Held Back: the experiences of students with disability in schools

Access to education is a critical factor in eliminating disadvantage and protecting vulnerable children, and is essential to lifelong economic and social wellbeing.

For these reasons, the Commission undertook research examining the experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian Schools to learn how schools are meeting students’ needs, as well as understanding where practice might be improved.

The research was initiated following concerns raised by the Commission’s Disability Reference Group, parents, advocates and students about discrimination in the provision of education services to students with disabilities.


The Commission released its landmark report: Held back: the experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian schools (PDF | RTF) and it is supported with a range of factsheets for students, parents and educators. Since then we have been working closely with the Department of Education and Training (DET) (formally the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development) and others to improve accessibility for the state's most vulnerable students.

DET has now established a cross-department Senior Officers' group to consider the recommendations, review existing programs and use the information in the report to identify opportunities and implement actions to strengthen and improve current guidelines and practice.

The Commission has met with this group to brief the members on both the findings of the report and how the positive duty to eliminate discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 can inform their work.

In addition, the Held Back report is a standing item on the agenda for the VEOHRC/DET Consultative Committee, a quarterly meeting that serves as the formal consultative mechanism between our agencies.

DET provides the Commission with updates on a number of initiatives and programs the department has either implemented, or is in the process of establishing, that are relevant to the recommendations in Held Back. These updates with DET are published below.

The Commission will continue to work with DET to improve the experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian schools.

March 2014 Update from DET

The cross-department Senior Officers’ group to consider the VEOHRC recommendations, has continued to meet and has now mapped existing, underway and planned programs, initiatives and resources that relate to the areas of concern set out in the VEOHRC report. This mapping exercise also identified some gaps in existing work and will form the basis for future discussion and planning.

The Department’s online professional learning resource for school leaders and all school staff on the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education, available to all schools in Victoria, has now been taken up by over 20 per cent of Government schools and is continuing to be used throughout our schools. Feedback from principals has been very positive.

"Excellent and lots of relevant information."

"This is an excellent tool to remind and make clear our responsibilities."

"I really like the scenarios as it applying our knowledge in real life situations."

It is intended that by 2015 all Victorian schools will have accessed this course. DET is now leading the national work to develop a module in this course for parents and carers

DET has now implemented stage one of a nationally consistent data count of students with disabilities, based on the DDA and the Standards for Education. The count is being phased in over 3 years in all Australian schools.

The VCAA’s Special Provision Review has been established and is underway.  Schools and other stakeholders will be advised of the establishment of the Review in the week commencing Monday 3 March 2014. Information about the Review is available to the public on the VCAA website.

An online survey, the first stage of the review, will be run from 11 March to 4 April 2014.

The Department’s Inclusion Online tutor led professional learning course for schools includes modules on hearing impairment, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), speech and language disabilities and Dyslexia. Over 700 Government schools have now had at least one staff take the ten week course.

At the end of 2013 the Department held a showcase for the 15 schools who have ASD Inclusion Support programs. This half day provided information about these programs, their operation, goals and achievements. Guests included parents and  representatives from parent  and disability peak groups.

The department is also continuing to work with the Office of the Senior Practitioner to inform our policies and practices through their advice and consultation. We are working on a service agreement to strengthen our existing partnership.

The Department is implementing a School Wide Positive Behaviour Support Program (SW-PBS) in all regions through a school mentoring and support approach. This program includes a significant number of our specialist schools and has begun with a state conference  including international expert, George Sugai.

A training resource has now been completed about Disability Discrimination and legal responsibilities. This work was done in partnership with the DET disability coordinators and VEOHRC. Consideration is now underway on an implementation strategy.

September 2013 Update from DET

Teacher education on discrimination law
The Department has launched a new online professional learning resource for school leaders and all school staff on the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education. This resource is available to all schools in Victoria including non-government schools.

Complaints review
The Department is currently reviewing its complaints management processes with the intention of strengthening and improving the way complaints from parents are managed.

Consistent data on students with disabilities
DET is now implementing the first stage of a nationally consistent data count of all students with disabilities, as recommended in the Gonski review.

Addressing challenging behaviour and use of restrictive practices in schools
The Department is continuing to develop advice, staff training programs, resources and material to support schools in the management of challenging behaviour and responding to situations that present a risk of immediate harm to self or others. The Department has published policy advice in its School Policy and Advisory Guidelines. In addition, the following specific activities are underway:

  • Nearly all government specialist school principals have undertaken a one-day leadership workshop in Preventing and Responding to Extreme and Challenging Behaviour. This was developed with Monash University and designed for specialist schools settings. It is intended that all specialist school teachers will have completed the related online professional learning modules by the end of 2014.
  • Principals of all specialist schools, the Presidents of Principals' Associations, and regional Executive Officers have been provided with access to a range of background documents to inform their understanding of restrictive practices and related issues. These documents include relevant publications from the Office of the Senior Practitioner, and the Evidence-based guidelines to reduce the need for restrictive practices in the disability sector produced by the Australian Psychological Society.
  • DET has also engaged a contractor from Melbourne University with expertise in the area of restrictive practices and positive behaviour support. The contractor will provide extended evidence-based advice and guidance for schools in managing extreme challenging and violent behaviours, including responding to instances of endangering behaviour. The Commission has been consulted in the development of this new guidance, which is expected to be available in October. The department is also working with the Office of the Senior Practitioner who has helped to inform the advice, guidance and training available to schools.

Improving teacher capacity to respond to challenging behaviour
Under the Victorian Government's $2 million commitment to improve the capacity of teachers to manage challenging behaviour and reduce the likelihood of situations in which endangering behaviour may occur:

  • a Managing Challenging Behaviour blended learning course for all classroom teachers and school leaders has been rolled out (attended by 300 in 2013)
  • 50 participants have been sponsored to complete the Professional Certificate in Education (Positive Behaviour and Learning) delivered by Melbourne University
  • a school grants program to promote best practice and whole school responses to challenging behaviour has been established.

In 2014, the Department intends to implement a School Wide Positive Behaviour Support Program (SW-PBS) in all regions through a school mentoring and support approach.


Thank you to the more than 1,800 students, parents and educators who had their say through our survey, phone-in and ‘have a say’ days.

Thank you also to interviewees from the Department of Education and Training, Independent Schools Victoria, the Catholic Education Office, the Disability Service Commissioner and the Office of the Senior Practitioner, who participated as key informants for the research, along with critical friends groups from the Victorian Aboriginal Disability Network and representatives of culturally and linguistically diverse communities and organisations.

Held Back forum

It was standing room only as 70 parents, teachers, academics, advocates and policy makers packed out the Commission's Held Back forum on 13 November 2012.

The forum began with a keynote speech from Senator Jacinta Collins, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education who talked about how reforms under the National Plan for School Improvement will impact upon students with disabilities. She also reflected on some of the good work that is being done under the More Support for Students with Disabilities Initiative, which she described as a 'down payment' on future efforts.

Download Senators Collin's speech <PDF and RTF>

Facilitated by Heather Ewart from the ABC's 7.30, the panel discussion focussed on what works at a school, system and community level to improve the experiences of students with disabilities. Panel members Geoff Warren, Principal of Clifton Hill Primary School; Stephanie Gotlieb, Executive Officer of Children with Disability Australia and Mark Tainsh, Director, Disabilities and Additional Needs, DET were joined by Acting Commissioner Karen Toohey in discussing what some of the challenges and opportunities are for ending discrimination in schools. This was helped along by incisive questioning by audience members.

Work on implementing the Held Back recommendations continues as the Commission spreads the word on our findings and sits down with the DET and other policy makers to progress this work.

Survey data

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More information

Disability discrimination in schools - Know your rights is a factsheet that has more information about your rights at school under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010

Other related resources include:

Disability Standards for Education 2005 – including the Report on the Review of Disability Standards for Education 2005 and the Australian Government Response to the Review.

Programs for Students with Special Learning Needs – a Victorian Auditor-General’s report tabled August 2012

Contact us

For more information about this project, please contact the Commission on (03) 9032 3422 or email [email protected].


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