Julius loves his mainstream school. Does Australia still need special schools?
29th September 2023

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When Lilian Meaker was three, no kindergarten would take her. The little girl had survived meningitis at eight weeks old, leaving her with severe brain damage.

“They took her off life support and instead she decided to breathe,” her mother, Margaret Meaker, says. “She’s amazing.”

Margaret Meaker (left) with her daughters Lilian (right) and Ella Meaker at Lilian’s home. Margaret says special school changed “all our lives, setting Lili up for success”.Credit: Kate Geraghty

But a few years on, the only kinder she could find to care for Lili was a pilot program at Macquarie University run by teacher Dr Coral Kemp, where children with disabilities learnt alongside others.

“Lili couldn’t speak so I thought they’d send us away too but Coral said, ‘Every child has a way of communicating. We just have to find Lili’s’,” Meaker says. “That’s special education.”

The disability royal commission has called for a national road map to make schools more inclusive, after hearing harrowing stories of children with disabilities shunted out of the mainstream system, despite their right to a public education.

But, in their final report, commissioners are split over the future of special schools themselves, which some see as segregation. Three out of six commissioners have called for separate, specialised schools to be phased out altogether by 2051, and no new enrolments from 2032.

It would be a seismic shift in Australian education, demanding a radical reconfiguration of funding, teacher training and infrastructure.

Some research shows children with disabilities go on to better outcomes, including employment, after mainstream schooling. Academic outcomes for the students without disability learning alongside them are more mixed, but a 2021 review of research found positive social effects such as increased tolerance.

Kemp has followed Lili and the rest of her mixed kinder cohort through their school years into adulthood.

“They’ve all gone on to success, from Paralympics to acting,” she says. “I know inclusion works.”

Lili in a special integrated pilot kinder program for kids with disabilities in the early 2000s, now run by STAR Limited.

But Kemp expects there will always be a need for some special schools for those with the most complex needs.

Though Meaker wanted Lili to stay in mainstream classes, her medical needs made a special school the right fit. There Lili thrived, learning to sign and making friends. Today, the 25-year-old lives in her own house with two ex-classmates.

“In an ideal world, we’d have inclusion, but this isn’t an ideal world,” Kemp says. “These kids need tailored support.”

Inclusive education advocate Catia Malaquias says no one is suggesting special schools should be shut down tomorrow.

Julius Panetta in Year 8 attends a mainstream high school and loves it as much as he did primary school.Credit: Stefan Gosetti

“There will need to be a transition,” she says. “But until that commitment is made at a policy level, the easier option will always be to send kids with disabilities somewhere else.”

Malaquias’ son Julius, who has Down syndrome, has always attended mainstream schools with his sisters. But when he reached high school, Malaquias was warned the “gap” between him and other students would be too great and he wouldn’t have any friends.

“There was this doom scenario,” she says. “But Julius loves high school as much as primary school. I want my child to live a life where he’s always part of his community.”

Inclusive education lecturer Dr Kim Davies says phasing out special schools isn’t politically feasible as it will take away parental choice and distract from much-needed improvements to inclusion at mainstream schools where most kids with disabilities are already taught.

Catia Malaquias says she wants Julius to live a life where he is always part of the community.Credit: Stefan Gosatti

Australian Special Education Principals Association president Matthew Johnson says if special schools are considered segregation, then by the same logic, single-sex, religious and high-fee private schools are segregated too.

“I’m terrified to think of my kids being thrown back into the mainstream, that [are] already not coping, for a thought experiment,” Johnson says. “It should be about what the kids need.”

Research has found fewer than 40 per cent of Australian teachers feel equipped to teach kids with special needs, and the sector is currently struggling with a teacher shortage.

“But teachers don’t need any extra qualification to teach special ed,” Kemp says. “And there’s no incentive to get one.”

With Jewel Topsfield

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