By Professor Emeritus Merv Hyde PhD AM, School of Education, University of the Sunshine Coast
More and more students are being suspended and excluded from schools than in the past, according to recent reports from several Australian school systems. We have even seen rapidly escalating rates of student suspensions from Prep and Grade 1 classes. Disturbingly, some states have more than double the number of suspensions and exclusions shown in other parts of the country.
Why is this happening?
In every Australian state, there are policies committing schools to national and international agreements to provide ’inclusive education’ for all students. In this context, the increasing trend of exclusion is hard to understand. Are these students just ‘rotten apples’ spoiling other students’ education, or is the picture more complex than that? This question is even more pertinent now, when an Australian politician finds it necessary to call for the removal of disabled and autistic children from regular classrooms.
Is Australia really going back to the last century?
The data show that the students most likely to be suspended or excluded from schools:
- are boys
- are from poor economic backgrounds
- have an indigenous heritage
- have a disability of some kind
- show significant school absenteeism
- are exposed to drug use
- display aggressive behaviour, and
- have low educational attainments, particularly in literacy.
Other data show that this cohort is most likely to be involved in criminal behaviour in the future. As the Victorian Youth Affairs Council noted in 2016, our school-based suspension and exclusion decisions result in these students becoming ‘tougher’ and more antisocial. The personal costs are high for these students: if they do not receive an education sufficient to achieve employment and effective citizenship they will suffer not only now, but in the future. The social and economic costs of this outcome are also felt by the wider community.
All these issues inform our current inclusive education policies. So, do we just rest easy on the basis that these students are ‘out of sight and out of mind’, or do we find ways to practise education that is truly inclusive?
Children deserve better.
The answer is clear. It’s hard to achieve if you are not at school, so we need to make sure that the necessary supports are there for students with challenging behaviours, learning difficulties and disabilities. No education system in Australia has ever indulged in mainstream dumping of kids with learning problems and we honour our moral and legal responsibilities to educate all students in a manner that keeps them in regular schools whenever possible. We cannot wind the clock back and push more of them into ‘reform schools’ or into special schools. That didn’t work in the past and it certainly won’t work now. Parents expect more informed and responsive polices in the twenty-first century.
Much of the answer lies in well prepared teachers. That is, teachers who better understand the principles and processes of child development and appreciate that education is not only about measureable curriculum outcomes. It is about finding ways for all children to reach their curricular and personal potentials in our local schools, however long that may take. It is about how we, a tax-paying community, support learners with special needs, including those with behavioural challenges, literacy and learning difficulties, disabilities and giftedness.
Modern, world-class education involves having the capacity to respond positively to diversity, with schools and teachers who are willing and able to adapt their planning, support systems and classroom practices. Excluding those who may present challenges is a backwards step, both for the students themselves and for society as a whole.
Merv Hyde is author of Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement.