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The Gonski Report – Implications for students with learning disabilities

The report provides substantial evidence of the significant gap in and across Australian schools between the highest and lowest performing students....

The final report of the Review of Funding for Schooling, chaired by David Gonski, was recently submitted to the Federal Government and subsequently released for public comment and consideration. The review of funding arrangements was initiated with the specific purpose of developing a system that would be viewed as transparent, fair, financially sustainable and ultimately effective in promoting excellent educational outcomes for all Australian students. As part of this process the review team took into consideration issues of equity and disadvantage, evaluating the implications of the current model on disadvantaged students, including those with a disability.

 

It is frequently noted that education has the potential to transform people’s lives. Gonski makes this point early in the report, suggesting that:

 

High-quality schooling fosters the development of creative, informed and resilient citizens who are able to participate fully in a dynamic and globalised world. It also leads to many benefits for individuals and society, including higher levels of employment and earnings, and better health, longevity, tolerance and social cohesion (p. xiii).

 

Ensuring that all Australian students, including those with disability, gain access to high-quality schooling is an important target for both Federal and State Governments.

 

The report provides substantial evidence of the significant gap in and across Australian schools between the highest and lowest performing students. This performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, particularly those with highly successful schooling systems, such as Finland, Canada, Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Significantly, many of Australia’s lowest performing students are not even meeting minimum standards of achievement. The strong correlation between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage is frequently well-documented and was clearly identified within the report findings.

 

Educational Disadvantage

Evidence from both research and practice suggest that there are five key factors of disadvantage currently impacting on educational outcomes in Australia. At the student level, these factors include: socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, and disability. Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, fall within the disability category. At a school level, remoteness is viewed as an additional factor impacting on the educational outcomes achieved.

 

As a consequence of these findings, the panel identified the issue of equity as an important consideration if Australian educational standards are to be raised. The panel suggested that, in order to achieve greater equity, schools must have access to the resources necessary to cater for both the individual and collective needs of disadvantaged students. In addition, the provision of appropriate training to school personnel on the use and effectiveness of these resources was viewed as critical.

 

Factors Affecting the Impact of Disadvantage

 

The data collected from all states and territories demonstrates that the impact of disadvantage varies. For example, although there is a strong correlation between students’ socioeconomic background and their levels of achievement, effective instruction and additional resources will frequently reduce the impact. Unfortunately, some students experience multiple factors of disadvantage, sometimes referred to as compound disadvantage, which tends to result in significantly greater functional impact. An Indigenous student with a home language other than English, living in a remote (low SES) area of Western Australia is exposed to compound disadvantage. The same student may also have an underlying (perhaps undiagnosed) disability, a disadvantage that has been overshadowed by the existing – more obvious – factors. These students are, not surprisingly, at an even higher risk of poor academic performance, and require significantly greater levels of support to reach their full educational potential.

 

A final factor relates to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that the composition of a school’s population has a significant impact on the outcomes achieved by all students at the school. This is particularly significant in Australia in light of evidence that some parts of the schooling system are becoming increasingly stratified according to socioeconomic status.

 

Students with disability120

 

Education providers in all sectors are required by law to make reasonable educational adjustments for students with disability so that they can participate in schooling on the same basis as students without disability. There are significant differences in the levels of adjustment required for students with disability. Not all disabilities limit the educational achievement of students. Some students with disability may not require any adjustment. Other students, with minor or more significant educational adjustment, can achieve the same outcomes as students without disability.

 

In 2010, an Expert Advisory Group (in response to an agreement reached by the Council of Australian Governments – COAG) developed a model for collecting nationally consistent data on students with disability and the level of adjustment provided for them. All states and territories agreed to a trial of this model and the collection of data during the 2011 school year. Students with identified learning disabilities were included in this trial. The information collected included data relating to the level of adjustment provided, on an individual basis, to ensure access and participation. These levels were identified as being consistent with one of four categories: no adjustments; supplementary adjustments; substantial adjustments; and, extensive adjustments. Additional information is provided in the following table:

 

Varying Levels of Adjustment for Students with Disability

Category/LevelProvided when… Examples of adjustments
no adjustments…students with a disability do not require any personalised adjustments.No specific strategies beyond the resources and services readily available for all students.
supplementary adjustments…there is an assessed need to provide specific strategies and resources over and above those already available within the school.Modified curricula and instruction, limited specialist teacher support, assistive technology, external support, separate supervision and extra time.
substantial adjustments…students have ongoing significant support needs, although they can generally access and participate in learning programs and school activities with the provision of extra resources and adult assistance.Extensive and frequent individual instruction, close supervision, a highly structured learning environment, regular visiting teacher, resources to address mobility, communication and safety needs.
extensive adjustments…sustained levels of intensive support are required at all times to address the individual nature and acute impact of the student’s severe disability.Constant and vigilant supervision, complex personal care and hygiene assistance, associated support for medical conditions, mobility and communication.

 

 

In the majority of cases, students with learning disabilities were provided with either no adjustments or supplementary adjustments, although feedback from schools suggested that in cases where no adjustments are provided it is frequently due to a lack of available resources rather than as a consequence of a deliberate choice.

 

One of themes presented within the report is that every school should be appropriately resourced to support every child and every teacher must expect the most from every child.

 

 

Effective Strategies for Improving Outcomes

 

The report examines current national and international research evidence relating to successful teaching and learning practices for disadvantaged students. A recurring finding points to the importance of teacher quality in improving outcomes for students experiencing disadvantage. High-quality teachers develop differentiated practices to cater for the variety of learning needs within their classroom, and are flexible in adapting and applying the curriculum in a way that is relevant to disadvantaged students. They diagnose problems with the development of skills at an early stage and select the best intervention strategies depending on the individual learning needs of each student.

 

The OECD (2011) argues that direct and student-oriented instruction methods are most effective for teaching disadvantaged students. Similarly, the Productivity Commission (2011) suggests that specialist components on appropriate teaching strategies for disadvantaged students be incorporated in to all teacher training courses, and that pre-service teachers should be given more opportunities to undertake their practicum in disadvantaged schools.

 

Beyond initial teacher training, skilled teaching is reliant on ongoing professional learning in both subject matter and pedagogy. Building the capacity of teachers and school leaders through engagement in quality professional learning is a key to improving the learning outcomes of disadvantaged students (Dinham, 2008).

 

Nationally Consistent Data on Students with Disability

 

In order to better support disadvantaged students the review committee recommended that supplementary loadings be paid in addition to the applicable schooling resource standard per primary or secondary student. In cases where students are experiencing multiple factors of disadvantage, additional funding for all areas of disadvantage should be provided. The review committee made it clear, however, that there were a number of statistical and definitional issues preventing the development and rapid implementation of this funding stream for students with disability. They were strongly of the view that this should be addressed urgently, prior to any new arrangements being finalised. It was felt that collecting more extensive and accurate data on both the incidence of disability in Australian schools, and the level and cost of educational adjustment required, will provide a good basis to inform the development of future funding arrangements for students with disability.

 

 

Review Recommendation (26)

The Australian Government and state and territory governments, in consultation with the non-government sector, should, as a matter of priority, progress work on collecting nationally consistent data on students with disability and the level of educational adjustments provided to them to enable national data to be collected and reported from January 2013.

 

 

Students with disability entitlement

 

Under the panel’s proposed funding arrangements, all schools with students with disability (regardless of sector) would be allocated the applicable schooling resource standard per student. The school would also attract any other applicable loadings, for example, due to location or other educational disadvantage. For some students with a learning disability, this recurrent funding may be sufficient to enable equitable participation. However, for many students with learning disabilities, additional funding is needed to make the necessary adjustments for them to participate effectively in schooling.

 

The review also examined the role of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, suggesting that it may cover the costs of certain goods and services used to support students with a severe disability, in the event that these goods and services are also required for everyday living. It is yet to be determined as to whether or not the NDIS will be available for students experiencing severe functional impact as a consequence of their learning disability. Initial reading of the document does suggest that these students and their families will be eligible to apply for funds through the NDIS.

 

 

 

Review Recommendation (27)

The National Schools Resourcing Body should work with the Australian Government and state and territory governments in consultation with the non-government sector to develop an initial range for a student with disability entitlement. The entitlement should be:

• provided in addition to the per student resource standard amounts

• set according to the level of reasonable educational adjustment required to allow the student to participate in schooling on the same basis as students without disability

• fully publicly funded and applied equally to students in all schooling sectors.

 

 

The Review of Funding for Schools is an important and potentially innovative blueprint for much-needed change in the Australian educational landscape. The desire by the panel to highlight the need for greater equity in our schooling system is evident throughout the report.

 

The recommendations discussed in this article may finally result in improved opportunities for students with learning disabilities. Up until this time the provision of support has been exceptionally poor with very few Australian schools offering appropriate intervention and accommodation. There remains some ambiguity as to the level of support likely to be available to students with disability generally but it is hoped that students with learning disabilities are not, yet again, removed from the equation and placed in the ‘too hard’ basket.

 

Mandy Nayton

DSF Executive Officer

 

For a full copy of the report and all references please visit:

http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/ReviewofFunding/Documents/Review-of-Funding-for-Schooling-Final-Report-Dec-2011.pdf