Schools try out a ‘can do’ approach to funding for disabled students

The changes will provide more support to students who have previously slipped through the cracks because they didn’t meet the Department’s rigid funding rules for the Program for Students with a Disability.

The $659 million-a-year program provides targeted funding for integration aides, intervention programs, technology and other support.

The news was welcomed by Malcolm White and Bess Nolan-Cook, who are taking part in the pilot with their nine-year-old son Harry, who has autism.

The couple recently had 1½-hour meeting at South Yarra Primary with Harry’s teacher, teaching aide, deputy principal and an Education Department co-ordinator.

They asked about Harry’s strengths and aspirations.

They spoke about how he was generous, caring, loved school and had an incredible memory, particularly when it came to facts about soccer.

Then they were asked what further support could be provided to Harry, who struggles with speech, concentration and co-ordination.

“He has a part-time teaching aide but we’d like him to receive help on a full-time basis,” Ms Nolan-Cook said. “He’s not keeping up with his peers.”

The experience was completely different to what the family endured when applying for funding in prep.

They had to collate a hefty file with reports from Harry’s psychologist, paediatricians, speech therapist and occupational therapist. Then they completed a gruelling Education Department questionnaire at school that asked what benchmarks their son wasn’t meeting and whether he was clumsy.

“It was quite confronting,” Mr White recalls.

“To get the outcome to secure the funding you spend the whole time talking about what your son can’t do. It was an evil necessity to get the government funding.”

The new initiative is designed to maximise the independence and achievements of students with a disability and was a key recommendation of the 2016 review of the Program for Students with Disabilities.

While about 15 per cent of Victorian government school students have disabilities that require some level of ‘‘reasonable adjustment’’, 4.3 per cent, or 27,000 students receive targeted funding under the program.

It provides funding of up to up to $50,686 to students who have physical and intellectual disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, severe behaviour and language disorders and autism.

But not every student with a disability attracts funding under the Department’s rules.

Some parents of students with high-functioning autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have to shop around for a diagnosis of severe behaviour disorder in order to attract funding.

Chris Varney, who has autism and is the founder of the I CAN Network, hopes the changes lead to more support for students with autism.

“Schooling should be students first but it has traditionally been, in the government system, another battleground,” he said.

“This is a step in the right direction.”

Principals Association of Specialist Schools president Peter Bush said the changes will mean he’ll no longer have to deliver a grim warning to parents before they apply for funding.

“We would have to brief parents and say we need to look at everything your child can’t do,” he said.

“We had to paint the worst case scenario to make sure we got the biggest bucket of money. This will shift the focus so we can see what children can do, and also help schools understand what adjustments need to be made.”

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