Enacting inclusive education policy across and between levels within a decentralized education system in Australia

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Increasingly, countries in the wider European and international policy context have acknowledged inclusive education as a basic right that emphasizes both equity and quality in schooling (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (EASNIE), 2016a; 2012; OECD, 2012). Education systems, which are decentralized can impact the way that these three interconnected goals of equity, excellence and inclusiveness are addressed in policy and practice (EASNIE, 2017). The theoretical arguments for decentralization are that situating decision-making amongst those responsible for the delivery, can enhance the relevance of the decisions and increase accountability by making better use of local knowledge and resources (Channa, 2014). While decentralization is considered a key variable to analysis of local contexts, the evidence linking decentralization to improvement in student learning is mixed (Chana, 2016) and in the context of inclusive education has received little attention. Coordinated monitoring, accountability, professional training and clarity around roles and responsibilities of relevant staff are key to ensuring that the implementation of policy is consistent across the organization (Bernbaum, 2011; Lehner, 2012). This paper reports on findings from one part of a larger mixed method research project focusing on school models of support in a decentralized education system in Australia. The purpose of the broader research was to examine the impact of system level resource provision in enacting inclusive education policy, and with consideration of potential alternative models of support for the future (Deppeler and Forlin, 2017). It was expected that the findings would provide further clarity around how decentralization influences the implementation of inclusive policy and practice at various organizational levels. At the system level, a specific concern was that the funding provided for student support had continued to increase annually and as a consequence, the practice of using unqualified teaching assistants (TA)s had inadvertently become the primary mechanism of support students with disabilities (SWD) and others in schools. (Deppeler & Forlin, 2017). Little data was available on how schools deployed support staff, worked with allied health professionals and monitored the impact of this work. These system level concerns are consistent with findings from the UK where the increase of TAs reportedly comprised 25% of the workforce in schools (Webster, Blatchford, & Russell, 2013). In Australia, similar trends have been predicted as a result of increasing numbers of SWD in schools (Butt, 2016; Sharma, 2016), but limited information on support staff in Australia is available. The qualitative study reported here was informed by multiple perspectives from staff working at three organizational levels in a decentralized system: school, regional (across schools), and the system level. Our aim was to map how resources, organizational structures and professional autonomy shaped and enacted inclusive educational policy and practice in response to student diversity and the perceived needs of their context. Of particular interest, was mapping how staff responded to diversity in ways that addressed individual differences but did not perpetuate disengagement or exclusion from quality schooling. Research questions: 1. Mapping the terrain: What is the focus and shape of policy and practice responses to student diversity and the rationale for these responses? Who is involved? What tasks are undertaken? How is the work organized, managed and by whom? Where does the work take place? How does the work connect to wider organization processes, professional development and community engagement? 2. What are leader, teacher and support staff perceptions of the value and barriers to the various responses to diversity, particularly in relation to any perceived challenges in the context? 3. How is the effectiveness determined, reported and communicated? 4. What is the perceived value of the organization’s policy, processes and what is identified for future development? Methods/Methodology This study employs a qualitative methodological approach that includes in-depth interviews with 15 key informants and over 90 participants in focus discussion groups. The selection of schools, interviewees and group participants was based on their role at one of three organization levels in decentralized education system in Australia. The selection was meant to reflect the diverse perspectives and responsibilities of the different stakeholders within the identified model of support and included: schools, leaders, teachers, allied health professionals, teaching assistants, and system level managers and administrators. Interview data was supplemented by relevant documentation available at the level, on the model of support including: priorities, rationale, roles and responsibility, accountability and methods and outcomes of any evaluation the effectiveness of the model. A review of the literature prior to commencing the research guided initial coding of transcripts through a priori themes and word matches. Individual researchers were responsible for coding data from one group each, using inductive coding. The researchers came to together on multiple occasions to align and refine coding across groups, as well as to compare findings and identify discrepancies. This ensured clarity of the labels that were applied to the identified themes, as well as the consistency of their application to the data. Differing interpretations were discussed among the researchers until agreement was reached according to standard recommendations for rigour and validity in qualitative research (Bazeley, 2013). Expected outcomes & Results Analysis identified a number of key issues, strengths and challenges in the design and implementation of models of support. Discussion of these is offered using five key themes - Management and decision-making; Collaboration and communication; Professional autonomy and development; Perceived frames of benefit; Monitoring and effectiveness. At each level of the organization it was clear that leaders considered the needs of their local context in the design, decision-making and management of their model of support. While a willingness and commitment to innovation was shared, there was variation in the extent to which the effectiveness of the approaches was monitored and evaluations were informed by evidence. Collaboration and communication were essential components in each model of support and were identified at all organizational levels by each participant group. Marked variations were also found within and between participant groups when it came to professional autonomy and development, perceived frames of benefit, and practices of monitoring effectiveness. The paper discusses the implications of these findings in relation to the challenges of establishing shared understanding and commitment among key stakeholders working in decentralized education structures. The paper concludes with considerations for how schools might develop their capacities for improving policy, education development and change through reflection on levels of decision-making and accountability. For the future, it is essential to open up participation processes to a broad range of stakeholders. Key stakeholders will need to collaborate in setting and clarifying shared agendas, creating momentum in implementation and raising capacity across the system, especially in new modes of teaching and assessment. If the benefits of resource provision are not available, effective, and accessible by the students most in need this may lead to further inequalities and potential exclusion from their communities. NOT INCLUDED Intent of publication: The findings of this qualitative study will be used to inform and shape the next stages of the planned research, to be made more widely available across the sector. The study has potential significance to Australian educators, as the value of support staff is being questioned and schools are under pressure to achieve high standards of academic performance for increasingly diverse student populations. In particular, how resource provision can support educators to work effectively with other professionals including support staff in schools. If the benefits of resource provision are not available, effective, and accessible by the students most in need this may lead to further inequalities and potential exclusion from their communities. Thus, findings of this study have potential educational and social benefit for Australian students and families in considering the forms of support they are offered. The study is timely and aligned with OECD priorities – as such the findings are likely to be of benefit to other educational authorities in thinking about how to balance the influence and interests of different actors and simultaneously maintain a focus on equity, excellence in inclusive policy and practice. It will necessitate a critical examination of the differential impact of local contexts for diverse students in educational systems which are decentralized. References: Butt, R. (2016b). Teacher assistant support and deployment in mainstream schools, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(9), 995-1007. Bernbaum, M. (2011). EQUIP2 Lessons Learned in Education Decentralization: A Guide to Education Project Design, Washington DC. Accessed from: https://www.epdc.org/sites/default/files/documents/EQUIP2%20LL%20Decentralization%20AAR.pdf Channa, A. (2016). Popularity of the decentralization reform and its effects on the quality of education. Prospects, 46(1), 131-147. DOI 10.1007/s11125-016-9380-7 Channa, A. (2014). Decentralization and the quality of education. Background paper for EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002324/232418e.pdf. Lehner, S., 2012. Equip2 Lessons Learned in Education Synthesis. Washington, DC: Accessed from: https://www.epdc.org/sites/default/files/documents/EQUIP2%20LL%20Synthesis.pdf Deppeler, J. M. & Forlin, C. (2017) Models of support for students with high needs East Melbourne VIC Australia: Catholic Education Melbourne. 80 p. European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education, 2017. Decentralisation in Education Systems – Seminar Report. (V.J. Donnelly,
E. Óskarsdóttir and A. Watkins, eds.). Odense, Denmark European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2016a) Agency position on inclusive education systems. Accessed from: https://www.european-agency.org/about-us/who-we-are/position-on-inclusive-education-systems European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2016b) Annex to the Agency Position on Inclusive Education Systems. Accessed from: https://www.european-agency.org/sites/default/files/Annex to the Agency Position on Inclusive Education Systems_0.pdf European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education. (EADSNE) (2011). Teacher education for inclusion across Europe: A synthesis of policy and practice in 25 countries. Østre, Denmark: Author. Organization For Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (2014) Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education Policy Lessons from Around the World, OECD publishing, Accessed from: https://www.ucy.ac.cy/equality/documents/Articles- Material/OECD_2014_Report.pdf OECD (2013), Teachers for the 21st Century: Using Evaluation to Improve Teaching, OECD Publishing, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1787/9789264193864-en. OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Schools and Students, OECD Publishing, http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1787/9789264130852-en. Rouw, R., et al. (2016), "United in Diversity: A Complexity Perspective on the Role of Attainment Targets in Quality Assurance in Flanders", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 139, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/10.1787/5jlrb8ftvqs1-en Sharma, U., & Salend, S. J. (2016). Teaching Assistants in Inclusive Classrooms: A Systematic Analysis of the International Research. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(8).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2018 - Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Bolazno, Italy
Duration: 4 Sep 20187 Sep 2018


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2018
Abbreviated titleECER 2018
Internet address

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