School cage scandal reforms beset by failed deadlines

Katie Burgess

Changes recommended after the 2015 boy-in-a-cage scandal have again been the subject of time blowouts, a delay ACT Education minister Yvette Berry blamed on the need for collaboration across several arms of government.

An expert panel called for wide-ranging reforms to how schools handled children with complex or challenging behaviours, after a 10-year-old boy with autism was locked inside a cage at a Canberra school.

But as early as June last year, bureaucrats had trouble meeting the implementation schedule.

In March, Fairfax Media reported the reforms were months behind schedule.

A May report into the progress of the three-year rollout, which was only tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly last week, showed of the 49 recommendations made in the Shaddock review, 15 were still outstanding in ACT public schools, with some up to a year overdue. The Catholic education system was yet to sign off on 11 recommendations.

One outstanding recommendation, which should have been implemented in December 2016, called on the ACT Education Directorate, Catholic Education and ACT Independent School to develop practical resources to help schools engaged effectively with the parents or carers of students with complex needs and challenging behaviours.

Another recommendation, which should have been implemented by July 2016, was that the Education Directorate develop a "coherent" strategy for providing alternate education programs or flexible learning options for students at risk of disengaging from secondary school.

That strategy was still being finalised, although education officials visited alternate education sites in Victoria in May to help develop a model for Canberra. Principals also met in May to discuss the rollout with professional learning scheduled to take place in June.

A recommendation that each school system provide alternative options to out-of-school suspension where appropriate and possible, including in-school suspensions with temporary additional staffing or support was originally due in December 2016 but had a revised delivery date of September 2016. 

The report said the current suspension policy was being rewritten with a focus on early intervention and prevention.

Other recommendations agreed to but not yet fully implemented include:

  • The government ensure primary school students with very challenging behaviours can access education with appropriate behavioural support and therapy. The original deadline was November 2016 and the revised due date is December 2017;
  • That the Education Directorate publish policies about the placement of students in learning support units, covering timing, eligibility criteria, and rights of review. The original deadline was May 2016, and the revised due date is September 2017; 
  • That the Education Directorate publish information about support and education options for students at risk in  public schools, including the location of programs, operational philosophy, curriculum offered, criteria for enrolment, and referral process. The original deadline was July 2016 and the revised deadline was September 2016; 
  • That the Education Directorate release the report on the evaluation of early childhood schools and Koori preschools. The original deadline was December 2016 and the revised deadline was September 2017.

In the Assembly last week, Ms Berry attributed the lagging implementation of some recommendations hinged on the involvement of several government directorates. 

"While progress continues in implementing the remaining expert panel recommendations, the program acknowledges a number of recommendations depend on cross government initiatives or other reform projects currently being undertaken by the directorate, including resourcing of schools through the Student Resource Allocation model. This is particularly relevant in meeting the needs of students with disability," Ms Berry said.

She said since the implementation began 18 months ago, it had already had a positive impact on the culture within ACT schools.

"As one parent said of the support they have received: 'I have really felt that everybody including teachers and specialists are working with us, with the interests of my daughter at the centre. I think that this is because we all understand what part we all play. My daughter says that she thinks everyone is listening to what is important for her'," Ms Berry told the Assembly.

Recommendations that were ticked off during the May reporting period included the ACT government developing a legislative framework to regulate the use of restrictive practices in ACT schools and all schools reviewing their procedures on handling children with complex needs and challenging behaviours. 


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