Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Labor’s Plans To Secure More Inclusive Education For Students With Disability

May 08, 2019

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we are gathered and pay my respects to elders, past and present, and emerging – and to any First Nations people here this morning.

I’m delighted to be with my friends from the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Education Union here in Launceston, with the National President Corenna Haythorpe too, at the critical decision-point for Australia, and for Australia’s schools.

At this federal election I’m proud to be part of a Labor team that is offering real change – and nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to education.

At every level. Our plans to revolutionise child care and early years, to back in TAFE – I’ll be making some announcements in that regard later today, to reopen the doors of our universities and of course to deliver fair funding, now for our public schools.

Versus...well, more of the same.

I know that here in Tasmania you are battling a conservative state government that doesn’t value public schools or the teaching profession. That doesn’t appreciate what we appreciate- that every Tasmanian child deserves better.


That in a world where nine in ten new jobs will require post-school qualifications, we simply can’t afford more of the same, here.

This is why Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek have committed to restore every cent of the funding the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has cut from our public schools, and secure a path to the fair funding standard for all our kids.

Of course, you know all this – you’ve been campaigning on it. Doing an inspirational job, too.

But today I want to expand on Labor’s plans for schools, in terms of our vision for more inclusive schools for students with disability.

‘Nobody has ever asked my son what he wants from his education.’

That’s what a mother said to me at the end of a forum in Sydney, attended by students with disability and their families.

The words stung then, and they continue to sting. They expose our failure to properly support students with disability in schools and are also a powerful reminder that decision-makers can all too easily deny agency to these students in a debate which has to be all about them, and which has to recognise and respond to their lived experiences.

This is a debate about real people, and their lives. About whether, and how, we can meet our obligations, through the transformative power of education, to ensure that every Australian really counts.

And this is why, at her National Press Club address in February, Tanya Plibersek made additional support for students with disability a fundamental element of Labor’s approach to education.

She committed an additional $300 million over the first three years of a Shorten Labor Government. Noting, of course, that the large majority of students with disability are educated in public schools, and so are disproportionately affected by the $14 billion of cuts imposed by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government.


Of course, this isn’t only a question of money. It’s about the reforms that additional investment can drive, support and sustain – to secure our vision for a more inclusive schools education system, in which every Australian child has his or her learning needs and imperative recognised, and fully supported.

Working with Tanya, and people in this room, I’ve spent much of the last two years developing a policy to help us realise this vision. My approach to this has been anchored in listening – to teachers, education assistants, trade unions – the AEU, IEU and United Voice, principals, academic experts, advocates, families and – most importantly – students themselves.

I’ve been involved in round tables and taken part in meetings in every state and territory, in regional areas as well as capital cities, to better appreciate the breadth of the issues across our country with its geographic challenges and eight separate schools systems. We have tried to reflect these discussions, and give voice to the diversity of experiences in our approach to driving reforms in this area.

The initiatives we propose are founded in this deep consultation – a process of engagement which we plan on continuing.

As well as committing to increase funding immediately, we are concerned to get the funding model right. We have expressed our concerns at the process leading to the adoption of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability, in particular the failure to properly consult. I’m sure everyone in this room will have a story to tell about this!

A Shorten Labor Government will prioritise the Schools Resourcing Board’s review of the SWD loading, ensuring that this has regard to the underlying needs of students and to review the ‘extensive’ category of adjustment, to secure needs-based learning for those students most in need. Under the Liberals and Nationals, the progress of such a review has been glacial and – concerningly – completely opaque.

We also recognise the critical importance of better equipping our teachers to meet the learning needs of all students. Accordingly, we will, should we form government, propose new Initial Teacher Education Standards to the Education Council. This would respond to evident need, and concerns expressed by teachers themselves, and would give greater emphasis to inclusive education and how to best support students with disability.

Beyond initial teacher education, more needs to be done when it comes to ongoing professional development. This must also be properly considered through the Education Council, for teachers and principals. This is consistent, of course, with our wider agenda to work with the profession to secure and elevate its status and standing.

We are very conscious of the significance of learning support staff, and the roles they play in supporting students with disability. We are concerned to better support these workers and to ensure that they are contributing effectively to learning outcomes. I’ve certainly learned a lot from my discussions with learning support staff and their unions, and seen examples of great practice – but it is clear there is more to be done.

Accordingly, we will direct the National Evidence Institute for Schools to conduct a review of the efficacy and most effective use of learning support staff, including guidance for principals and schools on how learning support staff can be best utilised in our classrooms.

Further, and based on this work, we will task AITSL to develop Australian Professional Standards for learning support staff, following in from standards developed for teachers and principals.

Finally, a Shorten Labor Government will collaborate with states and territories to develop an inclusive education strategy, including for students with learning difficulties.

This is a longer-term process, of course, but of the most fundamental importance if we are make tangible our commitments as a nation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Person with a Disability – as well as our societal obligation to ensure that every Australian child gets the support they need at school.

We are also concerned that students with learning difficulties which are not recognised as disabilities get the supports they deserve, too.

This strategy should not just be a matter for governments, or school systems, it has to involve all those affected, in particular students with disability and their families.

Every Australian child deserves every chance to thrive at school, and to be supported to realise her or his learning potential.

We have set out a policy framework intended to meet this challenge, which is to be measured against it, as part of a cooperative endeavour – we must all be in this together.

And we have to put students with disability at the very centre of this – every child should be asked, regularly, what they want from their education, and their answers have to be listened to by policy makers.

Thank you very much.