Landmark Report Will Make a Difference If Government Backs Recommendations with Resources

The Expert Panel on Students with Complex Needs and Challenging Behaviour has delivered a range of excellent recommendations and the ACT Government has agreed to all of them. Now the Government needs to deliver the resources to make all the recommendations a reality in practice.

More Qualified Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools

Recommendation 10.1: That ETD increase the number of psychologists/school counsellors (or other professionals with complementary expertise) within schools to meet the ratio of 1:500 students recommended by the Australian Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools Association. (p.134)

The Government needs to back the Expert Panel’s recommendation with more than words. It needs to provide resources to fund around 35 additional full-time equivalent psychologists in our schools. It is yet to make this commitment.

A ratio of one full-time equivalent school psychologist for every 500 students is best practice as acknowledged by a recent coroner’s report, the Australian Psychologist and Counsellors in Schools Association and now Professor Shaddock and his eminent panel. At the moment, on ETD’s account the ratio is 1:750. This inevitably limits the support that some of the most vulnerable young people in our schools receive. 

The Expert panel noted that: 

“The current model of allocation of school psychologists in ACT Public Schools generally provides one psychologist for 2–4 schools in a local area.” (p.133)

“Throughout the Panel’s consultation, the lack of capacity of school psychologists to meet student need was a consistent theme raised by many stakeholders in the public sector” (p.132).

“Over 30% of school leaders nominated additional access to the school psychologist as one thing that would make a difference in supporting students with complex needs and challenging behaviour” (p.132).

School psychologists feel extremely frustrated when they know they have the skills to help students but do not have the time to give them the amount of support they need. (p.132)

Sensory Spaces in Schools

The ACT Government has agreed with the Expert Panel’s recommendation that special sensory spaces in schools need to be either be developed or enhanced. The Government has committed $3 million to make this happen.

Clear Policy and Guidelines on Use of Restrictive Practices

Recommendation 11.1: That ETD… develop practical guidelines on the appropriate use of voluntary withdrawal spaces, seclusion, and physical restraint.

The Expert Panel noted: “There are currently no formal oversight mechanisms for decisions about restrictive practices, which are left to the judgement of individual teachers and school leaders.” (p.139)

The report states: “…current policy guidance does not assist teachers to decide what to do in responding to emergency situations where preventive strategies have failed (for a range of possible reasons), and safety is at risk. Teachers need clear and detailed guidance about when and how they might physically intervene to protect students from harm in crisis situations. Second, current policy guidance does not help teachers to recognise where ongoing behaviour management strategies involve inappropriate levels of restrictive practice, for example to detect warning signs that a classroom practice that was originally intended to be a ‘self directed calming space’ has evolved over time to become an inappropriate form of seclusion… Reducing and eliminating the use of restrictive practices will not happen without clear guidance for staff, and transparent monitoring of practice.” (p.157)

The Expert Panel recommends the following overarching principles in relation to use of restrictive practices.

  • 'it is used to prevent immediate imminent risk of harm to the student or others;
  • it is the least restrictive option available for preventing harm;
  • it respects, as far as possible, the dignity of the student;
  • the action taken is proportionate to the risk presented;
  • it is used for the shortest time possible;
  • it is applied with the least amount of force required;
  • it is recorded, monitored, and subject to appropriate oversight.
  • Teachers need to be able to demonstrate that their actions were necessary in the circumstances.' (p.156)

Policy On Escalation of Behavioural Issues

Recommendation 10.3: That ETD ensure that the NSETs are sufficiently resourced and supported to allow them to (a) provide ongoing coaching to teachers within the classroom setting to assist with the support of students with very challenging behaviours; (b) respond proactively and in a timely way to meet identified needs; and (c) develop a high level of expertise in relation to the support and management of students with very challenging behaviours, and obtain specialist consultant advice where required. (p.140)

The Government has agreed to recommendation 10.3.

The Expert Panel found that “ETD does not have a clear policy regarding the escalation of behavioural issues that cannot be resolved by NSET [Network Student Engagement Teams] and it is not clear what further support can be provided in these circumstances. A number of school leaders commented to the Panel that ultimately they felt that they were left alone to solve the more difficult problems, without the resources to properly meet the needs of some students with the most complex needs and challenging behaviour.” (p.139)

In this respect, the Expert Panel recommended (including 10.3, above) a range of increased resourcing for NSET teams that would further enhance their expertise; enable the NSETs to provide more ongoing support; and deliver a ‘buck stops here’ response (p.140).

The AEU has said for some time that multi-disciplinary teams are a worthwhile initiative that warrant continuing and comprehensive evaluation. However, Network Student Engagement Teams should not come at the expense of qualified psychologists in schools at a ratio of 1:500 students.

Safety of staff

The Expert Panel highlighted the responsibility of the employer to ensure the safety of staff.

"(Schools) have a duty to protect the safety of staff and others in the workplace, through appropriate risk management. Employers must not allow staff to be subjected to violence without taking measures to minimise this risk, regardless of their dedication or willingness to tolerate this."

Qualifications for Learning Support Assistants

Recommendation 10.7: That ETD... commit to the professionalisation of LSAs and ensure that by 2018 (a) all LSAs hold, or are in the process of obtaining, at least a Certificate IV in School Age Education & Care or equivalent; and (b) all LSAs working in a Learning Support Unit or specialist school hold, or are in the process of obtaining, at least a Certificate IV in Education Support or equivalent. (p.144)

This recommendation is a highlight of the report and acknowledges that learning support assistants play an integral role in supporting students with complex needs and challenging behaviours. We anticipate that the Government will want to implement this without equivocation, including paying for the qualification itself and study leave.

Coherent strategy for the provision of alternative education programs 

Recommendation 7.4: That ETD publish information about support and education options for students at risk in the ACT Public School system, including the location of programs, operational philosophy, curriculum offered, criteria for enrolment, and referral process. (p.107)

Recommendation 7.5: That ETD develop and implement a coherent strategy for the provision of alternative education programs and/or other flexible learning options, for students at risk of disengaging from secondary school. This strategy should ensure that, if required, such students have access to an appropriate alternative education program throughout their secondary schooling, building on the positive features of the Achievement Centres and Connect10 programs. (p.107)

The report notes the outstanding work occurring in alternative settings and cites positive parental feedback:

“Parents were also very positive about the program: I can’t praise Connect10 highly enough, it has been the saving grace for my child who would otherwise have completely disengaged from school. (Parent)” (p.104)

The report calls on ETD to better publicise alternative settings and develop a coherent strategy which comprehensively articulates their role in the ACT education system.

A Caution About School Autonomy

The report of the Expert Panel notes that moves to school autonomy have been associated with an absence of clear policy and guidance.

As The Canberra Times editorialised, “The sector's reluctance to embrace the wider integration of special-needs students appears to derive in part from the muddied lines of authority that have developed in the ACT since the decision to grant individual schools greater autonomy. A line from a 2008 Education and Training policy document that ACT schools are "… required to make reasonable adjustments for students with disability" illustrates that laissez-faire approach. Specific guidance and information on students with disability in the senior secondary has been ever harder to locate."

Implementation Advisory Group

The recommendation to establish an advisory group to oversee implementation of the report is the glue that will bind all of the Expert Panel’s good work. The AEU is currently seeking clarification about the place of educators in this process. It would be unthinkable that the voice of the profession through the AEU, and the teachers who work every day with our most high needs students would be excluded from this important quality assurance mechanism. The Minister needs to make her position clear on this immediately.



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