The core tenet of public education is that every child should have access to the highest standard of quality education and be able to reach their full potential. In most cases we succeed in that noble goal. However, for some kids we can and should do much more to make sure our education system is as inclusive as possible. I am exceptionally proud of the public schools in my electorate and I am in awe of the extraordinary work of educators and teachers, especially those who work with students with developmental disability. However, a 2016 Auditor-General's report revealed that 25 per cent of parents have been told by school staff that there is no place at their local school because of their child's developmental disability. This is simply unacceptable. This week Kurt Fearnley was named the 2019 New South Wales Australian of the Year. I do not think we could find a better representative. In his Australia Day address in 2013 he described his childhood as follows:
My family never told me what I couldn't do or what was off limits. They just sat back and found out what was possible. Growing up with a disability doesn't bring with it a sense of shame or self-doubt; it's only when we learn to interpret the faces of the people around us, or when our environment offers no chance of interacting on an ordinary level, that we learn such things.
We fail people like Kurt when one in four people with disability is not welcomed into our education system.
I have had the pleasure of meeting with parents and carers from my local electorate whose children have a developmental disability. Yolande's daughter, Zoe, was born with Down syndrome. When Zoe was ready for school, Yolande did what every inner west parent does and enrolled her daughter at the local public school. Zoe was enrolled in a support unit with the promise that she would access all the opportunities of a mainstream education while receiving specialist care. Despite the best of intentions, it did not work out that way—Zoe was blocked from enrolling in after-school care and the only opportunities she had to work with her peers in the mainstream school were in sport and art.
By the time Zoe was in year 2, Yolande made the difficult decision to withdraw her from the special unit and enrol her in the mainstream school. Yolande faced fierce resistance from all sides, but she stuck to her guns, even lodging an official complaint with the Department of Education and the NSW Ombudsman. It was a bumpy first year, but Zoe's teachers and parents worked together to provide her with an inclusive education. Zoe was no longer separated in the classroom; each week, her peers took turns supporting her in class. Throughout their journey, Yolande and Zoe found support and strength with Family Advocacy, an organisation that works to promote and defend the rights and interests of children with developmental disability, including those with intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism and any combination of physical, intellectual or sensory disability. The organisation seeks to act as an agent of positive social change, including by advocating for inclusive education.
So, what does inclusive education really look like? Inclusive education means merging parallel special and mainstream education into one holistic system. It means affirming the human rights of each student and accommodating their needs through personalised learning in the classroom. An inclusive education system has been implemented in many places around the world, such as New Brunswick, Canada. It has also found traction here in Australia, with the Queensland Government moving to initiate inclusive education practices. The Queensland Government has established a set of nine principles that I believe the Government should hear and consider. The principles define inclusive education to be when students:
... can access and fully participate in learning, alongside their similar-aged peers, supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs.
After meeting with parents and carers, I am convinced that inclusive learning is the best way to support and nurture children with developmental disability.
Thanks to the Gillard Labor Government, parents of children with disability have greater choices and autonomy when it comes to finding the right support for their kids. This should also be true of their child's education. Our public education system must also transition to give families that same degree of choice and autonomy. If Zoe's story teaches us anything it is that we can achieve inclusive education if we act together with boldness and conviction. Access to inclusive education is a fundamental human right. It is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and it must now be considered because we are failing to protect that right. I recommend we consider Zoe's story and the stories of many kids from around New South Wales. We need to act, and act now.