'I’m a special school teacher. Here’s why Disability Royal Commission is wrong to want us shut down.'

This post contains graphic descriptions.

I’m a teacher and one of the cardinal rules of the profession is that you’re not supposed to have favourites. And I don’t, but there is one student in my class this year whose progress makes my heart swell. Like all of my students, this student has a profound intellectual disability. He has ASD, he is non-speaking and in order to be safe, he requires 1:1 support and supervision all day, every day.

This year he has made extraordinary progress. He's taken tentative steps towards socialising with his peers, he has been gesturing to the toilet when he needs to go and with lots of support, he has even been able to leave the school for an excursion for the first time in his schooling career. These would seem like very modest achievements for a normally developing 14-year-old. But for him, it’s been monumental. He knows he’s making progress and he’s proud of himself. As he should be.

Even though he has had a great year, he still sometimes defecates in the playground or smears faeces on classroom walls. He masturbates openly when he gets excited. Earlier in the year, he choked one of his classmates with his hands when they got too close. He has caused serious bodily injuries to staff and students at school. His huge progress doesn’t change the fact that he lives with a significant disability which causes him to regularly behave in inappropriate and dangerous ways. 

Behaviours like these are commonplace in special school settings. And I don’t write this article to shame or ‘other’ my students. I write it because while a lot of people have a lot of opinions about inclusion in education, not a lot of people know what the average day in a special school classroom looks like. Where you might picture students working at desks, my students often refuse to even enter a classroom. While you might think of school as a place to learn to read and write, my students are still learning to communicate, to ask for things without hurting themselves or others. When you think about disruptive behaviours in a mainstream class, you might imagine some back-chat. Disruption in my classroom looks like bloodied noses, broken windows, lockdowns and police visits.


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Because they are in a special school, my students are in a smaller class, which means less noise and sensory stimulation. There is a lower staff to student ratio, so they have adults around who know them and their needs better so they can feel safe at school. They have access to modified curriculum and resources which allow them to learn the very fundamentals of communication while their same aged peers are learning algebra or a second language. They have access to professional people who understand them in an environment (that while definitely not perfect) was designed with them in mind. They are given the time and space to learn life skills which will help them to be the best they can be in a life that by necessity, will probably look different to the lives of their peers. 

So it’s really hard to hear that the release of the final report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has sparked renewed calls for the closure of special schools. The report itself recommends the phasing out of special/segregated schools by 2051 and for no new students to be enrolled in special/segregated schools from 2032. 


This is a complex and fraught topic. The Commissioners themselves were split when it came to deciding what to recommend with regards to special schools. Because it’s hard to argue against inclusion. Harder still to argue for segregation. No one who cares about a person with an intellectual disability wants them to have less opportunities than their peers. But inclusion in the current system will mean that not only will my students get less, so will everyone else.

To be fair, the report calls for significant changes to the education system to accommodate students like mine in a mainstream setting. That would be ideal. But the education system in this country is already facing enormous challenges. You’ve read the commentary: teachers are leaving in droves and there are significantly fewer young people training to replace them. School refusal amongst students is at an all-time high, kids are disengaged, academic achievement is declining. Anyone who works in the sector knows that there are already fundamental structural and cultural issues which governments have been reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone tackle.

I understand what advocates of inclusion are saying. They believe that segregated education contributes to the devaluing of people with disability, which contributes to significantly poorer outcomes throughout their lives. They argue that the only way to force mainstream schools to adapt or improve their schools is to remove the dual system.


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That may be so. But to simply drop the highest needs students directly into classrooms that are already stretched to capacity as a means of ‘shocking’ an already broken system into improving, is the very definition of cruel and unusual.

Today, students have to meet extremely narrow guidelines to be allowed into special schools. And as a result, mainstream schools have become more inclusive that they were several decades ago. But successive governments have failed to invest to make schools places where kids of all abilities can learn. They have failed to dedicate extra resources, to adapt school environments, to train and empower school staff to work effectively with kids with disability. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t have a lot of confidence that in just 8 years, schools will be revolutionised in preparation to educate and care for students with the very highest needs. 

The more likely scenario is that these students will enter classrooms that trigger their very worst behavioural responses. That teachers will be untrained and unsupported to deal with behaviours that still shock even a seasoned veteran like me. That lots of people will get hurt in lots of ways.

I may not agree with the Commission’s recommendation, but I do agree with one thing. The status quo for people with disabilities has to change. I just hope that we don’t make life worse for our most vulnerable kids in the race to uphold a noble principle.

Feature Image: Canva.