Every year across Australia, around 60,000 students with significant illness or injury miss school and remain at home or in hospital, watching from the sidelines. Some of these students will miss a few weeks, others will miss months, and others will miss years at a time. Being sick doesn’t stop kids from needing to do their most important work, like learning, interacting and having fun with other kids. Having a seriously sick kid doesn’t stop parents from needing schools to do their most important work. Failure to take proactive measures to keep these kids connected to their learning communities when they are absent from school gives rise to a suite of significant challenges to be addressed upon the kid’s return to school. Failure to support these challenges, in school, results in persistent problems across the duration of school life. The outcome can be poor emotional and mental health, poor post-school and employment prospects, and barriers to participating in adult economic life.
Kids with serious illness or injury are protected under Australian disability legislation, but are largely overlooked because they are frequently absent, or absent for long periods, from school. Advances in medical technology mean that more and more kids are surviving illnesses which were previously incurable and unmanageable. Seriously sick kids need access to quality education if they are to have the same opportunities as other kids to fulfill their potential. While dealing with significant illness, they remain students. MissingSchool asserts that the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 support the right of sick kids to: maintain enrolment in their regular school; participate in education through connection to their regular school; and have access to appropriate teaching, curriculum and assessment procedures, as well as student support services. The Commonwealth Education Act 2013 also places a high priority on “identifying and addressing the needs of school students, including barriers to learning and wellbeing, and providing additional support to school students who require it”.
Principles of access, inclusivity and equity, as well as discrimination legislation, support the right of students to maintain academic continuity and participation in quality education despite illness or injury. In order to inform practice, reduce barriers and mitigate disadvantage, action is needed. Action includes targeted data collection, research on and implementation of effective practice, formal explication of the roles and responsibilities of all parties together with monitoring and accountability measures, and clear and consistent policy applied across state and territory jurisdictions and between medical and health bureaucracies. We are living in the connection economy, it’s possible.