Separate curriculum for students with disability no good for anyone

A separate curriculum for students with disability would be discriminatory and go against the research. Shutterstock

The review of the Australian curriculum raises major concerns about access to a quality curriculum for students with disability. Under the guise of creating greater inclusivity, the review recommends a separate curriculum for some students with disability.

A separate curriculum is discriminatory

The Australian curriculum has been at the centre of public attention since its inception, but the needs of students with disability have been largely absent from the debate. The recent Review of the National Curriculum states:

an area in which the Reviewers are convinced the Australian Curriculum is manifestly deficient is its inclusiveness and accommodation of the learning needs of students with disability.

There is an extensive discussion of issues related to students with disability. Recommendation 10 states that the national curriculum authority, ACARA, should:

improve the inclusivity of the Australian Curriculum by more appropriately addressing the needs of students with disability, particularly those working towards the Foundation level.

This aspect of the review was widely reported in the media with an implicit acceptance of its accuracy. It is so commonplace for people with disability to miss out on services and resources that it is easy to accept that this is also the case with the Australian curriculum.

Providing something “extra” and “different” to people with disability is often seen as a benevolent and appropriate response. While there is scope for improvement in the inclusiveness of the Australian curriculum for all students, the direction the review proposes is a problematic step backwards.

A core argument presented in the review, described by the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association in their submission, is:

If the curriculum is ‘inclusive’ it must include curriculum for all learners including those at the pre-intentional stage of development, as they too attend our Australian schools.

Part of the argument here is that the educational needs of some students are so different, due to their developmental stage, that an age-appropriate approach to education isn’t relevant or beneficial. “Pre-intentional” is not a cognitive developmental stage. Being intentional is part of our human condition. For some students, alternative ways of expressing their intentions may be required.

Another statement that needs further scrutiny is the assertion that a substantial proportion of students with a disability are achieving at a prior-to-foundation level - as outlined in the Initial Australian Government Response to the review:

it is concerning that there is a significant group of students for whom there is no explicit curriculum as they are yet to achieve the Foundation level.

Accurate and reliable data about the education of students with disability is lacking, and the exercise on the National Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability is still in partial implementation.

Therefore, actual evidence supporting this assertion is unclear. Do these students exist at this level or is it that they haven’t achieved these learning outcomes due to various barriers, including ineffective instruction? The real question is, why do students need to achieve these learning outcomes before they can gain access to age-appropriate curriculum?

Ensuring the rights of students with disability

So what should be the starting point for a discussion aimed at ensuring access to a quality and flexible curriculum for all students? The review doesn’t mention the requirements of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Australia. Nor does it refer to the Disability Standards for Education (2005) under the Disability Discrimination Act (1992).

These legislative frameworks require an inclusive curriculum for students with disability based on the principle of “on the same basis as” other students. Any separate curriculum for students with disability would violate their rights.

Students with disability can engage in the curriculum

Decades of research have demonstrated that students with intellectual disability can learn academic content. Students with moderate to severe intellectual disability are able to acquire skills in literacy, maths and science within the context of addressing their personal needs.

Often the process of teaching students with intellectual disability academic skills requires more intensive, systematic instruction and opportunities for students to generalise skills. This means we should be strategic about the curricular priorities by focusing on what is most important to learn for the students’ current educational setting and future life. For some students, a greater emphasis might be needed on acquiring skills in the “general capabilities” areas, such as literacy, numeracy, personal and social skills, and information technology skills.

Don’t perpetuate low expectations

We know from international experience that separate curricula and programs reinforce low expectations. The recommendation for a separate curriculum for students with intellectual disability hearkens back to a developmental approach, which as early as 1980 was universally rejected as ineffective for promoting positive school outcomes and only reinforces low expectations for achievement.

Students with intellectual disability do not need to achieve pre-foundation level outcomes before they have the right to access age-appropriate curriculum. This relegates them to a school career focused on content only appropriate for infants and preschool age children (this could mean a Year 10 student sorting shapes). Denying these students access to age-appropriate learning does not promote their dignity or positive school outcomes.

The review of the Australian curriculum is an opportunity to look back at what has been achieved and find a progressive way forward in an inclusive curriculum for all. Inclusivity hasn’t been a prominent principle in the development of the curriculum and resources designed to respond to student diversity have followed a retrospective, add-on approach. However, this doesn’t minimise their value and potential in upholding the dignity of students with disability to access a robust, meaningful and personalised curriculum on the same basis as their peers.