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Special Education in Australia: Policy Environment Essay

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2020


NSW (2014) says Australia has three categories of special needs students – ill students, disabled students, and students with learning difficulties. Based on this analysis, disability is a broad concept that encompasses “students with an intellectual disability, physical disability, vision impairment, hearing impairment, language disorder, mental health condition or autism” (NSW, 2014, p. 1). Special education meets the needs of these types of students because mainstream education systems appeal to students who have “advanced” learning capabilities. In this regard, specialised exercises and specialised subject matters are some unique techniques applied by teachers who teach special education to appeal to their audience (Locke, Vulliamy, Webb, & Hill, 2005).

Recent years have seen a growing interest in leadership practices in special education (Gunter & Forrester, 2009). Consequently, literature that focuses on educational leadership and inclusivity has increased. Indeed, scholars around the world are quickly contributing to existing knowledge about the leadership and management practices of educational institutions. However, these practices do not exist in a vacuum. A policy framework outlines how such processes occur. Historical and cultural influences also shape their outcome. Based on this understanding, it is crucial to understand the need to explain educational leadership within the policy environment. For example, Mosen-Lowe, Vidovich, & Chapman (2009) highlight the need for understanding school leadership within the wider social and historical context of moral and political reasoning. Bell & Stevenson (2006) also highlight the need to understand the policy framework of educational leadership by opposing the reductionist philosophy that bears little regard for the specificity of educational systems. These interests come from researchers who have voiced their concerns about failing to link educational systems with power/political systems.

For example, according to Bell & Stevenson (2006), this pattern is erroneous because it fails to recognise the relationship between educational leadership and power relationships. The nature of this relationship mainly depends on several factors that are unique to an institution’s environment and its social-political structures. Although these factors may vary across institutions, undoubtedly, the policy environment affects educational leadership. This paper uses this assertion to investigate the policy framework that underlies special education in Australia. The first part of the essay explains the difference between policies and education policies. Its findings give way to a deeper analysis that contrasts the policies in primary schools and the educational policies in institutions of higher learning. Using this background, this paper focuses on performance management as a key policy area of special education in Australia and explains how both levels of education perform.

Policy and Education Policy

This section of the paper evaluates the policy environment of special education in Australia by categorising it into two facets – policy and educational policy


A policy is a written statement that sets out rules and procedures for enabling learning institutions to achieve rational outcomes (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Policy significantly touches on the role of the state in shaping educational outcomes. Although different countries have different policy influences on their educational institutions, few researchers dispute the influence of such frameworks on education systems (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Therefore, different education stakeholders must understand the influence of the policy environment for the sector.

Countries have varied definitions of inclusive education. These differences also spread to policy definitions because their interpretations of international statutes on special education, such as the UNESCO Salamanca Agreement and other United Nations (UN) conventions, affect how they conceive their policy needs. Bell & Stevenson (2006) say many countries that have policy frameworks of special education show little commitment to implementing the same policies in the classroom context (Bell & Stevenson, 2006). Therefore, there is a wide difference between theory and practice.

Australia does not have a consistent national policy on special education. Instead, different territories have unique laws that guide the same education system (Weaver-Hightower, 2008).

Educational Policy

Smythe, Everatt, & Salter (2005) say many governments are keen on ensuring their countries have good education policies for social and economic development. Here, governments are mainly concerned about how individual education outcomes emerge in the wider realm of the policy environment. However, there is a general misunderstanding regarding how societies create educational policies, their motivations for doing so, and how their decisions affect the wider education system (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Education policy refers to the collection of rules and laws that relate to how a country operates its education systems. An education policy covers different education levels and institution types.

To understand education policies well, it is important to review international education policies on inclusive education. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) says that international education policies on inclusive education vary, depending on the special education needs of every jurisdiction. This view highlights the contextual nature of education policies. To support this view, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) says, “policies must be localised and contextually appropriate while continuing to respond to a range of governmental, political and educational agendas that drive educational outcomes” (p. 15).

Often, people think that inclusive education policies strive to increase the involvement of disabled students in mainstream education. However, this view is misleading because inclusivity (special education) also includes other student cohorts (besides disabled children) (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). For example, it includes students with poor emotional intelligence and physical disabilities. When understanding globally inclusive education policies, it is also pertinent to understand that most countries have different types of special education (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Special schools are the main type. Relative to this assertion, many governments often explicitly support inclusive education (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). They also support an interdisciplinary engagement of educational cohorts to increase the number of resources needed to implement inclusive education policies (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013).

Current Policy Situation

Australia shares the same policy framework (of inclusivity) as other developed countries do. For example, it shares the same policy framework with the Canadian education system, which requires all teachers to understand the need for equality across all student groups (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Since students learn at different speeds, both countries require special educators to identify the unique learning styles that would appeal to every student group. Using the three-step model outlined by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013), the Australian policy framework includes three stages of special education – policy level, education processes, and education outcomes.

At the policy level, the Australian law provides training opportunities, finance, leadership, and curriculum as the main inputs in the special education framework. These inputs influence different educational processes, such as school practices, classroom practices, shared responsibility, and individual support to create desirable educational outcomes such as increased participation, student achievement, and positive post-school outcomes (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Broadly, the current policy framework requires special educators to make sure that all students, from different backgrounds and cultural contexts, participate in the learning process. Several professional bodies have embraced the above principle and now require educators to identify different strategies for meeting the needs of “special” students. For example, the Australian Professional Standard for Teachers has introduced this requirement for its members (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). The same body requires all teachers to understand existing legislation that surrounds special education. Similarly, it requires all its members to support ongoing efforts to promote inclusivity in the education system (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013).

Future Policy Trends

Future trends in education policy will mainly focus on the readiness of special needs educators to embrace inclusive education. Past policies often highlighted the need to include disabled students in mainstream education systems. However, as this paper will demonstrate, special education is broader than disability. Today, the focus is on providing equity through special education. Future policy directions will focus on empowering teachers to better practice equity as a principle in mainstream education systems (Locke et al., 2005). This may happen in several ways, including training teachers about prudent ways to address the needs of special students and increasing accountability in education systems (among others).

Overall, compared to educational policies, the policy is a broad concept. In fact, it often stems from government and affects a large constituent of people than educational policies do. For example, government policy may affect all jurisdictions in Australia, but an educational policy may only affect one province (Smyth, 2008). In terms of special education needs, different local governments have different educational policies. However, they all subscribe to one national educational policy (this may not be the case in Australia). In this regard, it is important to say that one difference between educational policies and national policy is the jurisdictional application of both concepts (the policies are national, while educational policies are regional).


Performance Management

The main purpose of offering inclusive education is to make sure that all students get the same quality of education. This means that mainstream students and special needs students need to gain access to the same educational quality. However, it is difficult to do so without measuring the quality of inclusive education. This need highlights the importance of performance management. Paulo, Graham, Joan, & Claire (2011) say managing the quality of inclusive education involves identifying the correct definition of inclusivity. This is the criterion used to identify management instruments for inclusive education (Smyth, 2008). Based on the above analogy, Paulo et al. (2011) also highlight the need for schools to eliminate exclusionary criteria they may have for preventing special needs students to join mainstream education systems. Therefore, performance management depends on reviewing inclusive education from a holistic perspective. UNICEF uses this definition to say that performance management mainly entails reviewing how schools make practical changes to accommodate special needs students (Paulo et al., 2011).

Performance Management in Primary Schools

Primary schools have used different performance management tools for evaluating their progress of adopting special education. The index for inclusion is the most common tool used for this purpose. Developed in the UK, educators introduced the instrument to measure the performance of special education in primary schools, located in Western Australia (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Introduced in 2001, the instrument used research-based indicators for understanding the quality of services offered by primary schools, regarding inclusive education. The instrument mainly uses self-reviews and has achieved tremendous success in the past two decades. Furthermore, scholars have translated it into several languages. Some researchers have noted that the above instrument has several limitations. For example, some special educators lack the capacity to implement it in their schools. Coupled with the lack of a framework to educate special education teachers about its use, the index for inclusion only receives a token acknowledgement in Australian primary schools (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013).

Besides the above challenges, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) says the index for inclusion is useful in “interrogating the fine grain of culture-building that goes on in schools through pedagogy, curriculum, school and classroom organisation and the character of decision making and so on” (p. 11). Many jurisdictions have adopted it. For example, Queensland uses it as a strategy to foster a vibrant learning community among special educators. Its proponents expected it to foster useful values among educators and improve their performance in the same regard (Paulo et al., 2011). Based on its strengths, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) also says that the index for inclusion provides a comprehensive measure for assessing the progress of special education in primary schools.

Performance Management in Higher Education

Many educators have used the input-process-outcome tool as a performance management tool for evaluating the progress of special education in Australia (Kyriazopoulou & Weber, 2009). Similar to its structure, this tool has three stages. The first one measures the available resources that support the education system (Kyriazopoulou & Weber, 2009). The second one evaluates the intrigues of the implementation phase, while the third stage highlights the process output. Based on the ideals of Kyriazopoulou & Weber (2009), the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) says the input-process-outcome should measure performance management across three levels. The first level occurs at the macro level and measures a school’s performance, it in terms of its jurisdiction, nationality, and religion. The second measurement level occurs at the “meso” level. It measures a school’s performance, according to its interaction with community groups. At the micro-level, this tool measures a school’s performance based on interaction among students, or among different people within the school setting.

The diagram below outlines the components of the three steps outlined above.

Input-Process-Outcome Model (Source: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013)
Figure One: Input-Process-Outcome Model (Source: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013)

At the input stage, educators use the above tool to measure all resources availed to schools to implement inclusive education. These resources may include finances, policy support, staff training, infrastructure support, curriculum development (among other factors) (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). At the second level, educators measure the performance of school practices that transform the above inputs into desired educational outcomes. Such practices may include the modalities for distributing educational resources and instructional practices (among other factors). At the third level of measurement, educators often measure people’s level of satisfaction after undergoing the above processes (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Here, they may measure the rates of academic achievement and cost-effectiveness of special education (among other factors) (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013).

Based on the intrigues highlighted above, it is crucial to note that an inclusive and wholesome methodological approach is essential for undertaking performance measurement in higher institutions of education. Since Australia is a signatory to international education standards, it needs to assure other countries of its commitment to implement a non-discriminatory education framework (Hattie, 2009). Although it is important for the country to assure the world that its education system addresses disability and diversity concerns, Australia has experienced several contextual challenges and complexities associated with adopting an inclusive education system. These problems led the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) to say that even a developed country such as Australia could fail to adopt effective policy measures for addressing the complex challenges of equity in the education system. Ironically, the country does not have significant impediments to streamlining its policy framework to address these equity challenges.


Origins of Current Policy on Performance Management In Primary Schools

Even without a national policy on special education, Australia started addressing the needs of disabled children in the late 1800s (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Deaf and blind children were the first beneficiaries of this program. Other special needs children started reaping the benefits of this program in the 1920s (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). The government was not primarily involved in providing special education because charities and volunteer organisations championed the move towards education inclusivity. Government involvement only recently became prominent (in the 1970s) when state governments started building special schools for disabled children. At the time, there was a strong push by communities to integrate special education to mainstream education.

Today, many disabled children get an education through an integrated education system that merges their education needs with the standard education curriculum.

From a policy standpoint, the government introduced new legislation to give special students the same education rights as other students. The 2005 Disability Standards for Education Act captured this goal because it demanded that Australian schools allow special students to enjoy the same standards of education as mainstream students did. In this regard, all schools are legally required to make necessary changes to allow all students with special needs to get the same education that other students do. However, the legal definition of the “reasonable adjustments” that all schools ought to do depends on the standards defined in the Disability Discrimination Act (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Nonetheless, the law also demands that all schools should treat special needs students with dignity. The main aim of this policy is to overcome all stereotypes that other students may have towards special students because of their inability to learn fast (as other students do).

Origins of Current Policy on Performance Management in Higher Education

Performance management in Australian institutions of higher learning emerged in the late 1980s. It merged from a backdrop of increased efficiency and effectiveness in higher education (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). Policy reform has been at the centre of performance management (Apple, 2004). Most of its effects are increased inclusivity in education processes, an expanded education scope, and improved delivery of education services. The National Training reform agenda encompassed these goals. A key component of performance management in higher education is quality assurance. This has happened in the context of academic accountability. Many Australian institutions of higher learning adopted this concept in 1991 by introducing performance appraisal schemes (Australian Education Union, 2010). Parallel to these policy developments was changing in industrial relations, which strived to improve efficiency and productivity at different levels of organisational and institutional performance.

Based on this background, many Australian institutions of higher education adopted performance management as a vital component of their operations. Aligning special education needs with institutional needs has been a key goal in this regard. This process also aimed to align such goals with other institutional functions. In this regard, the Australian Education Union (2010) argues that performance management has three main goals. The first one is to align institutional goals with special education needs to ensure the needs of special education do not contradict other learning needs. Secondly, the process focuses on promoting educational development (both at institutional and personal levels). The last goal aims to promote administrative efficiency by improving the decision–making process (Australian Education Union, 2010). These goals suggest that an integrated, efficient and coordinated performance management structure could easily lead to increased institutional success.


Future Direction of Policy in Primary Schools

For a long time, Australia has mainly focused on providing inclusive education to students with special needs in primary schools. However, this focus has often ignored the highly specialised skills and requirements needed to implement special education at this level of education. Relative to this finding, Apple (2004) says, similar to higher education, primary schools also require specialised teachers and more financial resources for proper inclusivity to occur. The notion that inclusivity in primary schools refers to an event is misleading because “special” students need to perform like other students when they have gained access to an effective process that balances their needs and available educational resources.

This paper has already shown that the 1992 Disabilities Discrimination Act was among the first attempt by the Australian government to promote inclusivity in the education system and improve the quality of education for special needs children in the primary school sector. The law made it unlawful for schools to discriminate on any child based on disability status. However, it created an exception where learning institutions could discriminate on such children if they caused unjustifiable hardship on the school (Apple, 2004). This law created two expectations on education institutions – a high-quality education for special needs students and increased resource requirements for primary schools, which had otherwise only expected to meet the educational requirements of “ordinary” students.

The 2002 State inquiry into the Education of Students with disabilities was the first attempt by the Australian government to investigate the quality of special education in Australian primary schools (and institutions of higher learning) (Australian Education Union, 2010). It did so by investigating funding limitations for such educational institutions and evaluating how the commonwealth fund helped these educational institutions to improve their quality of learning. The study found a lot of ambiguity in the definition of disabilities among this population group. It caused several complexities in the provision of special education, which further caused several unmet needs (although the commonwealth fund was available for all students). The Australian Education Union (2010) also found out that most programs in special education were significantly underfunded. For example, many institutions did not have enough capital costs to implement the Disability Discrimination Act. This way, they experienced challenges related to including disabled students in mainstream education. Lastly, the study found out that most primary schools were ill-equipped to handle the high number of disabled students that wanted to join mainstream education. They did not have the necessary skills needed to undertake their duties.

Based on the above intrigues, national policy trends in special education will focus on improving the quality of education for special needs students, as opposed to increasing the access to education for primary school students. This focus departs from past debates that have often questioned whether to integrate special education with mainstream education, or not. Therefore, the future policy trend in special education strives to ensure all students (regardless of the disability status) get the best quality education. However, to do so, policies should make sure there are enough special educators to take inclusive education to the next level. Teachers need to get the right incentive to improve their qualifications and skills (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Similarly, the government should provide adequate resources to meet the unique needs of special needs students. This analysis shows a strong similarity between the findings of primary and higher education analyses. For example, human resource challenges are common for both educational sectors. Similarly, underfunding is a common problem for both sectors.

Future Direction of Policy in Higher education

Based on the above findings, similar to other developed nations, Australia grapples with the problem of inadequate staffing to implement special education. This problem has strained existing human resources in this sector. Moreover, education stakeholders are creating unrealistic demands on most of these educators because they are not equipped with the knowledge to undertake their duties (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). The complexity of this situation is the high demand for greater specialisation, which occurs at three levels. The first level involves students who have joined mainstream institutions of higher learning and have found teachers who are unprepared to accommodate or serve them. The second level involves disabled students who have unique needs that “ordinary” special educators cannot meet. The third level includes unrealistic expectations of parents who believe that policy changes to create more inclusion in higher education automatically means that there will be enough special educators to meet the needs of disabled students at all settings. Based on the challenges of Australian training programs, the country cannot meet these expectations (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013).

Furthermore, the demographic characteristics of the available teaching population show a bleak future for this problem because there is a growing ageing population of special educators in Australia. This situation has created high attrition rates in the sector. For example, statistics show that Victoria State will experience a 70% reduction in the number of trained special education principals in the next five years because most of them will have retired (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). The number of special needs teachers will also decline by 40% within the same period. Experts in the sector say that this reduction reflects the worrisome national trend in the education sector, which affects higher education and primary education sectors alike (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013).

Future policy trends in the special education sector are likely to address the above problems because policymakers have not planned to counter the above issues. Indeed, currently, there are no plans to replace the valuable knowledge of special educationists (that is quickly disappearing through retirements). However, since there are existing laws and frameworks for inclusion and anti-discrimination in Australian higher education institutions, future policy trends will seek to make sure there are enough specialised teachers to meet the needs of disabled students. The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) believes this process will start at an administrative level by making sure that all institutions of higher learning have headteachers and school principals that understand the resource needs of special needs students. However, for this policy change to meet its objective, the undergraduate opportunities for training new teachers in special education need to increase. This process will allow more teachers to specialise in special education. This way, when more teachers seek a higher level of qualification, they will find an educational structure that would empower them.

Relative to this discussion, the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2013) says that existing undergraduate courses often include one or two disability study units as a core requirement for all newly trained teachers. However, most of these requirements are generic and do not offer new teachers with the concrete education skills they need for meeting the needs of special needs students in higher education. Instead, they only raise awareness about the needs of disabled students. Therefore, there is a lack of knowledge and special pedagogical skills in special education. This way, teachers fail to enhance their levels of academic and social outcomes.

Based on the poor response of Australia’s education system to equip upcoming teachers with the right knowledge for undertaking special education, Australia lacks enough vocational pathways for teachers to develop a specialisation in disability courses.

Although this paper proposes that future policy direction would address the above concern, a small group of cynics does not understand the importance of this policy direction (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). They say that, in today’s age of inclusivity, there is no need to have unique policy concerns that only address special education (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). They also argue that, in the past, schools often lacked enough formal educators (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). However, the increase in the number of committed general educators, who learned their craft “on the job,” addressed this problem. Similar to how this group emerged, critics say an inclusive education system will also find its balance by nurturing a new set of teachers that will equally develop these unique teaching skills by interacting with special need students (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). In this regard, such critics believe there is no need for a policy change.

Existing policy frameworks in all Australian states run parallel with the above requirements because there is no requirement for “special education qualifications” for a teacher to work as a special educator. Some jurisdictions had such laws, but local governments abolished them. For example, Victoria and Western Australia required special educators to have special educational qualifications, but because few teachers could meet this requirement, they abolished the policy (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, 2013). This situation created a larger shift in policy views because many educational stakeholders deemed it an impractical move to require teachers to have special educational qualifications to teach special needs students. The lack of an incentive plan to encourage teachers to seek special education qualifications has further compounded the scarcity of trained personnel. Often, these teachers have to incur costs of specialised training, without assistance from education stakeholders. Historically, this has not been the case. In other words, Australia used to have strategically planned training program that encouraged unskilled teachers to improve their educational qualifications. The government often subsidised special education and provided adequate curriculum support to upcoming special educators, thereby making it easier for prospecting teachers to acquire the skills needed to undertake such duties (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). Although the government still offers such training, they occur at a more generic and “less specialised” level than before. Consequently, many special needs students are not receiving the proper curriculum support they need to get the same quality of education that their peers did. The reduced capacity of the education system to replace retired specialists could further exacerbate this problem. The Australian Education Union (2010) says that this situation may cause an increased number of litigation cases because parents are today demanding better quality education for their children.


Australia has followed a global trend, among developed countries, to promote inclusive education at all levels of education. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 was among the first attempts of the country to promote inclusive education. The greatest policy challenge for special education in Australia is the varying laws and definitions surrounding special education in the country. Furthermore, the government has failed to finance the increased expectations of special needs students after it passed the Disability Discrimination Act. Australia can make significant policy improvements by improving equity in its education system. The government can use several strategies to do so, but this paper has highlighted increased funding, better resource distribution, and an increased scope of school choice as viable strategies for arriving at the same goal. Increased efforts to train teachers about special education could further support this goal by undertaking periodic evaluation and assessments to improve education quality. Creating incentives for teachers to improve their skill levels is also important in finding a perfect balance between the human resource skills required in special education and the available skills available. Comprehensively, this paper shows that Australian primary schools and institutions of higher education experience similar challenges regarding special education. Both education levels suffer from underfunding and a lack of specialist teachers, as the main operational challenges for implementing inclusive education. These problems may be more profound for higher institutions of education because their skill requirements are higher than primary schools. A policy response would adequately address most of these concerns. However, the local governments need to streamline their policy frameworks to make sure there is a nationally coordinated approach to address the same concerns.


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