Discover more from Rebecca Birch - On Education
On fences and ambulances
Do the Disability Standards for Education need an update?
I’ve thought for a while that perhaps the Disability Standards for Education don’t achieve what they were designed for. The Standards require teachers to make ‘reasonable adjustments to learning,’ which seems a prima facie reasonable ask. In practice, the national documentation requirements (NCCD) reward documentary evidence of separate worksheets and ‘differentiation’ that sees our most vulnerable learners get access to (often) second-rate instruction over the kind of quality whole-class teaching that can serve students with a disability very well.
I’m not talking here about disabilities like blindness, where the case is obvious, but about others disabilities like speech and language disorders. The idea that once diagnosed, these impediments are often seen as permanently disabling, means that in effect they can be accommodated by reasonable adjustments like rarely reading and rarely writing. Students in theory can receive differentiated worksheets, separate work, and be provisioned with readers or writers or both for examinations. Again, these all sound perfectly reasonable until we ask, Whose responsibility is it to teach this student to read and write? And when is this going to happen?
Likewise anxiety. Disability provisions in the high-stakes Higher School Certificate are through the roof. I would chalk a fair bit of this up to anxiety. The recent Productivity Commission reported that 1:5 students reported high levels of psychological distress. But child psychologist Judith Locke stresses that anxiety is a treatable condition and that the goal of therapy should be to improve a child’s wellbeing. Putting aside a shortage of allied professionals and inequitable access to psychologists to raise a hypothetical question, I wonder what would happen to the volume of provisions applications if parents had to prove their child was undergoing treatment to develop coping strategies.
I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Pamela Snow speak again last Tuesday at the Canberra Goulburn Catholic Leaders’ Day. I was debating whether to write this post at all, because it’s so emotive and there are people who know a lot more about this area than me. One of Pam’s many choice metaphors is that of the fence and the ambulance. Do we want the fence at the top of the cliff, being equitable provision of instruction and allied health? Or do we accept the ambulance at the bottom — the readers, the writers, the differentiated worksheets and small group supervision?
Why not both? I hear you say. Well, there are a few reasons. Giving a high volume of provisions takes important time away from learning support staff who could be implementing intervention. Staffing is zero-sum. Likewise class time: time students spend completing worksheets is time not spent engaging in whole-class explicit instruction. An important caveat: I’m not talking about students with severe disabilities who need significant modifications and adjustments to access the curriculum, I’m talking about students who could access the curriculum if they had been given the right instruction and intervention.
I was speaking to Toni Hatten-Roberts a week back at the researchED plenary (read: pub). She and her husband, Michael Roberts, have set up Mastery Schools — schools that serve many students who didn’t previously have fences. She pointed out an important distinction between accommodating and addressing learning disabilities. Of course, the school does everything in its power to accommodate access, but this is not the end of the road and the approach is very much about addressing.
For anyone tempted to wilfully misread what I am saying, to be clear, I don’t think the Disability Standards go far enough. Differentiated instruction happens in effective classrooms every day. Explicit instruction, employed with fidelity, almost requires it. And nobody would begrudge reasonable accommodation and adjustment. The question is, if only accommodation is enshrined by law, where is the imperative to ensure that students are not permanently disabled by treatable conditions? Who holds responsibility for building fences?