Vulnerable children to lose classroom support in big cut to specialised teachers

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Victoria’s Education Department has been accused of deserting some of the state’s most vulnerable children following proposed cuts to a service that provides disabled students with classroom support.

Parents say they have been blindsided by the proposal, which would significantly reduce the number of specialised teachers who assist students with vision and hearing impairments, autism and other disabilities in the state’s public schools.

The Education Department announced last week that it would cut 325 full-time equivalent jobs. It said no school jobs would be affected, but staff employed by the visiting teacher service were classed as departmental employees. The proposal will reduce the number of visiting teacher jobs from 117 to 32.

Emily Shepard, whose son Louis has both vision and hearing impairment, said there had been no consultation by the department. She heard the news via email from a colleague.

Emily Shepard says her 13-year old son Louis won’t get specialised classroom support after cuts by the education department.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“I was just completely deflated and shocked and just quite distressed,” she said. “How can this be happening? How come we haven’t heard about it? How come there’s no consultation?

“I can’t see any evidence that there is any thought process that has the best interest of the kids at the heart of it. This looks like a short-term budget fix with no thought about the repercussions long-term for some of the most vulnerable kids in the school system.”

Thirteen-year-old Louis has Usher syndrome, a rare degenerative condition that affects both sight and hearing. He has two specialist teachers who regularly visit his Mordialloc school.

Shepard said her only option if her son lost visiting teacher support was to use NDIS funding to hire private therapists to do site visits to the school – at four times the cost.

“It’s just moving the burden from one system to another,” she said.

“You remove those supports and the whole thing comes crashing down. The schools don’t have the capacity or the expertise or the versatility to understand the unique needs of children with either deafness or vision loss or a combination of both.”

Shepard, who heads an Usher syndrome support group, said she had called the department for answers, but was given no reassurance that children affected by the changes would be looked after.

“To take funding away from such a vulnerable group of children who are already struggling in a number of different categories, it’s just heartbreaking and it just screams inequality to me,” she said.

In a letter to the government, National Association of the Australian Teachers of the Deaf chairperson Kaye Scott said the cuts would inevitably affect frontline services. In one of the visiting teacher service’s four regions, nearly 1000 students at more than 300 schools received regular support from a visiting teacher, she said.

An Education Department spokesperson said the service’s 32 specialised vision and hearing-impaired visiting teacher roles would be retained.

But Scott said it would be “impossible” to maintain the current level of support with 32 staff statewide.

Scott said she had worked for the visiting teacher program as recently as 2021, when 12 staff in one region provided services to about 600 hearing-impaired students.

The department’s new figure equated to eight visiting teachers across each of the program’s four regions, servicing both vision and hearing-impaired students.

“It’s because of the supports they receive in primary school and secondary school that they’re able to keep in the ballpark with their peers and if they miss that support, we know that they fall behind and the gap gets bigger,” she said.

Scott said Victoria already offered significantly less classroom support than other states.

“And that’s before the cuts,” she said.

The department spokesperson said the government had invested $1.6 billion in disability inclusion since the visiting teacher service was implemented.

This included 82 “inclusion outreach coaches” to be deployed by next year to ensure continued support to schools working with students with additional needs. The current visiting teachers service would be scaled back and all other staff would be offered school-based positions, the spokesperson said.

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