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‘She is cared for and feels that she belongs’: what parents think of special schools

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has shared its final report. In this series, we unpack what the commission’s 222 recommendations could mean for a more inclusive Australia.

On Wednesday, the chair of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), Kurt Fearnley, spoke passionately about the need to end segregation of Australians with disabilities, particularly in schools. “This is the way we build an entire country,” he said of the education system.

The disability royal commission was split over the issue of special schools.

When it handed down its report last week, three commissioners recommended special or segregated schools should be phased out by 2051. Another three said we should maintain special schools but, where practical, locate them close to mainstream schools so students can do some things together.

This feeds into a longstanding debate about the role of special schools.

Some disability groups say inclusive education is the only way to fulfil the human rights of all Australians and students with disability should be funded and supported to attend mainstream schools.

Others say students with disability need the facilities and supports of a special setting.

But what is often missing from these debates is the voices of families. In our research, we spoke to parents who have children at special schools about what they think.

Read more: Disability royal commissioners disagreed over phasing out 'special schools' – that leaves segregation on the table

What are special schools?

Special schools – sometimes called specialist schools – are for students with moderate to high learning and support needs. This includes students with intellectual disability and complex learning needs.

In Australia, special schools are run by state and territory education systems. Special schools are not homogeneous, but respond to the diverse needs of students.

Our research

Our research, recently published in the journal Support and Learning, was based on a survey of 390 parents and guardians that was initially released by the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association in 2021.

Their children attended special schools all around Australia and ranged from the first year of school to Year 12. The students had one or more disabilities, including cognitive, sensory neurological, physical and language disabilities.

Most parents are satisfied

The study found parents had high levels of satisfaction with special schools:

  • 91% of those surveyed were “extremely satisfied” or “slightly satisfied” with the educational support their child received

  • 90% said there were “extremely satisfied” or “slightly satisfied” with the school’s overall understanding of their child’s strengths and needs.

Teachers, supports and individual attention

We also asked open-ended questions to gain more understanding of parents’ views.

One of the key themes was how much parents valued the teachers’ experience and expertise at their special school. One parents told us:

The amount of experience the teachers have with teaching kids with special needs is obvious to us, as we have noticed a remarkable improvement in our child’s behaviour and learning […] They really know how to manage these kids and modify their teaching to get them to learn and participate.

Parents also spoke about the individual attention and support given to their children. They noted there was “no attempt to try a one-size-fits-all method”:

Our son’s schooling is very tailored to his learning style, from equipment to the amazing staff and their personal knowledge of our son.

Our survey respondents spoke about how their children could access physiotherapy at school, had pool sessions on site and had sensory needs catered for. They also emphasised the benefits of small classes.

Our daughter’s disability is very complex. The small classroom setting with a teacher and support team provide her with the correct level of support and attention. Our daughter would not be able to follow the ‘mainstream’ curriculum and the school supports her well with her adapted curriculum.

Safety and friends

Families also told us how their children were safe and supported socially at their special school.

[My son] is supported by behaviour intervention methods by support staff who understand his needs. He is given literacy and numeracy support as well as social support in the playground.

Another parent similarly said:

My child is safe, [she] has friends which she may not have in a mainstream school. She is cared for and feels that she belongs in her special school setting.

Read more: 70% of Australian students with a disability are excluded at school – the next round of education reforms can fix this

Parents value special schools

This study was not designed to challenge the concept of inclusive education – if parents decide a mainstream school is the best learning environment for their child, they should be able to attend their local school and be supported to do so.

But parents’ responses in our research show their strong satisfaction with special schools because they provide teaching expertise, tailored support and safe learning environments.

It is important to keep providing choice for families to enrol their child in a school that fits their needs and values.

In that way, the option to enrol your child in a special school is no different from a parent wishing to enrol their child in an independent or religious school.

Fiona Forbes, principal of Peel Language Development School WA, coauthored the journal article and survey research on which this article is based.

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