The ACT Government has released a 275-page report into the way children with "complex needs and challenging behaviours" can be accommodated in Canberra's school system.
The Schools for all Children and Young People report was released in response to an incident in April where a 10-year-old boy with autism was placed in a cage at a Canberra primary school described as a withdrawal space.
The event made international headlines and led to the dismissal of the school's principal.
The report released today found ACT public, private and independent school systems to be performing strongly overall, but said a number of challenges still existed in relation to special needs students.
The expert panel responsible for compiling the report was comprised of Emeritus Professor Anthony Shaddock, paediatrician Sue Packer and the Commissioner for Children and Young People Alasdair Roy.
Professor Shaddock said the panel spoke to or heard from 2,000 people, including teachers, parents and students.
About a quarter of teachers surveyed reported students being aggressive to peers at least once a week, with half of them calling the situations "extremely challenging".
"When we have to relocate the entire population of a school unit because two to three children are rampaging destroying everything in sight and being violent towards other staff and students... learning is disrupted and the children are frightened and probably traumatised, as are the staff," one teacher said.
"It is not OK to come to work every day wondering if you would be hit or kicked," said another.
In relation to the use of withdrawal spaces in schools, the report said there was "little explicit guidance for ACT school teachers about their obligations in relation to the use of restrictive practices such as physical restraint or seclusion".
The panel made 50 recommendations in total, and an ACT Government response shows all of them have either been agreed to, or agreed to in principle.
The Government has also committed $7 million to a suite of initiatives designed to improve school environments for children with complex needs.
About $3 million of that will go towards developing and improving withdrawal or "sensory" spaces.
Education Minister Joy Burch said the ACT's Catholic and independent schools were involved in the process and would be looking to adopt successful new strategies.
The report and the ACT Government's response are available here: http://www.det.act.gov.au/school_education/complex-needs
SOfASD's quick assessment of the report and the ACT Government's response is here: http://sofasd.org.au/d7/node/146
School counsellors – a third fewer than needed
The Shaddock review says the need to bolster trained counsellors is urgent. Photo: Michele Mossop
The ACT has at least a third fewer school counsellors than it needs to deal with rising numbers of students in crisis or acute need.
National guidelines recommend one counsellor for every 500 students.
But in the ACT that figure is one counsellor for 750 students and the ACT government has held back from committing fully to the target despite saying it had agreed to all the recommendations in the independent review into students with complex needs and challenging behaviour handed down on Wednesday.
Part of the government's formal response to the review was to "agree in principle" to adopt the 1:500 ratio but that it had "recently increased the ratio of school psychologists to students to a level that compares favourably across all Australian schools [and] in 2016 will consider options for strengthening multi-disciplinary teams who complement the work of school psychologists".
When asked to explain when the 1:500 target would be met, the Education Directorate said "the planning on these initiatives is still being undertaken".That improved ratio will be 1:733 – still well above the recommended level.
The Australian Education Union and the opposition said this was unacceptable.
AEU ACT branch secretary Glenn Fowler said "the government needs to stop dancing around the issue, and stop hiding behind its model of multi-disciplinary teams of allied professionals and others that visit school – it is not the same thing."
The union had campaigned hard to win an extra four psychologists in its enterprise bargaining negotiations but some schools had almost 1000 students and had access to a psychologist for only part of the week.
"This is unacceptable, and it is not only the AEU saying it and the NSW Coroner saying it, and psychologist associations saying it. Now Professor Shaddock and his eminent panel have recognised the need to fund and implement a ratio of 1:500 in schools," Mr Fowler said.
The Shaddock review – issued publicly on Wednesday – says the need to bolster trained counsellors on the front line of dealing with students with complex needs was urgent.
"Throughout the expert panel's consultation, the lack of capacity of school psychologists to meet student need was a consistent theme raised by many stakeholders in the public sector," the report says. .
It also found more than 30 per cent of school leaders nominated additional access to the school psychologist as one thing that would make a difference in supporting students with complex needs and challenging behaviour.
School psychologists themselves expressed extreme frustration to the expert panel, saying "they have the skills to help students but do not have the time to give them the amount of support they need".
Mr Fowler said the union supported multi-disciplinary teams in schools but he felt the government was being disingenuous in its response to the Shaddock review.
"Broadly we support that model and the great people who work within it, but it does not get the government off the hook on Tony Shaddock's recommendation."
"This is not an either/or. Let's have the multi-disciplinary teams, and let's have more school psychologists, which bring enormous clinical capacity to managing students with complex needs and challenging behaviours. The investment will pay dividends for the entire system."
Similarly, opposition education spokesman Steve Doszpot said the ACT had long been well below standards for counsellor numbers and he had little faith the situation would be turned around.
"We've heard so much from the minister, Joy Burch, in terms of additional commitments but she needs to deliver, particularly given there was a previous education review in 2009. When I visit schools across Canberra the issues surrounding the numbers of counsellors and psychologists are consistently raised with me."
"We're pleased that the government has committed to all of the recommendations of the Shaddock review but that's one thing; staff and students need actual support. I've been talking about this issue for years, it's time the government delivered."
Special-needs students deserve better support
The Shaddock Review into complex-needs students and how Canberra schools can better accommodate them was never going to be a straight-forward exercise. It was, after all, sparked by revelations last April that an autistic boy had been locked in a 2m by 2m metal cage at a Canberra primary school. The shocking incident made headlines nationwide, and it later emerged that the the decision to build the cage was made by the school's principal – in a policy vacuum regarding the appropriate care and guardianship of special needs students and without the Education and Training Directorate's knowledge.
The principal was immediately removed from her post, and Education Minister Joy Burch announced not one but two inquires: the first specifically examining the cage incident and the second investigating the adequacy or otherwise of the education system's approach to children with a disability.
The cage inquiry attributed blame almost entirely to the principal, which was a not entirely unexpected outcome given community anger and the political heat that was directed at Ms Burch. The very fact that she cast a wider net implied, however, that the ACT education system may not have been treating special-needs students with the required care and attention.
So it has proved, with Professor Shaddock and his co-reviewers, pediatrician Dr Sue Packer and ACT Children and Young People Commissioner Alasdair Roy, making 50 wider-ranging recommendations. They include, among other things, the implementation of new legal, policy and procedural frameworks, extra funding for training and specialist support staff, and of course "positive behavioural interventions and support".
The sector's reluctance to embrace the wider integration of special-needs students appears to derive in part from the muddied lines of authority that have developed in the ACT since the decision to grant individual schools greater autonomy. A line from a 2008 Education and Training policy document that ACT schools are "… required to make reasonable adjustments for students with disability" illustrates that laissez-faire approach. Specific guidance and information on students with disability in the senior secondary has been ever harder to locate.
That an education system widely regarded as one of Australia's most progressive and innovative (with consistently high scholastic achievements to match) should have shortcomings of the sort identified in the Shaddock review is concerning. Integrating students with a disability into the wider school community is hugely challenging, but it's not as if the ACT is a pioneer in this endeavour – or even that this is a recent phenomenon.
The review also noted a "cautious and sometimes defensive approach to policy and practice within the education sectors" occasioned by the high level of media attention given to issues in individual schools.
That effective education policy development has been held back by fears that bureaucratic ineptitude may come to public notice will alarm many Canberrans. The government's acceptance of all 50 of the panel's recommendation, and its decision to commit $7 million towards their full implementation is welcome, therefore. Without strong corrective action, the ACT's reputation for high all-round educational excellence stands every chance of being lost.
Teachers and principals left on their own to manage the most challenging students
An independent review into students with complex needs and challenging behaviours has called for major reform of the territory's schooling system, including an urgent review of funding for students with special needs, training for teachers and aides on the front line and far greater support for principals trying to balance staff safety with potentially violent student behaviours.
The review, headed by University of Canberra disability education expert Professor Tony Shaddock and including specialist paediatrician Dr Sue Packer and ACT Children and Young People Commissioner Alasdair Roy, provides 50 recommendations among nearly 280 pages of findings.
The cage in a Canberra school which led to the independent Photo: Supplied
It has called for all schools to put students first, to focus on positive behaviour support and to prevent challenging behaviour arising.
The government has agreed with all of the recommendations – agreeing in-principle where recommendations call for cooperation with non-government schools or independent authorities.
ACT Education Minister Joy Burch announced $7 million in new funding for the area on Wednesday - $3 million of which has been earmarked to "enhance and develop sensory spaces in schools."
Emeritus Professor Anthony Shaddock and ACT Education Minister Joy Burch have agreed on 50 recommendations arising from the review into students with complex needs and challenging behaviours.
Ms Burch said that with almost 3000 students, or 4 per cent of total enrolments, identified as special needs, she accepted "opportunities to improve" highlighted in the review and looked forward to reporting on progress made in systems and supports for these student.
The recommendations include the ACT Government develop a legislative framework to regulate the use of all restrictive practices in schools.
The panel warned there was currently "a general lack of documentation, monitoring and oversight of the use of restrictive practices in ACT Schools.Transparency and accountability are vital to reduce the use of restrictive practice and to avoid situations where a well-intentioned response is inappropriate or becomes abusive".
The review recognised that school staff were sometimes exposed to risk from students.
"(Schools) have a duty to protect the safety of staff and others in the workplace, through appropriate risk management. Employers must not allow staff to be subjected to violence without taking measures to minimise this risk, regardless of their dedication or willingness to tolerate this."
The report made just one direct reference to the use of a cage in a Canberra school which created headlines around the nation when it was revealed in April – and which sparked the review being called.
The reference was not unsympathetic to the principal at the heart of the matter despite the directorate removing her from the school and an internal government inquiry blaming her as the sole instigator of the cage.
"Without commenting on the individual circumstances of this case, which have not been investigated by the panel, it should be noted that the education and training directorate does not have a clear policy regarding the escalation of behavioural issues that cannot be resolved by the Network Student Engagement Teams, and it is not clear what further support can be provided in these circumstances.
"A number of school leaders commented to the panel that ultimately they felt that they were left alone to solve the more difficult problems, without the resources to properly meet the needs of some students with the most complex needs and challenging behaviour.
"There are currently no formal oversight mechanisms for decisions about restrictive practices, which are left to the judgement of individual teachers and school leaders."
The review said increasing school autonomy – where principals were required to make complex decisions about almost all areas of their school - needed to be accompanied by "effective central policy making, oversight, evidence-based advice and timely support as there will be times where a school may struggle to meet the complex needs and challenging behaviour of a particular student or students from within its existing resources."
The review recommended all schools provide withdrawal spaces for students with sensory and other complex needs so they could reduce their exposure to stimulation in a safe environment.
But these spaces had to be designed and monitored carefully "to ensure consistency with human rights and discrimination obligations and that they support students' behaviour and learning."
More broadly, the review recommended the ACT meet the nationally recommended standard of 1 school counsellor for every 500 students. Currently in the ACT that ratio is 1: 750.
The common practice of suspending students for extreme behaviour was actually increasing their risk of disengagement with the panel calling for students to be suspended "in-school" with temporary additional staffing for support.
It called for an urgent review of the Student Centred Appraisal of Need funding model, in particular the appropriateness of the eligibility criteria, adequacy of funding and impact on parents, carers and students.
It also called for the government to fund a longitudinal study into post-school outcomes for students with complex needs and challenging behaviour, noting that many were cast out without a safety net once they left the school network.
In an effort to ensure report recommendations were followed through, the review recommended an advisory group be established to monitor progress on the implementation of review recommendations across the territory and report annually for the next three years.
Ms Burch said Professor Shaddock had been appointed to this advisory group and she would receive three-monthly reports on progress.