Break the divide
23 May 2019
A strong support network and a policy of inclusion helps students to thrive at this Brisbane school.
Educators at Marsden State High School outside Brisbane in Queensland are demonstrating
the benefits of an inclusive learning environment.
The Special Education Program (SEP) at the school of 2,250 students includes those with disabilities, plus specialist behaviour management support and a large learning support unit.
About 130 students are verified under the Adjustment Information Management System (AIMS) and qualify for extra resources. But there are many more students in need of support who don’t meet the criteria.
Fortunately, the extra Gonski funding over the past few years helped to provide a strong student support services network, which includes three youth support coordinators, an industry liaison officer, a careers engagement and SEP transitions officer, a nurse, a school-based police officer, a wellbeing coordinator, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education unit, guidance officers, SEP case managers and learning support staff.
Executive principal Andrew Peach says a more inclusive approach involving students and staff in the SEP department began about two years ago and the results are already evident. One initiative has seen SEP teachers teach some mainstream classes and vice versa.
“We’re trying to break the divide between SEP and the rest of the school and it was very successful for us last year. In fact, we’ll take it a bit further this year,” Peach says.
The head of special education services, Brad Tavelardis, is also the deputy principal in charge of Year 11 and the mixing of roles between SEP and mainstream classes brought about the idea for improving inclusion.
Tavelardis established study rooms and resources for the Year 11 students in what was traditionally known as the SEP area.
“About halfway through the year we noticed that it was becoming normal for the Year 11s to spend time down there. It was also becoming normal for our SEP kids to be all across the school, so it was a nice little manoeuvre that, to be fair, we hadn’t strategically planned at the start of the year,” says Peach.
He says the change has helped to remove any perceived stigma from the SEP area and teachers have collaborated at a higher level, too.
“That’s been really successful; the shared understanding and the commitment to work with each other was really strong throughout the year. And that’s had a massive impact on our staff’s understanding of each other’s responsibilities, their engagement in what they’re doing and also their professional development.”
Importantly, there’s been a marked effect on the students. Engagement among SEP students has improved, behavioural referrals have dropped and there has been a big reduction in suspensions.
Academically, SEP students are thriving, Peach says.
For the past three years, all Year 12 SEP students have graduated with either a Queensland Certificate of Education or a Queensland Certificate of Individual Attainment, a significant shift from the days when SEP students would finish school with no certificate.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is that the results really do indicate that it’s money well spent.
“It’s not money that’s sitting there waiting for a rainy day or to build another swimming pool. It’s used to employ real people to make a real difference with our kids,” Peach says.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Autumn 2019.