Special Needs Education in Australia

Understand what kind of assistance is available for children with special needs in the Australian school system...

In Australia children with special needs are those with disabilities, health related conditions or learning difficulties. The term disability encompasses children with an intellectual disability, physical disability, vision impairment, hearing impairment, language disorder, mental health condition or autism.

Special education is defined as teaching for students with learning needs that cannot be met by the standard Australian school curriculum. It may involve specialised exercises, subject matter or techniques appropriate to the needs of the child.

History of Special Needs Education

The earliest schools for children with special needs in Australia were opened in the 1860s. They provided an education for children who were deaf or blind. In the 1920s schools for children with other disabilities were opened. In the first half of the 20th century schools for children with specific disabilities were run by charities and voluntary organisations. In the 1970s state governments started to take responsibility for the education provided in special schools. They also established special education units in regular schools.

Today the majority of special education is provided in mainstream schools with specialist support services. Special schools are still available for students with disabilities requiring intensive support.

The Disability Standards for Education 2005 intended to give students with disabilities the same rights as other students. The standards state that all students should be able to enjoy their education and be treated with dignity. The standards aim to overcome discrimination based on stereotypes of the abilities of students with disabilities.

Current thinking in Australian special needs education is moving towards the quality of the education provided and the support children receive. This is a change from a long term focus on the use of special schools versus inclusion in mainstream schools and represents a desire to ensure that all children get the best education they possibly can.

Special Needs Education in Australia

Special needs education in Australia has an inclusive approach, where a child attends a general school, whenever possible. Education providers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to allow a student with disabilities to be educated on the same basis as other students.

Special education can be delivered in several ways:

  • In regular classrooms with a modified curriculum or additional teaching support
  • Special small classes within a regular school
  • Placement in a special school

Further support to make learning easier is also available. This can include help with transport, building modifications and extra technology. The needs of each child as well as those of other children who may be affected are taken into consideration.


Enrolment of a child with special needs in an Australian school is done via a consultation. Parents of a child with special learning needs should first contact the principal of the school they would like their child to attend. Schools must consult with the student to understand their needs and to assess what, if any, adjustments need to be made. Consultations should include:

  • Identification of the needs of the student. The student must provide medical and therapist reports that outline their disability and any adjustments needed
  • A discussion of ways that the school could overcome any barriers to the student's education
  • A discussion of whether these adjustments are reasonable

The school should provide written confirmation of everything discussed in the consultation. A date should be given for when the school will notify the student of what adjustments will or will not be made

Any disability will be assessed against a set of Disability Criteria. Each state or territory has its own list. Once a student starts attending the school their progress should be monitored through regular meetings. Records should be kept of these.

In Australia each state and territory runs its own education programme. There are small differences in the education provided by each one. The exact criteria for a child to be enrolled on a special needs programme varies with each state. In most cases documentation outlining the child's condition is required. Health assessment reports need to be current and usually no more than one or two years old. Further information on Special Needs education for each state can be found at the following links:

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