Keelonith Primary School is a brand-new, future-focussed, inclusive school in Victoria, Australia that is due to open in 2021. The school is described as a ‘supported inclusion school’, meaning that it welcomes and caters for all students within the local community, including students from diverse backgrounds such as different abilities, cultures and gender. The concept of inclusion was initially conceptualised to reduce segregation between mainstream education and special education. However, it has expanded to meet the needs of those with differences in language, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status who may require different instructional strategies to meet learning and behavioural needs. Consequently, there are no eligibility criteria for inclusion, apart from a maximum capacity plan; it is for all students. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ in inclusive schools as everyone belongs.
Keelonith is not the first supported inclusion school to be built in Victoria, with two schools already established in 2020, and three more, including Keelonith, opening in 2021. More schools are planned beyond 2021. Despite empirical evidence from over four decades indicating that all students, including those with intellectual disability, have improved academic and social outcomes through inclusive education, many schools are not inclusive. Mainstream schools are not designed for diversity, as students are expected to adjust to the pre-existing structure, and are therefore not inclusive. And this lack of inclusion explains why parents of students with disability often choose segregated settings in the form of special schools, classes and units for their child. Data indicates that the enrolment of Australian students with disability in segregated settings has increased over the last decade (Cukaleuski & Malaquias 2019). Increased enrolments in segregated settings result in increased expenditure and funding of segregated settings, thus ensuring the parallel system of mainstream education and special education continues.
The principal Loren Peavey, and assistant principal Sam Birrell, said that a significant number of students with disability in Victoria travel an hour or more to attend special schools. However, Keelonith will be able to accept enrolments from students living in the local area, including students with disability who previously had limited options to learn alongside their peers in their own neighbourhood. Loren and Sam explained that every aspect of the school is inclusive, beginning with the social justice ideology that underpins everything they do, through to the building design and pedagogy. This inclusive approach differs from integration, which is what happens in most Australian schools, where the student is placed in existing mainstream settings and must fit in with standardised requirements. Students with disability do not easily fit into mainstream settings, but neither do many other students. Instead, an inclusive school is one that has undergone a deep transformation to ensure accessibility, equity and belonging for all students.
The Social Justice Ideology
An inclusive school has a school culture that is based on the principles of social justice. The social justice ideology behind inclusive education shifts the emphasis from deficits to a strength-based model while challenging deeply entrenched myths and misconceptions. Australian society tends to view disability as residing intrinsically within the student while ignoring the role of the environment in creating barriers to access. As well, schools tend to divide and categorise students for easier administration. However, Loren and Sam explained that while diagnostic labels are utilised for funding purposes prior to enrolment at Keelonith (and the school is funded the same way that others are), once within the school each student is viewed as an individual and their learning needs are met in a flexible way. Labels are avoided, and even words such as ‘disability’ and ‘gifted’ are not utilised as learner variability is the norm, rather than the exception. Within the disability community, many have reclaimed labels such as the word ‘disability’ to reject stigma, define culture and build disability identity and pride. However, the majority of parents of children with disability have not been exposed to the disability pride movement, which is mainly comprised of adults, and therefore labels in the school context only serve to stigmatise. Removing labels avoids the contentious debates about language and provides the opportunity for students to make their own decisions about how, and if, they wish to self-identify.
The Building Design
The school has been designed for accessibility using the principles of universal design. Universal design refers to the design and composition of an environment so it can be accessed and utilised by all people to the greatest extent possible. When the needs of minority groups are met, everyone benefits, so universal design is good design. Consequently, every part of the school has been designed to be accessible, costing an extra two million in the building process. While the upfront cost of accessibility is greater, retrofitting buildings that are not accessible is far more expensive in the long run. Therefore, accessible design from the start is a sensible fiscal decision. Within Keelonith Primary School, there are wider doorways, hearing loops, larger and flexible learning spaces including flexible furniture options, no steps, sensory rooms, nooks and crannies and all accessible change and toilet areas. The school also has an inbuilt ceiling hoist throughout the school enabling students who require transfers from their wheelchair to have the option to be at ground level with their peers. The needs of the local community were considered in the planning phase rather than relying on a rigid checklist that has the potential to exclude certain groups. For example, traditional accessible toilets that segregate boys and girls were incorporated to meet the cultural needs of the community within the school, but Loren, the principal, advocated to have accessible unisex toilets incorporated into the building design.
Keelonith Primary adopts evidence-based learning approaches such as explicit teaching, positive behaviour support and visual supports, using flexible groupings where all teachers take responsibility for all students. Resources such as visuals are on portable boards or in buckets, so they can be easily transported to the location where they are needed. Therefore, the notion of the traditional classroom space, decorated with Pinterest designs, with a group of students and one teacher has been disbanded. Yet, high expectations are embedded within the school, and all students are supported to achieve the same essential understandings. Student interests, voice, agency and leadership are built into the learning program in an authentic way.
Natural proportions are a crucial element of inclusive design as the proportion of students with disability should be in proportion to their presence in the general population. Consequently, the Department of Education and Training has established a maximum capacity of 10% of students with intellectual disability to ensure that all students receive adequate and appropriate support.
Inclusive education is when all students, regardless of their ability, are placed in age-appropriate general education classes in schools in their own neighbourhood to receive high-quality instruction, interventions, and supports that enable them to be successful in the classroom. But, as long as we continue to fund special schools and special classes at the expense of providing supports in inclusive education, we will always have a parallel education system of mainstream and special schools. Hopefully, Keelonith Primary School will become a role model for other schools in the education space as more schools move toward an inclusive model.