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A Day in the Life: How Disability and ‘Low SES’ Status Impacts on Social Inclusion and Future Prospects for Students

A Day in the Life: How Disability and ‘Low SES’ Status Impacts on Social Inclusion and Future Prospects for Students

Schools across Australia catering for disabilities and in low-income areas are facing challenges above and beyond what the average school contends with on a day-to-day basis. They are trying their level best, despite disadvantage, to give their students the best education possible and steer them towards a fulfilling, successful future, but there are currently many roadblocks in the way, not the least of which is their level of inclusion and involvement in their own communities.

Unique challenges facing disadvantaged students

For low SES and special schools that cater for students with a range of disabilities, the challenges are numerous, from a lack of engagement, to being underfunded, to facing social stigma and a lack of community acceptance when venturing out of the school grounds.

When it comes to disadvantage, students with disabilities like severe autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy find it more difficult to focus in class, achieve the qualifications they need, and later gain the relevant experience when they enter the job market.

Wellbeing coordinator Danielle from Melbourne comments on the situation. “We’ve really faced a barrier with the community accepting our students into workplaces . . .  Lots of companies say, ‘Yeah, we’re inclusive!’ but when you actually say, ‘Okay, take one of our students,’ they say, ‘Oh no, it’s too hard. We don’t have the resources.’”

She says that their students aren’t asking for the moon, commenting that, “Those menial repetition tasks can be really good for our students, just to help them get their foot in the doorway.” She also admits that the NDIS has made businesses more likely to hire people with disabilities, as they provide funding and support.

Another major factor to continuing disadvantage in schools is low socio-economic status. To determine a school’s low SES score, the government takes into account the income and education level of the school’s parents, and Danielle readily admits that the home lives of students in these affected areas often lack financial and emotional stability, making it more difficult for students to progress academically.

She says, “I know some of our parents aren’t employed and we’re trying to encourage our students to have a pathway post-school, but [the students are] kind of saying, ‘Well, why bother? Mum and Dad don’t do much; why do I need to get a job?’” Like Danielle and her colleagues, many school staff members are trying to encourage students to contribute to the workplace as a way to feel fulfilled, but the process is admittedly difficult when the students are receiving “mixed messages” from home and school.

In a report for the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union titled The effects of inequity in Australian schools [1], Dr Sue Thomson, the Deputy CEO for the Australian Council for Educational Research, says, “We need to ensure that education provides a level playing field for all students . . . Students cannot feel motivated to learn if they feel they are not valued by the system.”

Laura Perry, an author for The Conversation writes in the article ‘Educational disadvantage is a huge problem in Australia – we can’t just carry on the same'[2] that Australia scores one of the highest levels of school social segregation when compared to all other OECD countries. In explanation, she Perry says, “Compared to Canada, for example, advantaged students in Australia are much more likely to attend school with other advantaged students. And the same is true for disadvantaged students . . . These inequalities then lead to further segregation, creating a vicious cycle of stunted learning and wasted opportunity.”

The impact of disadvantage on future opportunity

This disadvantage has a distinct impact on students’ future, and it usually isn’t good. According to a report titled ‘State of Victoria’s Children 2017, A Focus on Health and Wellbeing?’ [3] authored by the Victorian Government, “Those of higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to be engaged in further education . . . as compared to their lower SES peers . . . The rate of completions for lower SES students has persistently remained below that of higher socioeconomic demographics.”

It’s clear that access to higher education and opportunities impacts a student’s ability to break the poverty cycle and improve their quality of life, as well as that of their family. When asked about the impact of lower completion rates for low SES students when it came to school and higher education, Professor Sue Trinidad, the Director at National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, said in an article republished in ‘The Sydney Morning Herald'[4], “For these students, their higher education will be key in allowing them to unhook themselves from the socio-economic situation into which they were born, realise their potential and contribute to Australia’s social and economic prosperity.”

The 2017 Education Department of Victoria’s report [5] also said that “young people who fail to engage in school, work or further education and training are exposed to significant risks, including school failure, unemployment, risky health behaviours, mental health problems, social exclusion, and economic and social disadvantage over the longer term.”

All of these factors interweave to either broaden or narrow a child’s future from the very first time they venture outside the family home to primary school.

Danielle says, “As our more independent students go through school, they become more aware of their surroundings and where they fit into society, and I think that’s where we see a lot of mental health and behavioural issues as that home-school community stigma comes out . . . It’s really something that society and the community really needs to change.”

What schools are doing to promote student wellbeing and success

In the face of all these daunting challenges, schools across Australia, driven by passionate and inspired teachers, are achieving great strides in improving the lives and prospects of their students. A true example of this dedication is wellbeing coordinator from Melbourne, Danielle, who works diligently every day with her colleagues to encourage and promote her students in the community.

Some projects and services that schools like theirs provide access to include:

  • A vegetable garden and chickens
  • Sensory overload spaces
  • Respite for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • A student-run café
  • Alliances between schools to promote inclusion and opportunity
  • Allied health team and school nurses
  • Assessment and learning support materials (i.e. Abel’s Assessment Tool and Pro-Lo to Go).

Out of many success stories in Danielle’s school, one that stands out is a student who previously attended a mainstream school and was branded ‘shy and uncommunicative.’ Through the support of his special school, this student has found himself co-hosting on a local radio station and MC’ing school assemblies as well as local community events.

Still a long way to go

While there’s been a huge improvement in funding for schools like these, including initiatives like the NDIS, Danielle affirms that there are still many things that could improve. She feels that the basic root of the problem when it comes to disability is the lack of awareness, understanding and acceptance in the wider community, resulting in a negative impact on the future prospects of students with disabilities.

Her school partners with a local mainstream school and promotes the idea of ‘buddy’ schools as a way to integrate special needs students into the wider community and improve social interaction as well as employability after graduation.

Danielle says that through working at a special school she has learnt to prioritise and promote lifelong learning with her students. “What skills do our students need to be successful? . . . What skills are we giving our students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers and really have those 21st century skills?”

While it is clear that these challenges are not going to disappear overnight, through the hard work of teachers like Danielle and some positive policy changes, disadvantaged schools across Australia hope to narrow the gap between the haves and the have nots in education.

Resources

Thomson, S 2021, ‘The effects of inequity in Australian schools’, Australian Education Union, Victorian Branch, https://www.aeuvic.asn.au/effects-inequity-australian-schools>, accessed 25 June 2021.

Perry, L 2017, ‘Educational disadvantage is a huge problem in Australia – we can’t just carry on the same’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/educational-disadvantage-is-a-huge-problem-in-australia-we-cant-just-carry-on-the-same-74530, accessed 25 June 2021.

Education Department of Victoria 2017, The State Of Victoria’s Children Report,A focus on health and wellbeing,  https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/research/sovc-2017-infographics.pdf>, accessed 25 June 2021.

Research Developments, ACER 2015, ‘Disadvantaged university students struggle harder to graduate, new research shows’, The Sydney Morning Herald, <https://www.smh.com.au/education/disadvantaged-university-students-struggle-harder-to-graduate-new-research-shows-20150529-ghcsll.html>, accessed 28 June 2021.

Images courtesy of Danielle from Melbourne and her school.


[1] Thomson, S 2021, ‘The effects of inequity in Australian schools’, Australian Education Union, Victorian Branch, <https://www.aeuvic.asn.au/effects-inequity-australian-schools>, accessed 25 June 2021.

[2] Perry, L 2017, ‘Educational disadvantage is a huge problem in Australia – we can’t just carry on the same’, The Conversation, <https://theconversation.com/educational-disadvantage-is-a-huge-problem-in-australia-we-cant-just-carry-on-the-same-74530>, accessed 25 June 2021.

[3] Education Department of Victoria 2017, The State Of Victoria’s Children Report, A focus on health and wellbeing, <https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/research/sovc-2017-infographics.pdf>, accessed 25 June 2021.

[4] Research Developments, ACER 2015, ‘Disadvantaged university students struggle harder to graduate, new research shows’, The Sydney Morning Herald, <https://www.smh.com.au/education/disadvantaged-university-students-struggle-harder-to-graduate-new-research-shows-20150529-ghcsll.html>, accessed 28 June 2021.

[5] Thomson, S 2021, ‘The effects of inequity in Australian schools’, Australian Education Union, Victorian Branch, <https://www.aeuvic.asn.au/effects-inequity-australian-schools>, accessed 25 June 2021.

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