Teachers work every day within these highly varied environments, striving to meet the learning needs of each and every child.
But according to Senator Pauline Hanson, one group of students within the classroom is demanding too much of their teachers’ time, and ought to be removed.
The One Nation leader feels in order for Australia to remain competitive in global rankings, students with autism should be removed from mainstream classrooms and taught in special classrooms where they can be better catered for.
Hanson’s comments have drawn criticism from the likes of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, as well as many at the coalface.
“I think it’s populist at best, really uninformed and quite capable of having a negative impact at worst,” Christine Hills, principal of Rockhampton Girls Grammar, says of Hanson’s suggestion.
“In my experience, we ran an inclusive program at a medium sized state primary school in Rockhampton and we had inclusion as a cornerstone to our practice.
“There are times when students may need some one-on-one support, but to have them completely segregated, not even in a classroom with their peers, I think it’s just extremely ill-informed.”
Austin Wyatt, deputy chairperson of the I CAN Network, Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism, is also critical.
“I think our reaction as an organisation, and my reaction personally as someone on the spectrum, is that they were comments that are not only outdated but extremely hurtful to members of our community,” he says.
“And I think when someone like Senator Hanson, someone who occupies such an office of high esteem in our society, makes these comments, it creates a very hurtful message to the 13 - or 14-year-old kid who’s only just been told that they’re on the spectrum, they’re struggling with what that means and how that affects how they fit into their school.”
According to Wyatt the vast majority of students on the spectrum want to find their place in their local school community.
“I work every day with 40 autistics on our team – I’ve yet to meet one who would prefer not to be able to go into a mainstream school and have an education that they’re entitled to, just like everyone else,” he says.
But does inclusion come at a cost to the broader cohort of students, as Hanson and some parents might fear? According to Hills, like it or not, classrooms are disruptive environments, and that has little to do with autistic students.
“I’ve seen behaviours in all sorts of schools. You know, you talk about in that Year 9-10 phase, the biggest disruptions to learning are sometimes socially driven…”
“Pauline doesn’t talk about children who are victims of domestic violence, I mean they can act out in classrooms too,” she points out.
“We’re not talking about children with ADD or ADHD or those sorts of challenges either. Why is it only ASD that we focus on in this space? It labels them more significantly than other children and that’s my big problem with it.”
Hills says for some children who may be impacted by a classmate’s behaviour, there are generally support networks in place within the school community.
“Who’s to say that every child doesn’t do something at one point that disrupts another kid?” she adds.
“If Emily is sitting next to Caitlyn and Emily says something that Caitlyn doesn’t like and that disrupts Caitlyn’s learning, well then what, do you put Emily in a room?”
Who benefits from inclusion?
According to Wyatt, while inclusive classrooms are hugely beneficial for students with disability, there are also flow-on effects for the teachers and the rest of their class.
“A teacher who’s taught someone on the spectrum and has taught them in a way that’s enabled them and taken that positive, strengths-based approach, learns tools and learns strategies they can apply to anyone in their classroom,” he says.
“Because everyone struggles at some point in school, and needs things to be re-explained or put across in a way that isn’t text-based learning.
“So other kids in the class benefit in that way, as well as from the fact that these kids will often have an area of interest where they know more – ‘little professors’ is the term that’s sometimes used – and a real focus area that they can bring and contribute to the class discussion.”
He also says society has plenty to gain further down the track, if these students receive a quality education.
“As a society I think we’ll benefit from the fact that these kids grow up.
“You know, the ones that go through mainstream education are better equipped to reach the other side and reach their full potential.
“I can give you two examples off the top of my head. James who’s our evaluations manager, is currently working on a PhD in Cancer Research.
“And another one would be Penny Robinson, who’s one of our ambassadors, is a senior lecturer at Monash University.
“Both were told they shouldn’t go to mainstream school but they did and were therefore able to reach their potential.”
Hills says having a classroom with diverse needs also holds a great lesson in social responsibility.
“I think for the other children in the class, there’s a lot to be learnt … things like tolerance and care for others. I think these are all really important lessons in the classroom,” she says.
“My children have been in state schools before I was the principal of [Rockhampton] Girls Grammar, and have learnt a lot of lessons about what other people experience.
“They’ve learnt about the needs that other people have, and if we’re going to have a compassionate society, how are we going to do that if children don’t experience that from a young age? “We can’t just magically make them become tolerant when they’re 22.”
Inclusivity: Is it a possibility or a pipe dream?
While most agree inclusivity is the way to go when it comes to students with disability, the question surrounding the resourcing of schools has resurfaced.
Are schools actually equipped to cater for these students? According to data from the AEU’s 2017 State Of Our Schools survey, 87 per cent of principals reported having to shift funding from other parts of their school budget to assist students with disability.
In addition, 96 per cent of principals reported having students with disability at their school, and 76 per cent said they don’t have the resources to meet their needs.
AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe, slammed Hanson’s comments on Channel 7s Sunrise, but said there’s a resource gap which needs to be addressed.
“These children need to be in our schools and they need to have access to the programs, but one of the key issues is the issue of resource gaps and making sure that we do have specialist teachers and support staff for them,” she told Sunrise.
“In many instances these resource gaps have meant that schools can’t have the programs that they need and that does place a burden, but what I do not accept from Pauline, is the statement that they should not be in our schools.”
Wyatt, whose organisation also provides professional development for teachers, says he doesn’t believe resourcing is “at a level where it would be ideal”.
“… a lot of schools struggle with finding the resourcing to effectively address the needs of lots of kids, not just kids on the spectrum, but indeed kids on the spectrum as well,” he says.
Hills however, who has worked in a broad range of school environments, says funding isn’t the only answer we should be looking towards.
“Funding – you know, that’s the eternal question isn’t it?” she says.
“I don’t know. You can throw as much funding as you want at it, if you don’t have equipped teachers, and committed teachers, and philosophy, I don’t know that it all gels together well.”
She says regardless of the size of a school or the funding behind it, strong leadership is immensely important.
“My experience has been everywhere from small country schools three hours west of the coastline, to large state high schools, to private [schools].
“I think it depends on the leadership and where they prioritise those things,” Hill says.
“I learnt the most out west in a small country school where there was no special education department, and one of my daughters had a little girl with Down syndrome in her class.
“There was no other place to put her, the teachers were young graduates and they read and learnt and got training, and were supported.
“I believe she’s a high school captain at that school this year. So I think that’s really powerful,” she says.
“I think sometimes when you can’t do something, you have to think of ways around it.
“And I’ve seen everything from that model, to the model where there’s a building at the back of the school with a big fence around it, and all the kids are put in there.
“It just depends on the leadership of the school by and large, I think.”
Ingrid Harrington, senior lecturer in Inclusive Education and Psychology at the University of New England says there’s a lot of international evidence that indicates good inclusive education practices involve a range of aspects.
“When you take it into more of a micro level in the classroom, what the teacher needs to do is differentiate the curriculum and introduce alternative curriculum where possible; apply a universal design of learning, use creative information technologies to access the different learning needs, have individual education plans that really target the individual needs and have an overall focus on quality teaching for all students,” she says.
But she acknowledges this can be easier said than done.
“We do know there are a lot of existing barriers to inclusion, certainly perceived by teachers, and their concerns are the very crowded curriculum and the lack of time that they have to do things, the difficulty and the time it takes to individualise [lessons for] the needs of a student who’s in groups,” she says.
She says a lack of training, resources and support from the school are also common complaints among teachers trying to do better for their students with disability.
“Research has consistently shown that without effective leadership for inclusive education, success is going to be really, really difficult,” she says.
“So whoever is the principal of the school is really significant. And they must be openly supporting of inclusion and to support their staff.”
Equally, she says teachers must have positive beliefs and attitudes.
“You can’t have a teacher walking into a classroom with a really negative attitude towards inclusion and expect students then to be included.
“So the teacher needs to believe that all students are capable of learning, and that’s a really big one for teachers.”
She also says teachers need to be allowed time to plan, attend training and develop resources, and that dialogue must be open between teachers and families.
“Family is really important. The family must be involved and is a really essential element for inclusive education.
“Schools, on the whole, do a good job of including home and family because they realise every child is complicated. Every child is an individual and we need to work together.”
“The voice of the child has to be heard,” Harrington also adds, and Wyatt agrees.
“The biggest thing we say to all teachers that we work with is the best way to support a kid on the spectrum is to go and talk to that kid,” Wyatt says.
“And a lot of the problems that Senator Hanson brings up – which I don’t think are really problems but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt – could be solved or could be made better by really coming alongside these kids – leveraging their strengths, leveraging what they’re interested in, into the classroom.
“And I think teachers should be empowered to do that, empowered to talk to these kids, get to know them and really come alongside them to help promote their strengths.”