Why the NDIS is a big deal
One of the biggest policy reforms in generations is about to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians.
Students with disabilities could miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding because of serious concerns about the reliability of a landmark national audit into the number of school children with special needs.
Disability advocates fear the questionable long-awaited study, quietly released on Tuesday, will be used as an "escape clause" for governments to again delay the delivery of extra funding for students with disabilities.
The Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD) shows 18 per cent of school children in 2015 had a disability while only 7.4 per cent received targeted funding.
The study shows 20.7 per cent of students in Queensland have a disability, far higher than 11.3 per cent of students in Tasmania and 13.6 per cent in the Northern Territory. It found 17.9 per cent of NSW students and 17.1 per cent of Victoria students have a disability.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the study showed "extreme" discrepancies between the states and territories and failed "a basic credibility test".
The Coalition originally promised a new disability loading would be in place for the 2015 school year, replacing a temporary loading that was introduced when the Gonski reforms began. This was then delayed until 2016, then 2018, on the grounds that the data was still being collected.
The 2018 timeline now appears doubtful, with Senator Birmingham saying there is a "long way to go" until the data can be used as the basis for a new funding benchmark.
Teachers unions have lobbied strongly for the creation of a new loading which they believe could deliver an extra $1 billion in funding to schools each year.
Senator Birmingham said it was highly dubious that students in Western Australia were apparently 3.5 times more likely to have a disability as students in the NT, or that almost twice as many children require assistance in Queensland as Tasmania.
The report itself notes "observable variability" across states, territories and school sectors. It says it is unclear whether the differences reflect reality or different levels of understanding about the data collection model.
"These results are frustrating and must be disappointing for families of children with disability," Senator Birmingham said.
"Nonetheless, we will work with states and territories to collaboratively improve the data quality and consistency in the hope that it can better inform distribution of our record and growing funding in the New Year."
The Commonwealth provided a record $1.5 billion for funding for students with disabilities in 2017, he said.
Stephanie Gotlib, chief executive of Children and Young People with Disability Australia, said: "We have serious concerns about the accuracy of the data as well.
"They have had two trials and enormous resources - why hasn't this been fixed? At what point will someone take responsibility for this."
She added: "I hope this isn't used as an escape clause by governments not to increase funding. Our system is failing disabled students big time and the path to reform is not there."
Australian Education Union deputy president Maurie Mulheron said: "The federal government has known about this data for over a year and done nothing.
"Inconsistencies in the data should not be allowed to distract us from the fact that thousands of students with disability who need funded support in our schools, but are not getting it.
"Every year we delay is another cohort of students with disability who will miss out on vital support and the chance to benefit fully from their education."
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