Bailey Nicolas loves school. She loves to learn – especially about caterpillars – and to be with her friends.
But every day, the nine-year-old struggles to walk through the heavy, narrow front door of Latham Primary School.
The Canberra student lives with cerebral palsy, autism, visual impairment and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and is dependent on a walker and wheelchair.
School staff worked tirelessly to ensure they had the resources to access the program and demonstrate their learning, but it was the building itself that posed the biggest challenge.
“It tells her that she’s not welcome,” Bailey’s mother, Cathy Coe, said.
Ms Coe said the front door wasn’t the only challenge for Bailey – she could only use one bathroom on campus, and not a single field play set was suitable for a walker or a wheelchair.
Most of the classroom doors are also too narrow for Bailey to fit comfortably and confidently.
“We have had incidents where she tore the skin off her fingers as she walked through doors,” Ms. Coe said.
“I feel like it’s not good enough because it’s 2021, and it’s not rocket science.
“I don’t understand why we still have schools scattered around Canberra that don’t meet the needs of the people.”
Gymnasium used for art classes and uniform store for music
An investigation by the ACT Legislative Assembly into the state of Canberra’s schools, expected to be completed by the end of the year, has already received a series of submissions, many of which paint a grim picture.
“The toilets are unhygienic and potentially dangerous, both physically and mentally… the only way to get rid of the smell is to replace the whole bathroom” – Lyneham Elementary School Board
“Many of our students have indicated that they find them so unpleasant that they just don’t go to the bathroom at school.” – Campbell High Parents and Citizens Association
“Particularly worrying is the lack of a school room large enough to house the entire school body” – Mawson Elementary School P&C Committee
“Harrison School is forced to organize several basic courses in specialized classes. For example, English lessons in a food technology class ” – Harrison School Parents and Community Association
In addition to detailing accessibility or health issues, the submissions also highlighted capacity pressures and overcrowding in classrooms – issues Jordan Merry faced every day at Harrison School, in the north of Canberra.
Like many children with learning difficulties, calm and consistency are essential for this eight-year-old, who has the autism spectrum and suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
“The school currently uses multi-purpose gymnasiums for art classes and the uniform store and a storage area for music lessons,” Jordan’s father Shane said.
“These students are already behind when it comes to learning challenges and when you throw a wrench in assignments by changing their routine, it just adds fuel to the fire.”
Mr Merry said class sizes at the school had also been pushed to its limits.
“This adds another challenge, especially for children with sensory or processing issues – their hearing is much more sensitive than yours or mine,” he said.
Reports of Children Learning in Hallways and Reserves: Education Union
The Australian Education Union has repeatedly urged the ACT government to devote additional resources to local school infrastructure.
“It would be unimaginable not to be able to feel welcome or be a part of your school environment,” said Angela Burroughs, ACT branch president.
Ms Burroughs said the union had also heard similar stories about the impact of Canberra’s strong population growth on school ability.
“Many schools no longer have specialized spaces, such as a music room or an art room, even the library must be converted into a general classroom to accommodate a growing number of students,” he said. she declared.
“This is clearly inappropriate and unacceptable. It needs to be fixed.”
ACT government is doing “best” to improve accessibility
Education Minister Yvette Berry said the Education Directorate is constantly working to make sure every school in Canberra is inclusive and accessible, but acknowledged that parents have waited longer than necessary in some cases .
This work included replacing unsuitable doors, adding accessible bathrooms and installing elevators on school grounds.
“The Directorate of Education is doing their best to ensure that every student has access to a great local school and inclusive education, and we are working with every school community to make sure that happens,” Ms. Berry.
But she said she didn’t know when the front doors to Latham Primary would be replaced.
Ms Berry said the ACT government has set aside $ 99 million to spend over four years on school infrastructure, including accessibility upgrades.
It will also spend $ 450,000 to undertake a two-year review of the education of students with disabilities in ACT public schools and develop an inclusion strategy.
Parents like Ms Coe and Mr Merry say it’s critical for government and management to tackle the issues plaguing schools in Canberra, in order to improve the experience for children like Bailey and Jordan.
“We have to invest now for later.”