While there is currently no agreed definition of inclusive education in the country, it is accepted that the meaning of the term has changed to one that now includes the provision of high quality education for all students. In this respect, the Council of Australian Governments (2011) maintains that an “inclusive and accessible educational culture based on the principle of universality will assist students of all abilities […] to meet the diverse educational needs of all students” (p. 54). Provincially, in Queensland (2018), 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” (p. 5). 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 in out-of-home care, refugee students and gifted and talented students. The Department of Education and Training (DET) of Northern Territory states that inclusive education “is about how we develop and design our schools, classrooms, programs and activities so that all children and students can learn and participate together” (p. 1). 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” (p. 4). Finally, in South Australia (2019) students experience inclusive education when “they can access and fully participate in learning alongside their similar-aged peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and strategies, tailored to meet their individual needs” (p. 2).
Special Education Needs
While there is no national definition of “children with additional needs”, a range of risk factors can make children with particular characteristics vulnerable to sub-optimal learning and life outcomes. According to the Department of Education and Training of the Australian Government, these learners with additional needs include children with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, children from a refugee or humanitarian background, children with serious medical conditions, children presenting with language and speech delays and children presenting with disruptive behaviour. 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”. Finally, in Queensland, students with special needs include: English as a second language students 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 Disability Standards for Education (2005) underlines 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 break times with the other students. This table (ARACY, 2013, p. 21) provides an overview of the different placement options by province and territory.
In some provinces and territories, such as Western Australia, students must meet the eligibility criteria to access special schools and centres (e.g. Framework for Eligibility Criteria and Enrolment Processes in Education Support Schools and Centres, 2008). In Tasmania, provision for students with disability consists of enrolling a student with disability at his or her 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 and 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 Human Rights Commission Act (1986) and the National Education Agreement (NEA) (2018). This Agreement aims to promote social inclusion and to reduce the educational disadvantage of children, especially Indigenous children. However, 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 recognise the importance of responding to student diversity, including the National Disability Strategy (2010-2020), the Australian Curriculum, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (2018), the National Quality Framework (2018) and the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (2009).
Since 2016, the Inclusion Support Program (ISP) aims 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 National Education Reform Agreement (2013) ensures the wellbeing 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 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) outlines two goals for education: to 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 (p. 6). The document refers to all school students.
The Disability Discrimination Act (1992) amended in 2005 and the Disability Standards for Education (2005) protect the right of children to attend their local government schools. The first 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 and 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 National Disability Strategy 2010–2020 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 and to adopt new initial and ongoing teacher education standards with emphasis on inclusive education. Besides, a National Evidence Institute for Schools will also conduct a “review of the efficacy and most effective use of learning support staff”.
Provincially, all states adopt their 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 (2016-2020), South Australia (2019) and Tasmania (2014) and territories have adopted inclusive education policies for students with disabilities.
That said, all states and territories provide individualised 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 Northern Territory, NEP (Negotiated Education Plan) in South Australia and ILP (Individual Learning Plan) in Australia Capital Territory.
Australia signed the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, 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 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 the framework Gender Equity and a national policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools (1987).
Provincially and territorially, different policies and frameworks are in place. In Australian Capital Territory, the Legislative Assembly Act Women’s Plan 2016-2026 aims to increase girl’s access to education through measures to facilitate girls to excel in subjects including in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In addition, it 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 Gender identity Policy aims to ensure schools support students' gender identity, including those with intersex status, in line with the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010. It states that schools must support and respect a student's choice to identify as their desired gender when this does not align with their designated sex at birth and that principals must respect privacy and confidentiality in relation to gender identity and intersex status. In this regard, gender identity specialists are available through Royal Children's Hospital and Monash Medical Centre. In New South Wales, the Women’s Strategy 2018-2022 Advancing economic and social equality explores partnership opportunities with private industry and the education sector to promote entrepreneurial opportunities and develop networks for women. Finally, Western Australia adopted Guidelines for supporting sexual and gender diversity in schools (sexuality discrimination & homophobic 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 to school culture (including sex and gender identity) through the Safe and supportive schools policy (2016).
Ethnic and linguistic groups
Australia adopted the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) in order 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, the School Languages Programme supports the teaching and learning of Asian, European, 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.
Australia also adopted in 2015, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy to accelerate the rate of improvement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes. The different set of actions focus on attendance and engagement, transition points, early childhood transitions, workforce and curriculum. Other federal programmes (such as the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program (IYLP), the Indigenous Youth Careers Pathways Program (since 2011), the Sporting Chance Program (SCP) and the Indigenous Youth Mobility Program (IYMP) also support Indigenous students to attend schools and 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 20–24 years 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 "Education Access" National Inquiry into Rural and Regional Education in order to improve access to education for school children 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. In this respect, the Country Areas Program (CAP) is an equity programme funded by the Commonwealth Government designed to assist students and their communities to enhance the educational opportunities for students in geographically isolated areas. That said, there is currently no uniform national policy “in relation to the staffing of rural and remote schools”.
The development policy Australian aid: promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, enhancing stability (2014) 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 Strategy for Australia’s aid investments in education 2015–2020 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 between different levels of government on education are carried out through the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood that reports to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Since 2014, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group provides advice to the Government on “how teacher education courses could be improved to better prepare new teachers with 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. 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 (IA) 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 (2013) coordinates a number of post-school option programmes for young people with disability, including transition to work and community participation programmes. Likewise, 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 NGOs, 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 Programme provides support to services through the Specialist Equipment Library and the Inclusion Development Fund. It also 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 the daily program and 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 when carrying out basic care functions such as changing or going to the toilet. Finally 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 (2019) 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.
Curricula and teaching and learning materials
Since the Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals in 2008, Australia has 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 (ACARA) publishes advice and examples on the ‘Student diversity’ section 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 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 in order support the teaching and learning of the Indigenous languages.
In Victoria, the Curriculum Foundation-10 (F-10) provides necessary adjustments for students with disabilities to the standard curriculum. 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 ABLES (Abilities Based Learning and Education Support) resources to support students with disability and to assist in the development of an individual learning plan for the student. The New South Wales Board of Studies (2007) provides another example of alternative curriculum based on life skills. Finally, Victoria adopted in 2018 the School policy on Using Digital Technologies to Support Learning and Teaching. In parallel, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority website provides the framework for curriculum development in ICTs 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 Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (2018) and the Australian Professional Standard for Principals (2011). 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 socioeconomic backgrounds; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students; students of all skill levels; and students with disabilities. In parallel, The Disability Standards for Education identifies the obligations of education and training providers, and the rights of people with disability, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. The Teach for Australia programme aims to “fast-track high-calibre non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged schools through an intensive training programme that leads to a post-graduate teaching qualification”.
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’s Legal Division provides training for school principals and other staff in relation to students with disabilities through the Bastow Institute. The online training module “Disability Standards for Education (DSE) eLearning” is about the legal obligations under the Disability Standards for Education and Disability Discrimination Act. In addition, the resource Abilities Based Learning and Educational Support (ABLES) guides teachers about teaching strategies and resources that will enable them to effectively plan and teach for the individual needs of students with disabilities. In parallel, the Outstanding Inclusive Education Award category as part of the Government’s annual Victorian Education Excellence Awards, aims to celebrate staff who demonstrated outstanding ability in improving inclusive education. In Western Australia, the School of Special Educational Needs is “…committed to building the capacity of teachers and school-based staff to deliver effective classroom programs that value the diversity of students in inclusive learning environments”. Despite these initiatives, “teachers are seen as needing better preparation for inclusive education”. Although some universities now offer inclusive teaching units in Australia, additional research is needed to ensure that universities continue to improve their courses.
The Australian Government is committed to support 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 (ESA) provides nationally owned technical data and assessment systems. Additionally, the Council of Australian Governments publishes annually Reports on performance and published in 2018 a Voluntary national review monitoring SDG 4 in the country. However, we note 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 (NEA) identified in 2008 key indicators linked to the social inclusion of students, especially Indigenous children, such as: the proportion of Indigenous and low socioeconomic 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 Inclusion Support Programme (2016-2017 to 2018-2019) 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.