Last week, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal handed down a decision that ought to be compulsory reading for politicians, parents, teachers and education bureaucrats right around this country. The case concerned Becky Turner, a young girl with severe disabilities, and the incapacity of the Victorian public education system to support her.
It’s a landmark decision and one that is much more significant for our community than that other VCAT decision that attracted international media attention — the thumbs-up given to a Collingwood gay bar to refuse entry to hetero patrons.
Becky Turner is 16 and she has so far attended five schools in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Right through her school years, Becky has had to cope with a variety of disabilities caused by a brain dysfunction. She has suffered from depression, anxiety, a severe language disorder, working memory and auditory processing deficits. Yet in school after school, Becky has been let down by inadequate assistance from teachers, a lack of well-structured and consistent special education resources, and by bureaucratic rules.
In fact, so comprehensive has the failure of the Victorian Education Department been in Becky’s case, VCAT Deputy President Cate McKenzie found last week that by making Becky attend classes for the best part of the last six years without having a full-time teacher’s aide assigned to her, amounted to a discrimination against her by the Victorian Government.
While teachers tried their best on most occasions to help Becky, the fact is that, as the VCAT judgement notes, there has not been enough long-term planning to cater for Becky Turner’s schooling needs since she began her education a decade ago.
And partly to blame for the failure to adequately care for Becky Turner is a $30 million Victorian Government program, called the Program for Students with Disabilities and Impairments, or PSD. Because of the way in which funding for students under this program is calculated, Becky Turner was not able to come under the program, even though she clearly had severe disabilities that had an impact on her learning capacity.
Significantly, Becky Turner won her claim because VCAT found that it was reasonable for the Victorian Government to fund individualised aide support for children with severe learning disorders. This should be a wake-up call to education bureaucrats and their political masters around Australia — to shortchange students like Becky simply to meet treasury requests for budget cuts is to infringe on their human rights.
While every case has to be adjudged on its own facts, there is no doubt that Becky’s case has put the spotlight on the rights of students and their parents. And, therefore, no doubt legal conservatives will mutter darkly that the VCAT decision amounts to a form of social engineering, and that it is not the role of the courts to make policy. But this is a nonsense. Becky Turner, and other students and parents in similar position, should not have to be the victims of the whims of government funding and policy when it comes to protecting their fundamental rights.
It’s a testament to Becky and her parents, that she is still a student today, and that she wants to finish Year 12 and become a teacher for children with special needs. But how many other children in schools around Australia are, on a daily basis, having their legal rights impinged upon by education authorities that are not adequately catering for their special needs?