students with disabilities. In parallel, the 2005 Disability Standards for Education identify the obligations of education and training providers, and the rights of people with disability, under the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act. The Teach for Australia programme aims to ‘recruit individuals with exceptional skills and expertise into schools serving low socioeconomic communities and develop them as teachers and leaders.’
In Victoria, since 2016, ‘all initial teacher education programs must also include specific learning activities about teaching students with disabilities in order to be accredited by the Victorian Institute of Teaching.’ The Department of Education and Training’s Legal Division provides face-to-face training and presentations on legal obligations in relation to students with disabilities for school principals and other staff through the Bastow Institute. An online training module titled ‘Disability Standards for Education (DSE) eLearning’ addresses the legal obligations under the Disability Standards for Education and Disability Discrimination Act. In addition, the resource ABLES guides teachers on teaching strategies and resources to enable them to effectively plan and teach for the individual needs of students with disabilities. In parallel, the Outstanding Inclusive Education Award, part of the annual Victorian Education Excellence Awards, aims to celebrate staff who demonstrate outstanding ability in improving inclusive education. In Western Australia, the School of Special Educational Needs provides assistance to ‘build the capacity of schools to promote inclusive learning environments’.
Despite these initiatives, ‘teachers are seen as needing better preparation for inclusive education’. Although some universities in Australia now offer inclusive teaching units, additional research is needed to ensure that universities continue to improve their courses.
The Australian government is committed to supporting the implementation of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD). This annual data collection requires schools and governments to report on the number of students requiring an educational adjustment (as required under the Disability Standards for Education 2005) to access education. In this regard, Education Services Australia provides nationally owned technical data and assessment systems.
Additionally, the Council of Australian Governments publishes an annual Report on Performance and, in 2008, published a Voluntary National Review monitoring SDG 4 in the country. However, UNESCO notes inconsistencies in the collection of data on educational enrolment, achievement and attrition rates among states and territories (especially with regard to women and girls belonging to indigenous communities, women and girls with disabilities, and migrant women and their daughters). Indeed, in 2015, there were no standards or guidelines provided at the state or federal level to measure the success of inclusive education in the country. However, the National Education Agreement of 2008 identified key indicators linked to the social inclusion of students, especially indigenous children, such as: the proportion of indigenous and low socio-economic status (SES) children enrolled in and attending school as well as the proportion of the 19-year-old indigenous and low-SES population having attained at least a Year 12 Certificate or equivalent. Additionally, the 2016–17 to 2018–19 Inclusion Support Program identified the measures of success in relation to children with additional needs and their families, which included the level of awareness of inclusion support services available for families of children with additional needs.