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Development of options to enable specialist schools to become “Centres of Expertise” to support local mainstream schools to implement inclusive education

Students with disability Disability Education Victoria

Executive Summary


The project described in this report addresses the aim to “Develop options to enable specialist schools to become ‘Centres of Expertise’ to support local mainstream schools to implement inclusive education”.


Multiple strategies combining quantitative and qualitative methods were implemented to ensure that the Options developed reflected (a) contemporary evidence, relevant national and international initiatives, and current models and approaches used in some Victorian schools, and (b) stakeholder input and co-design. Five activities were completed within a 5-month period (November 2016-April 2017). These are summarized in the following sections.

Desktop Review: Grey and Published Literature

Systematic searches of grey literature and published academic articles (mostly published since 2010) addressing inclusion, special schools, and education of students with disability were conducted. Searches yielded 79 documents comprising legislation, government inquiries, submissions, and commissioned reports; and 92 academic articles, including 70  empirical studies. Document summaries were used to develop a timeline of legislation and policy reform (Appendix A), and evidence reviews. Results indicated that legislation and policy reform has been informed by human rights conventions. Still, there is evidence of problems in implementing inclusive practices in Mainstream Schools. The role of Specialist Schools has evolved since deinstitutionalization, with a recent focus on developing them as centres of expertise. Evidence reviews indicate promising practices that can be implemented by harnessing Specialist School expertise (e.g., collaborative consultation, co-teaching, effective use of Education Support staff, leadership, and enhanced parent and student peer involvement).

Current Practices of Victorian Specialist Schools

An on-line survey was completed by 84 Victorian Specialist School principals. Most (75%) reported currently providing support to other schools. These supports were varied in nature, but mostly included professional development, as well as peer support and opportunities to access resources or observe teaching. There was a general willingness to provide such supports, but efforts were mostly ad-hoc, rather than systematic.

Stakeholder Perspectives

The experiences of Specialist and Mainstream School personnel, and parents in supporting students with disabilities were explored through interviews of 32 stakeholders (18 from Specialist Schools and 10 from Mainstream Schools). They were parents (n=3), principals (n=3), assistant principals (n=4), lead or specialist teachers (n=11), consultants or outreach teachers (n=6), Education Support (ES) staff (n=3), and allied health/ psychology professionals (n=2).

Overall, the data analysis provided a needs assessment, whereby difficulties faced by schools and parents appeared related to funding gaps, difficulties meeting varied student needs, lack of teacher expertise and/or confidence, and a reliance on ES staff, who themselves were seeking opportunities to develop the skills required to support students with disabilities. Many practices that result in sharing expertise and resources were evident, which appeared to be a two-way process. Specialist Schools could and were playing a key role in building the capacity of mainstream staff. Systematising, extending and resourcing current practices, strengthening relationships between schools and with parents, and strong leadership, were indicated as key to supporting inclusive education. 

Co-design of Options

Stakeholders came together in a 1-day forum to co-design the options. There were 33 attendees: 14 principals/ assistant principals (9 from Specialist, 5 from Mainstream Schools), 9 teachers (Specialist Schools), 5 specialist support consultants/ teachers (4 from Specialist, 1 from Mainstream), 2 allied health professionals (Specialist Schools) and 3 parents (two with children in Mainstream, and one with a child in a Mainstream and another in a Specialist School). Attendees were provided with the Legislation and Policy Timeline (Appendix A), and summaries of the evidence review and interview analyses. Attendees worked in groups to develop draft options. The researchers refined and organized options according to five categories.

Acceptability and Feasibility Survey

The extent to which each of the co-designed options were considered acceptable and feasible by a wider sample of stakeholders from both Specialist and Mainstream Schools was determined using an online survey (Qualtrics) in which respondents rated each option. A total of 142 surveys were completed by parents (4 mothers, 1 father),  principals/ assistant principals (n=51), teachers (n=44), allied health professionals and staff in specialist roles (n=26). Most school personnel were from Specialist Schools (71%) and in metropolitan Melbourne (71%), with 18% in regional and 10% in rural Victoria.

Overall, the options were rated as moderately to highly acceptable and feasible, but with moderate to high resource intensity (i.e., resources needed to implement the option). There were options for each category  that received high rankings- see Appendix B.

Key Findings: Identified Options

The activities of this project resulted in the identification of eight options, within five categories. There was varying support for these options from the grey and academic literature and the stakeholder interview analysis (see Appendix C).

  1. Options for configuring the relationship between mainstream and specialist schools.
  • Collaborative networks are formed based on location, comprising one or more Specialist Schools that share and exchange expertise and resources with a number of Mainstream Schools.
  1. Options for co-ordinating demands and matching needs to expertise.
  • Each participating Specialist School has a dedicated co-ordinator position, the role of which is to liaise with Mainstream Schools; each participating Mainstream School has a dedicated “connector” position, the role of which is to link the school with the Specialist School.
  1. Options for ensuring necessary skills and leadership abilities.
  • Specialist School Teachers providing expert support to Mainstream Schools have completed professional development in particular areas of expertise,  and have experience and been supported (e.g., mentoring) to develop leadership and other skills needed to provide the following supports: face-to-face coaching, support for experiential learning, the provision of in-class intensive supports to assist teachers of students with complex issues; and communicating with senior school staff.
  1. Options for building mainstream capacity.
  • Education Support Staff are given full access to capacity building opportunities, including professional development, observing practice in Specialist Schools and in-classroom consultations with Specialist School staff.
  • All teachers in Mainstream Schools meet minimum professional development requirements that relate to the needs of any student with disability in the school.
  • Professional development is developed and delivered in flexible and varied modes that incorporate both on-line and face-face components.
  • All Mainstream School teachers within a network or partnership meet a condition of employment of having completed a placement within a specialist setting as a pre-service teacher.
  1. Options for achieving the transparency of and recognition for achieving inclusive practices that address the needs of all students with disability.
  • Specialist Schools work collaboratively with Mainstream Schools to develop flexible learning outcomes for students.

The options reflect previous models and practices implemented in Australia and internationally, with varying support from research evidence. Stakeholders perceived the options to be resource-intensive, especially in terms of budget allocation and staffing required to ensure the implementation of any option did not result in additional work for individual staff members, which could overburden them or detract from their core work. These were perceptions only in that the project did not include any attempt to cost options.

Although the options emerged from strong stakeholder involvement, certain groups were not well-represented: parents, ES staff and allied health professionals; and more Specialist than Mainstream School personnel participated. Effective communication and consultation with these groups are warranted to reduce possible implementation risks. Dissemination of this report, either in its entirety or in part, may mitigate against these risks.

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