Students with disability

Growth in numbers

There were 21,530 students with disability enrolled in Independent schools in 2016, representing 3.6 per cent of the Independent school student population. This is more than double the number of students with disability enrolled in 2006.

The number of students with disability in the sector has grown substantially over the past decade, although the numbers vary from year to year.




Growth in enrolments of student with disability in Independent schools, 2006 to 2016














Source: Australian Government Department of Education and Training

In the Independent sector, most students with disability attend regular schools although more than 4,000 – about 19 per cent of the total – attend one of the 102 special schools in the sector. This is consistent with the trend over recent decades to integrate students with disability into mainstream classrooms or special needs units in mainstream schools. Parents should be able to choose a non-mainstream educational environment if a special school is the best option for their child.

Special education provision

Special schools, including Special Assistance Schools, provide alternative educational settings for students with high-level needs and cater for students with disability, as well as students who are at risk, have behavioural difficulties, or whose needs are better met by flexible learning structures that may not be available in all mainstream schools. Special Assistance Schools make an important contribution to addressing educational disadvantage by catering for students with severe social, emotional and behavioural issues. These schools generally serve young people who are disengaged from education and whose needs are not met by mainstream education. They are often referred from community services, juvenile justice and other schools, both government and non-government. Special Assistance Schools have developed specially adapted programs and structures designed to re-engage students in education and prepare them for further training and employment.

Some mainstream Independent schools incorporate a unit on campus to cater for students with special needs because of profound hearing loss, severe language disorders, social and emotional disorders, or intellectual disability.

Many Independent schools employ specialist teachers to work with class teachers and parents to develop individual learning programs for students with learning difficulties and to assist class teachers develop strategies and materials to meet the needs of such students. Some schools employ teacher aides to work with students in class, or withdraw students from class to work with specialist teachers.

The responsibility of schools

All schools have a legal obligation to provide access to and meet the needs of students with disability. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and its associated Education Standards make it unlawful for schools to discriminate against a person on the grounds of disability, except in those circumstances where the enrolment of a student with disability would impose an unjustifiable hardship on the school.

Unjustifiable hardship depends on the particular facts of each case and therefore the precise legal obligations on schools can be unclear. The legislation and its associated education standards place open-ended obligations on schools. While this is aimed at prohibiting discrimination against students with disability, the costs faced by individual schools in taking on students with disability can be prohibitive. Unlike government or Catholic systemic schools, as autonomous entities most Independent schools cannot access support from a system authority to provide the additional resources needed. The bulk of additional costs fall on individual families and school communities.

Funding for students with disability

Students with disability in Independent schools are eligible for funding from the Australian Government and state and territory governments, although students with disability in Independent schools do not received the same level of additional funding from governments as their counterparts in government schools.

The funding differential for students with special needs between school sectors can be substantial. For students with high level needs, the gap in funding can be over $40,000 per student per year.

The new Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) funding model, in operation from 2014, includes a number of loadings to address specific areas of educational disadvantage, including disability. These loadings are to be fully publicly funded and if and when fully implemented, would provide the same amount for students with disability whether they attend government or non-government schools. Initially however, the loadings are subject to transition arrangements. The current loading is an interim amount, and does not differentiate between levels of disability, nor will Independent schools have the same capacity as system authorities to respond flexibly and target funding to needs as they arise within the sector.

Problems with the level of funding available for students with disability within the Independent school sector are compounded by inconsistencies in the definitions which determine eligibility for funding support in Australian Government and state and territory programs.

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