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Ending the education lottery: why the government must extend the NDIS to schools

On being asked the question, “what do you think of disability support in Australia?”, I would have to quote Gandhi’s fabled response when he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think…

The government supports an NDIS, but funding must be extended to schools. AAP/Paul Miller

On being asked the question, “what do you think of disability support in Australia?”, I would have to quote Gandhi’s fabled response when he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

While funding a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) seems a laudable attempt by the Labor Government to redress chronic inequality for a vulnerable group, an opportunity to link it to disability support in schools has been missed.

Unforgivable inequality

The current situation for Australians with a disability was reported in the 2011 Productivity Commission report. The Commission identified a system that is “underfunded, unfair, fragmented and inefficient”.

Many Australians, I am sure, would be surprised to know that any group of citizens is so poorly treated.

After all, this is a country with a fiscal balance the envy of virtually all developed economies, and a treasurer who was dubbed Finance Minister of the Year in 2011.

Many questions could be asked as to why an equitable and fair system has not been in place before, but most likely it was presumed that it already existed. But it is now clear, after Wayne Swan’s budget address, that $1 billion will be provided to the NDIS over the next four years.

Committing to the future

This is a good start. Going ahead with the instigation of such a scheme is laudable and the current government deserves to be congratulated on its commitment.

The main problem then will be not so much one of eligibility (which will be controversial) but of making the funding an absolute federal commitment, not only for four years, but for the foreseeable future.

It is reassuring that opposition leader Tony Abbott has stated he supports the NDIS and has offered bipartisan support to ensure safe passage through the government machine. But we all know that being in opposition and being in government can be very different situations for elected representatives.

A bipartisan agreement is promising but should be extended into a firm commitment. Whoever is in government should support and advance this necessary scheme well into the future. This will ensure that the NDIS can become an effective and equitable system that adopts an inclusive community approach.

A tale of two cities

Only when the NDIS is passed can the phenomenon I’ve dubbed the “Albury-Wodonga situation” be avoided. Currently, a person with a disability in one town can be treated differently to one in the other, despite the two being separated by just a few kilometres.

The situation is most noticeable in the school sector, where additional support for students who have identified special needs is funded through the respective state budgets, so students in each town have different levels of support.

How you are assessed in a particular state at a particular time dictates the level of funding you get, but usually the funding does not continue if you move across the state border.

In order to get funding, you must receive an assessment from a psychologist and this is heavily dependent on geographical location. The small New South Wales town of Dareton is a cruisy 20 minute drive to the relatively urban Victorian town of Mildura. No one thinks about the border when they get their shopping or petrol on one side or the other.

However, Dareton has limited support by the way of school counsellors or psychologists. If you need to get access to support for your son or daughter, it becomes difficult. The well-resourced centre of Mildura becomes virtually inaccessible if you are resident of NSW.

You can pay for an assessment, of course, but at close to $1,000, it’s not within the reach of many. The only time you notice that the border exists is when a bureaucratic transaction is required. Then it is not so much a border as a wall, where there are few unlocked gates. Extending the NDIS to schools can end this inequality.

There can be much anxiety and worry when support is not provided despite a young person needing assistance. Unfortunately some states (for example NSW and Victoria) still use an outdated funding model that relies on an IQ score to determine whether the finite state education resources can be used to support any given student.

There are serious ethical issues regarding this type of approach. Psychologists who assess students may find themselves being gatekeepers to resources, never mind having to justify the overall crassness of using an IQ score to determine funding, which is demeaning to all involved.

A score of one point above or below an artificially drawn line can be the difference between receiving support or not. If the student is regarded as being “too clever” by having an IQ score of, say, 76 then no extra support can be provided to the school.

Back to school

The losers here are clearly students, schools and families. But ultimately Australian society loses too by not properly supporting students with special needs who require funding to ensure education is meaningful. This is where the NDIS could make a difference.

The government has missed an opportunity to make the NDIS more expansive. Funding for students who require specialist support should be provided federally, and this should be an extension of NDIS in order to ensure maximum benefit to schools and students.

In this era of inclusive education, all students should be educated in their local school. It follows that all schools should be provided with the full level of support to provide an equitable education to all students despite disability or difficulty.

The simple way to consider this is that if a student requires additional support to access meaningful education then this should be provided. After all is this not the ethos of the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

Simply put, the government has told the disability community, if you need help then you receive it. Why should this not be extended to specialist support in schools? After all, the Australian egalitarian ethos is built on all citizens being given a fair go.