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Special Education and Inclusion: The Opportunities and Challenges

Since 2008 the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has made it clear that all people, including those with disabilities, have a right to access an inclusive, quality and free education (UN General Assembly, 2007, Article 24). As a result, the inclusion of students with disabilities into the general education system within Australia has shifted from segregation to inclusion (Hyde, 2017). As educators attempt to make education accessible and inclusive to all students, many opportunities and challenges have developed. This essay will provide a brief overview of special education and inclusion, followed by a discussion of the key dimensions and issues of which the strengths and weaknesses will be examined. Finally, the essay will provide recommendations for action.

Brief Overview of Special Education and Inclusion

What is Special Education and Inclusion?

Special education is a subsystem of the general education system developed to cater to the unique needs of students with disabilities (Bateman & Cline, 2016; Tomlinson, 2012). As students with disabilities often require different supports not always available in general education, special education focuses on academic, physical, cognitive, and social-emotional education (Bateman & Cline, 2016; Sharma, 2014). Generally speaking, it aims to encourage both academic progress and personal and social development (Farrell, 2010). Special education is accomplished by ensuring students are provided with individualised modifications of teaching strategies and programs, including related services, which are systematically monitored to ensure student success (Bateman & Cline, 2016). Essentially, special education is provided to those students whose needs cannot be catered for in the “traditional” classroom due to disability.
Inclusive education has many variations in meaning, depending on the lens being applied. Most literature agrees that inclusive education is about valuing differences, embracing diversity and creating opportunities to access learning (Armstrong et al., 2011; Cologon, 2013; Forlin et al., 2013; Francisco et al., 2020; Webster, 2018). Inclusive education is a philosophy based in social justice, where diversity is seen as a resource rather than an issue (Cologon, 2013; Dixon, 2018). When everyone is different, education needs to adapt to those differences rather than trying to adjust the child to the system (Armstrong et al., 2011). Consequently, educational services need to recognise the rights of all children to be included regardless of their needs (Cologon, 2013). By adapting both the environment and teaching approaches, all schools, along with support services, can remove barriers and provide every student, irrespective of needs, with an education in an age-appropriate general education classroom to ensure the valued participation of all (Cologon, 2013; Francisco et al., 2020). While globally, inclusive education is shifting away from a focus on disability to diversity, Australia currently still views inclusive education through the disability lens (Dixon, 2018).

History and Legislation

Historically, special education has focused on the medical model where students were diagnosed, and as a result, were often withdrawn to specialised institutions (Graham & Jahnukainen, 2011). These institutions led to isolation as the children with disabilities were separated from society as they lived and learned together (Francisco et al., 2020). Mainstreaming and integration started as the solution to the issue of institutionalisation and segregation of students with disabilities (Graham & Jahnukainen, 2011). Mainstreaming focused on where a child was receiving their education rather than how, and thus many students formerly left in special schools were placed in local schools (Hyde, 2017). Meanwhile, integration looked to address the ‘how’ students with disabilities received their education and looked to include students based on their capacity and ability level; however, the education system was still not required to adapt to the students’ needs (Hyde, 2017). In some instances, this integration was still segregated as students were attending the local school in the same buildings but attending special classes (Francisco et al., 2020). “Inclusion is built on the principle that all students should be valued for their exceptional abilities and included as important members of the school community” (Obiakor et al., 2012, p. 478). As such, it challenged mainstreaming and integration, especially the restrictions they placed on access and participation in education (Armstrong et al., 2011).

International Legislation and Policy

The first significant international policy was the Salamanca statement and framework for action on special needs education (1994), of which Australia was an early signatory that looked at inclusive education as a philosophy of education for all. It set the standard by giving every child the right to education and to attend the local school if that was their preferred model of education delivery (Webster, 2018). From here, the United States implemented the No Child Left Behind Act 2001 (US), which ensures all children could obtain a high-quality education and reach proficiency at grade level. It introduced standardised testing as the yardstick to measure learning (Francisco et al., 2020). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act 2004 (US) mandates educational services for students. Outlining eight core principles around identifying students with disabilities, access to free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, it amended some of the issues of the No Child Left Behind Act (Bateman & Cline, 2016). In 2007 the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities became the second significant international policy focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities; the aim was to protect them from human rights abuses (UN General Assembly, 2007). When it came to children with a disability and education, it guaranteed the right to inclusive education at all levels without exclusion from the general education system and receiving the support they required to ensure their access to education (Forlin et al., 2013; Hyde, 2017; UN General Assembly, 2007).

National Legislation and Policy

Within Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) aimed to prevent discrimination based on disability and set out to ensure that persons with disabilities have the same rights to equality as the rest of society. From this, the Disability Standards for Education 2005 were developed to clarify the Act and provide clear guidelines around enrolment, participation, curriculum development, support services and harassment and victimisation (Conway, 2017; Forlin et al., 2013; Ruddock, 2005). This Act introduced the requirements of schools to make reasonable adjustments so that students with disability can participate on the same basis as other students (Cumming et al., 2013). In 2008 the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians goals were developed. These goals were set for all students regardless of their needs, and as a result, inclusive education focused on the success of all (Anderson & Boyle, 2019; Barr et al., 2008). The establishment of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, ensured a national curriculum, along with a national testing regime, was developed to meet the goals (Anderson & Boyle, 2015; Conway, 2017). Building on the Melbourne declaration, the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration in 2019 updated the goals to focus on the partnership with students, families and the broader community to ensure that the right to inclusive education set up in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is maintained (Berry et al., 2019).

State Legislation and Policy

To ensure that Queensland students can experience inclusive education, the government introduced the Inclusion Policy in 2018, ensuring that students are “supported by reasonable adjustments and teaching strategies tailored to meet their individual needs” (Education Queensland, 2018). To guarantee that schools were supported to meet both the Inclusion Policy and the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, the Every Student with Disability Succeeding Policy was developed in 2019 (Education Queensland, 2019). This policy outlined the plan on how the government, in conjunction with schools, families and communities, would ensure that students with disabilities are to be included and supported, along with a reduction in planned restrictive practices and support and training for teachers (Education Queensland, 2019).

Key Debates and Controversies About Special Education and Inclusion


Funding for inclusive education is a complex and problematic issue in Australia (Anderson & Boyle, 2015; Cologon, 2013). It is shared between both the State and Federal government, and the state or territory a student with disabilities lives determines the amount the school will receive (Anderson & Boyle, 2015; Cologon, 2013). Most funding comes from the State government; however, the Federal government funds non-government schools while providing minor financing for public schools (Boyle & Anderson, 2020). Rather than fostering inclusion, the amount received by independent and catholic schools contributes to the segregation of those with low socio-economic backgrounds and students with disabilities, thus exacerbating inequalities across the education system (Anderson & Boyle, 2015).
Initially, funding for inclusive education was based on medical diagnosis, which led to an increase in assessments (Barrett, 2014). The increases in assessments resulted in some students being diagnosed unnecessarily. In contrast, others who may have had mild disabilities were given eligibility codes for more severe conditions to increase the funds provided (Barrett, 2014). The categorical approach resulted in an increase in labelling, which lent itself to lower expectations and, in extreme cases, removal from regular education altogether, which was not in the spirit of inclusion (Barrett, 2014; Cologon, 2013). The introduction of the NCCD emphasised adjustments for students rather than diagnostic categories of students; accordingly, funding was no longer based on the disability label (Cologon, 2013). Even with two reviews of government funding, the model has remained complex. The Gonski Review proposed a national needs-based model that would address these issues (Anderson & Boyle, 2019), while Barrett (2014) proposed “an inclusive funding model based on population demographics” (p. 78) to remove the financial incentives to label students with disabilities.


Inclusive education is challenging, and it is an educators’ attitude which will determine its success (O’Rourke, 2015). In most cases, the outlook is based on practical concerns about how it will be implemented in the classroom (Vaz et al., 2015). Concerns can centre around additional workload, the type and severity of the disability, lack of training, support services and confidence, time constraints in the classroom of working with a student with a disability without disadvantaging other students (Jordan & McGhie-Richmond, 2014; O’Rourke, 2015; Vaz et al., 2015). While a student’s right to reasonable adjustments under the Disabilities Standards for Education must uphold the integrity of the course and assessment (Dickson & Cumming, 2018; Ruddock, 2005). Adjustments to make the program accessible depend on consultation with the student and their parents (Dickson & Cumming, 2018). Best practice is to differentiate the curriculum to cater for the needs of all students; however, this requires planning, preparation and expertise (Forlin et al., 2013). Teachers need better preparation for inclusive education, and this lack of skill is the barrier for inclusive education (Anderson & Boyle, 2019; Cologon, 2013). Professional development alone will not reduce anxiety in teachers; related support services need to be in place to support teachers if the goal is to implement inclusion (Forlin et al., 2013; Vaz et al., 2015). ACARA has supported teachers by providing guidance and resources for the implementation of the Australian Curriculum for students with disabilities (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2020; Forlin et al., 2013). While Pearce (2009) argued that attitude outweighed expertise in the implementation of inclusive education (as cited in Anderson & Boyle, 2015), it is the whole support system that will ensure success.

Curriculum and Assessment

In Australia, when the mandated Australian Curriculum was introduced, there were concerns that it would not allow flexibility to meet the needs of students with disabilities (Anderson & Boyle, 2015). With the implementation of any standardised curriculum, there will be students who find it accessible and those who will not; unfortunately, it is generally minority groups, students from low socio-economic backgrounds and students with disabilities who commonly miss out (Boyle & Anderson, 2020). When brought to ACARA’s attention, the response was to provide supporting documentation, resources and examples on how to address student diversity within the Australian Curriculum. (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2020). Additionally, the assessment of students with disabilities should be against the achievement standards based on their individual goals (Forlin et al., 2013). With these adjustments, inclusive education is attainable.
The introduction of a National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy has been the most controversial reform to date (Anderson & Boyle, 2015). The purpose of NAPLAN is to determine if students are meeting the educational outcomes outlined in the Melbourne Declaration (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2016). While this may have been the purpose, NAPLAN has become a high-stakes test which hinders inclusive education (Anderson & Boyle, 2015). Students do not have access to the supports they would generally receive in the classroom for accessing assessment (Boyle & Anderson, 2020). The limited range of adjustments provided in itself conflicts with the Disability Standards for Education as reasonable adjustments are not being made to ensure all students can participate (Anderson & Boyle, 2015). There is an increase in the number of students choosing to withdraw from the national testing regime of which students with disabilities or additional learning needs have been disproportionately represented. The result is that the educational outcomes are not being met for students with disabilities (Forlin et al., 2013). The absence of students with disabilities from the national testing regime prevents valid and fair judgement of the effectiveness of the Australian Curriculum and other educational outcomes (Sharma, 2014). With the lack of NAPLAN data on students with disabilities, one could easily believe that these students do not exist in the Australian Education System (Sharma, 2014). This would affect funding, resourcing and does not provide inclusive education.
The Australian government is aware of the challenges with implementing a standardised curriculum and assessment program and continue to implement new initiatives to address these. However, as the governments continue to change at both the state and federal levels, the issue will not be inclusive education; the problem will become the lack of progress on educational initiatives (Sharma, 2014).

The Way Forward for Special Education

Inclusive Education

Overall, the implementation of inclusive education is beneficial for all Australians—the various stakeholders in education support this assessment. All students require a variety of strategies to learn, whether that is more time, more practice, fewer tasks, differentiated tasks regardless of their circumstances (Haug, 2016). As a result, when students with special needs are included in general education settings, they tend to achieve closer to grade average than those who are segregated (Cologon, 2013; Winter & O’Raw, 2010). However, the dropout rates were higher for those students with disabilities who were being educated in a general education setting rather than a special education setting (Winter & O’Raw, 2010). The merit of inclusive education is shown through the benefits all students, not just those with disabilities, gain through the development of friendships and self-worth that would not have been encountered otherwise (Cologon, 2013).
Research has shown that the more multicultural a school is, the easier it is to implement an inclusive education as the culture of the school is already inclusive (Graham & Spandagou, 2011). The change needs to be to the definition of ‘inclusive’ to be expanded to include all aspects of inclusion, not only ethnic differences (Graham & Spandagou, 2011). The other area to ensure the success of inclusive education is to encourage schools to work with all stakeholders, including parents, support services and community members, to support students with learning needs as this provides the whole picture of the child (Hardy & Woodcock, 2015; Winter & O’Raw, 2010). The last piece of the puzzle is for government policies to support and provide guidance for teachers, support staff and administration to ensure success by acknowledging and valuing the work and effort in the implementation of inclusive education (Hardy & Woodcock, 2015).


For schools to be successful in the implementation of inclusive education, they need to acknowledge inclusion as an evolving process (Winter & O’Raw, 2010). As such, it is recommended that the following is implemented:

  • Governments
    • Foster collaboration between government departments, schools, families professionals, education systems and communities to build the infrastructure necessary to support inclusive education (Forlin et al., 2013).
    • Commonwealth and State funding for inclusion must be based on population demographics and a needs-based model (Anderson & Boyle, 2015; Barrett, 2014; Forlin et al., 2013).
    • Review both the national curriculum and national testing to ensure they meet the needs of all learners (Anderson & Boyle, 2015)
    • Ensure that educational policies regarding inclusive education are consistent across all jurisdictions (Hardy & Woodcock, 2015)
  • Schools
    • Design a comprehensive schoolwide approach to the integration of curriculum and assessment along with classroom management to meet the diverse needs of all students (Grima-Farrell, 2011).
    • Support the strengthening of the relationships between teachers, parents, students (Winter & O’Raw, 2010).
    • Provide educational settings that focus on reducing barriers to learning (Winter & O’Raw, 2010).
    • Make adjustments to school culture, policies and practices which develop support structures and the provision of and access to equitable learning opportunities (Forlin et al., 2013).
    • Provide professional development for all staff which includes students with special education needs to encourage both relationships with students and foster the importance of listening to student voice (Kaikkonen, 2010).
    • Provide professional development for all staff which focuses on best practice and the why and how of inclusive education (Anderson & Boyle, 2015).
  • Teachers
    • need to create learning environments that respond to the needs of all learners, not just students with disabilities (Forlin et al., 2013; Winter & O’Raw, 2010).
    • focus on good quality teaching of all students (Forlin et al., 2013).


As educators, there is both a legal and moral requirement to provide an inclusive education system in Australia. To address the key issues and controversies, all stakeholders need to work together to address the recommendations provided, thus providing the right to access quality education. 


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