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SA schools to cut disability funding red tape

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In an Australian first, South Australian public schools will be able to receive thousands of dollars in funding to support students with disability based on a teacher’s judgement and not on a formal diagnosis.

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The full rollout of the new Inclusive Education Support Program (IESP) – scheduled for the start of Term 4 – follows criticism schools previously had to endure months of administrative burden before receiving extra funding to cater for students with disabilities or learning difficulties.

To receive funding under the old model, children had to be assessed by a psychologist or other specialist employed by the Education Department – regardless of whether they had already been formally diagnosed by an independent or other government agency.

Once assessed, schools were then required to apply for different pools of funding based on a child’s needs – a process that the Department now admits was “very time-consuming” and “complex”.

Under the new model, when teachers identify that a student requires extra classroom support – regardless of whether the child has a formal diagnosis – they are able to apply for extra funding directly through an online portal.

An Education Department panel comprising 40 experts will then assess the teacher’s application to determine what level of funding the school receives.

The Department’s director of disability policy and programs Ian May said the new model was devised to speed up the process and make it more flexible.

“The old model was quite lock-step,” he said.

“It was really based on the diagnosis of disability rather than the need of the child and it was very inflexible in the way that schools would use resourcing and how they could apply for it.

“There was quite a few hurdles and barriers to really getting effective, targeted resourcing to the schools and then of course to the child.”

One parent with a child diagnosed as being on the spectrum – who wished to remain anonymous – told InDaily they were forced to wait months before their child’s school received extra funding to cater for their child’s learning needs.

The parent said despite their child’s diagnosis being recognised by other government agencies, the Education Department still required a “time-consuming” separate assessment before it agreed to approve extra funding.

“We approached the school (and) we made them aware of the diagnosis and we later approached the school to discuss the possibility of further assistance, for example more one-on-one teaching if at all possible, or being able to use a laptop rather than handwriting,” the parent said.

“While the school was obviously aware of our child’s condition and needs and had in fact been dealing with us for some years, we were surprised to learn the Education Department did have a pool of funding to cover these needs but all of our assessment and documentation, which had been approved by other government departments, mattered for little to the Education Department.

“We had to sit with a senior member of school several times for quite some time to mount and argue a case for our child to receive extra assistance from this pool, which involved lots of paperwork and discussion.

“Much later you find out what you may or may not be getting and in our case much of the school year had passed before any real concrete assistance was given and even then it was less than what we had hoped for.”

Australian Education Union state branch vice president Dash Taylor-Johnson said under the old model, teachers had to spend “many hours and often days” to prepare applications for disability funding.

“Often outcomes for resourcing are not guaranteed (and) rejection is commonplace for students with real need,” he said.

May said the Department had addressed problems with the old model by providing more long-term funding for schools and streamlining the application process.

He said under the new model – devised in consultation with parents, disability advocates and school and preschool representatives – parents would be notified when a teacher had made an application for extra funding for their child, as well as when the Department had reached a funding decision.

May added that by removing the need for students to be assessed, the Department had “freed” up staff so they could instead focus on helping teachers develop learning plans for students with complex needs.

“We are probably the most sophisticated education system in Australia because we’ve gone from an old model which is diagnosis, to one which is based on school assessment,” he said.

“If a child needs an assessment it can happen and it does happen – we still have the same number of staff – but we don’t want them assessed for assessment’s sake.

“We are the first in Australia that’s gone to this model.”

Education Minister John Garnder described the funding model change as a “major shift” that would reduce administrative burden on teachers and educators.

“Reducing red tape allows speech therapists, behaviour specialists and special education experts to do more work directly with teachers and students, rather than acting as gatekeepers for funding purposes,” he said.

But Taylor-Johnson said since the Department had begun rolling out the new model at the start of this year, teachers had experienced “quite the opposite”, with a more “convoluted application process, lack of clarity of outcome and lack of consistency in how need is being met”.

“Unfortunately the current mechanism of the IESP is resulting in inequality for learners of equivalent need and this is not just or fair,” he said.

“There are many cases where clearly identified need is not matched with a consistent level of resourcing to make sure that every child is provided with what they need to belong, engage and experience success.

“This is not a perfect solution and with the current application assessment practice it does not reflect a continuous improvement model.”

SA Primary Principal’s Association vice president David Chadwick said principals would welcome a system that “isn’t complex, isn’t time-consuming and is transparent so that the information can be made readily available”.

According to May, about 19,000 South Australian students in public schools currently access extra funding for disability and learning support.

That funding ranges from $6000 to $64,000 per student per year, with the Department able to exceed that limit “if the need is there”.

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