HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [10.04 pm]: I rise tonight to talk about the intersection between education and disability. I need to talk about that because I am dealing with a number of quite distressed parents at the moment who have been in contact with my office raising a series of concerns about their children. I start by pointing out that article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises the right of people with disability to access education without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity. It is an internationally recognised fundamental human right. Despite this right, many children with disability continue to face barriers to accessing and obtaining a safe, quality and inclusive school education within Western Australia. This is occurring across a range of types of disability. Tonight, I want to focus specifically on some of the experiences of children and young people who are living with developmental disabilities, including those with an autism spectrum disorder or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, psychosocial disabilities and those who have mental health concerns more broadly, and the particular barriers that they face in accessing safe, quality and inclusive education that is responsive to their particular needs.
I am focusing on this cohort because I have been contacted by a number of families who are desperate for help and to have their voices heard. Their stories are all really different and their children’s needs are different. I have noticed some underlying similarities in that they have all been failed by the education system. When parents have tried to have these failings acknowledged and addressed, they keep meeting barrier after barrier. A lot of the time those barriers look very similar. Their cases highlight the importance and value of positive behavioural support and the lasting traumatic impact that the use of seclusion and restraint can have on children. Their cases have also highlighted the importance of schools being willing and able to work with families and to acknowledge when they get things wrong. That is a really important principle. Also, interagency cooperation is particularly important when it comes to the interaction with mental health services. We also clearly need more accountability for how schools support and respond to children who have been identified as being at risk, particularly those who have mental health concerns.
What happens at school, or in some cases what does not happen at school, really matters; it is incredibly important. I note the recently released report by the Western Australian Ombudsman titled “Preventing Suicide by Children and Young People 2020”, particularly the findings around school attendance. The Ombudsman considered the cases of 79 children and young people who had died by suicide. This work added to his 2014 investigation that examined the deaths of 36 young people. The findings included that 61 per cent of those children who were enrolled at a public school during the last year of their life were not regularly attending school and were considered to be at severe educational risk, according to the Department of Education’s policies.
The disability royal commission is providing an important and very much needed opportunity to bring to light the experiences of children with disability in the education system. Evidence presented at the royal commission hearings has clearly demonstrated that students with disability are experiencing systemic failures and human rights breaches in schools across the country. It is not just an issue in Western Australia; this is an issue more broadly within Australia. That includes high levels of exclusion, bullying and a lack of supports and reasonable adjustments. A range of stakeholder and advocacy groups have provided evidence to the commission. They talk about the ongoing failure of education systems to comply with human rights obligations and national disability standards. They also talk about the failure of complaints processes to adequately acknowledge or resolve the issues. The inadequacy of complaints mechanisms is a significant issue.
This evidence mirrors the concerns that have been consistently brought to my attention—that is, reasonable adjustments and supports are not being made to meet the needs of these students; too often families are not being listened to; and students’ privacy and confidentiality is not respected.
I have spoken before about my concerns around the use of seclusion and restraint in schools and the lack of transparency and accountability around this practice. I have also spoken about my concerns around the behaviour policies, in particular blanket suspension and exclusion policies that do not take into account the context of children and young people’s behaviour. I appreciate that the Minister for Education’s view on this is different from mine. I still maintain serious concerns. According to the recently released Department of Education annual report, the number of students expelled from public schools in Western Australia has increased more than eightfold since 2017— that is, 65 last year, compared with eight in 2017—and 1 906 more students were suspended in 2019 than in the previous year. It is important that members are aware that the royal commission is also looking into that issue. To quote the opening address at the royal commission’s Brisbane hearing last month —
We have heard many stories of students whose needs are not being met, who become disengaged, frustrated or anxious. This can cause behaviours perceived by some as ‘challenging’ and that can then lead to a disciplinary response, including suspension, sometimes exclusion, and expulsions.
It went on to say that that can impact on the student’s engagement in education over the long term.
I have a personal issue around this. I have been up-front. I was a very troubled teenager. I had trauma in my life and mental distress, and as a result I had a lot of problems at school. I think that if the school had known what was happening in my life, maybe I could have received the help that I desperately needed at the time and perhaps I would not have lost 15 years of my life through being incredibly unwell. Therefore, I find it incredibly disappointing that the inadequate response to vulnerable students is still an issue so many years down the track.
I want to commend those families who have contacted my office. I acknowledge their fearless advocacy for their children. I also commend those teachers and school staff who are doing amazing work in this space. The families who have contacted my office also acknowledge that there are some incredible teachers and staff who continue to go above and beyond to ensure that their students’ needs are met. However, the system as a whole for these families is failing their children. They are talking strongly about the need for systemic change.
We need to remember that schools, at their core, are about equipping young people for their future lives. There is a vital link between education and the full development of an individual’s potential, as well as their sense of dignity and self-worth. Decades of research demonstrate that all children, both those with disability and those without disability, experience better educational achievement when they can learn together in a safe and inclusive environment. Barriers in education have profound impacts on the life course and mental health of students with a disability. That includes the transition to higher education and employment.
I want to end with a quote from Dr Kerri Mellifont, QC, the senior counsel assisting the royal commission. She said —
When a student does not feel safe, does not feel included, supported and valued, then the potential of that young person may never be unlocked. That is not only a loss to that student, but a loss to all of us.