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Students facing disadvantage and disability at risk of “double jeopardy”

Too many Victorian school students with disability and additional health and development needs are being left out by a support system that is too rigid and narrowly focused, says the Victorian Council of Social Service.

“The combination of disability, additional health and development needs and a low socioeconomic background can create a potential ‘double jeopardy’ for some children, who are at risk of lifelong social vulnerability,” said Mary Sayers, Acting CEO of VCOSS.

”The current Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD) is based on rigid diagnosis eligibility criteria, and doesn’t recognise that students with disability or additional health and development needs from disadvantaged families, require even greater support to fulfill their educational potential.”

“The PSD currently supports about 4 per cent of the student population. However, around 7 per cent of children aged up to 14 have some level of disability, and about 20 per cent of children have additional health and development needs (AHDN), meaning they require additional supports to fulfil their potential at school. This means the majority of those students in need of additional support are unable to receive it through the PSD, putting them at risk of not being able to succeed at school.”

“VCOSS members have told us students with disability and additional health and development needs face a culture in the current schools system, which former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes has termed the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.”

A VCOSS examination of how students with additional health and development needs are being supported in schools revealed numerous instances of concern. These include:

  • some special schools and mainstream schools using funding to employ martial arts people to train staff
  • an example of a student whose skill level was assessed as three years below her peers – this was not considered an issue by the school yet would have been of serious concern if the student did not have a disability
  • an example where a student’s individual learning plan identified that they should take photos of other students undertaking education tasks, with no focus on the student actually learning themselves
  • one school used PSD funding to purchase Lego with the intention of developing the motor skills of students – while this was beneficial to some other students at the school, the student who actually attracted the funding was unable to use Lego due to their disability and therefore their support needs were unmet.

“VCOSS welcomes the Andrews Government’s initiative to review the Program for Students with Disabilities and we have recommended fundamental changes to the program in our submission to the review.”

“These include revising the funding arrangements to shift away from the rigid eligibility criteria and deficit-based PSD funding model to a functional and educational needs-based approach that supports all students with additional health and development needs. Many of these recommendations are about cultural and systemic changes that are inexpensive, but which would significantly improve the school experience of students and their families.”