Engagement in education

1 in 10

(10%) school students aged 5–18 have disability

9 in 10

89%) school students aged 5–18 with disability go to a mainstream school and 12% go to a special school

9.1% of people

aged 15–64 with disability are studying for a non-school qualification (15% without disability)

Introduction

An estimated 380,000 children aged 5–18 with disability go to primary or secondary school and 187,000 people aged 15–64 with disability are studying for a non-school qualification.

While people with disability attend school at a similar rate to those without disability, they are less likely to be studying for a non-school qualification.

Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers

Data in this section are largely sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC). The SDAC is the most detailed and comprehensive source of data on disability prevalence in Australia.

The SDAC considers that a person has disability if they have at least one of a list of limitations, restrictions or impairments, which has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least 6 months and restricts everyday activities.

The limitations are grouped into 10 activities associated with daily living – self-care, mobility, communication, cognitive or emotional tasks, health care, reading or writing tasks, transport, household chores, property maintenance, and meal preparation. The SDAC also identifies 2 other life areas in which people may experience restriction or difficulty as a result of disability – schooling and employment.

The severity of disability is defined by whether a person needs help, has difficulty, or uses aids or equipment with 3 core activities – self-care, mobility, and communication – and is grouped for mild, moderate, severe, and profound limitation. People who always or sometimes need help with one or more core activities, have difficulty understanding or being understood by family or friends, or can communicate more easily using sign language or other non-spoken forms of communication are referred to in this section as ‘people with severe or profound disability’.

How is remoteness defined?

The remoteness categories used in the ABS SDAC are defined by the Australian Statistical Geography Standard Remoteness Structure (ABS 2016a) which divides Australia into 5 classes of remoteness on the basis of a measure of relative access to services. Very remote areas are out of scope for the SDAC.

Disability group

Disability group is a broad categorisation of disability. It is based on underlying health conditions and on impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. It is not a diagnostic grouping, nor is there a one-to-one correspondence between a health condition and a disability group.

The ABS SDAC broadly groups disabilities depending on whether they relate to functioning of the mind or the senses, or to anatomy or physiology. Each disability group may refer to a single disability or be composed of a number of broadly similar disabilities. The SDAC identifies 6 separate groups based on the particular type of disability; these are:

  • sensory and speech (sight, hearing, speech)
  • intellectual (difficulty learning or understanding)
  • physical (including breathing difficulties, chronic or recurrent pain, incomplete use of limbs and more)
  • psychosocial (including nervous or emotional conditions, mental illness, memory problems, and social or behavioural difficulties)
  • head injury, stroke or acquired brain injury
  • other (restrictions in everyday activities due to other long-term conditions or ailments) (ABS 2019).

School (primary and secondary)

An estimated 1 in 10 (10% or 380,000) school students in Australia have disability, and almost 1 in 18 (5.4% or 206,000) have severe or profound disability:

  • 12% (or 227,000) of male students have disability, compared with 8.2% (or 154,000) of female students
  • 12% (or 85,000) of students living in Inner regional areas have disability, compared with 9.3% (or 256,000) of students living in Major cities
  • 2 in 3 (65% or 148,000) male school students with disability have intellectual disability, 40% (or 91,000) have psychosocial disability and 36% (or 81,000) have sensory and speech disability. This compares with 54% (or 84,000), 38% (or 58,000), and 26% (or 40,000) of female students respectively (ABS 2019).

What is meant by school, school-age and school student?

In this section:

  • School refers to primary and secondary school. Children in Australia aged 16 and 17 must be enrolled in school or a training organisation, be employed or be in a combination of school/training/employment.
  • School-age refers to people aged 5–18 living in households.
  • School student refers to people aged 5–18 living in households who attend primary or secondary school.

Almost all (89% or 380,000) school-age children with disability go to school (Table ENGAGEMENT.1).

Overall, school-age children with disability (89%) go to school at similar rates to those without disability (89%). There is no difference between boys and girls with disability (both 90% or 227,000 and 154,000 respectively). A small difference is evident by level of disability (91% or 206,000 of those with severe or profound disability go to school, and 87% or 174,000 of those with other disability). There has been little change in this during 2003–2018 (Table ENGAGEMENT.1).

School-age children with psychosocial disability (13% or 23,000) are more likely not to attend school than those with intellectual disability (8.7% or 22,000) (ABS 2019).

Table ENGAGEMENT.1: Whether school-age children(a) attend school(b), by disability status, 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018 (%)

Disability status

2003

2009

2012

2015

2018

All with disability

90.3

90.7

87.3

90.0

89.0

Severe or profound disability

93.7

93.2

88.6

89.7

90.9

Other disability status

87.7

88.2

86.1

89.7

87.4

Without disability

88.3

88.4

88.2

90.4

89.2

(a) People aged 5–18 living in households.

(b) Includes primary and secondary school.

Source: ABS 2004, 2010, 2013, 2016b and 2019; see also Table ENGT2.

Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey​

Data in this section are sourced from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Survey is a nationally representative, household-based longitudinal study of Australian households and individuals conducted in annual waves since 2001. Members of selected households who are Australian residents and aged 15 or over are invited to participate in a personal face-to-face interview. This section presents cross-sectional analyses of the 17th wave (2017). In 2017 almost 18,000 people from around 10,000 households participated in the HILDA Survey.

The HILDA Survey defines disability as an impairment, long-term health condition or disability that restricts everyday activities and has lasted, or is likely to last, for a period of 6 months or more. This is similar to the definition of disability used by the ABS Short Disability Module. In this section people who always or sometimes need help or supervision with at least one core activity because of their disability are referred to as people with ‘severe or profound disability’. Core activities include self-care, mobility and communication. People who have a disability but do not always or sometimes need help or supervision with at least one core activity are referred to as people with ‘other disability’. The HILDA Survey does not collect information on level of disability in every wave. The most recent collection was in the 17th wave (2017) (Summerfield et al. 2019; Wilkins et al. 2019).

How is remoteness defined?

The remoteness categories used in HILDA are based on the Australian Statistical Geography Standard Remoteness Area framework (Summerfield et al. 2019).

More than three-quarters (76%) of people with disability aged 15–64 who went to school attend, or have attended, government schools; 14% Catholic non-government schools; and 9.8% other non-government schools. People with disability aged 15–64 (76%) are more likely to attend, or have attended, a government school than people without disability (68%). For people with disability, this varies by remoteness with government school being attended, or having been attended, by:

  • 73% of people with disability living in Major cities
  • 82% living in Inner regional areas
  • 86% living in Outer regional, remote and very remote areas (DSS and MIAESR 2019).

This also varies by disability group. People aged 15–64 with intellectual disability (83%) are most likely to attend, or have attended, a government school while people with head injury, stroke or acquired brain injury (70%) are least likely. At the same time, people with severe or profound disability are about as likely (78%) to attend, or have attended, a government school as those with other disability status (76%) (DSS and MIAESR 2019).

Disability group​

Disability group is a broad categorisation of disability. It is based on underlying health conditions and on impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. It is not a diagnostic grouping, nor is there a one-to-one correspondence between a health condition and a disability group.

The HILDA Survey collects information on 17 disability types, which have been combined into the following 6 disability groups:

  • sensory: includes sight, hearing, and speech problems
  • intellectual: includes difficulty learning or understanding things
  • physical: includes difficulty breathing, blackouts, chronic pain, limited use of arms or fingers, difficulty gripping things, limited use of feet or legs, physical restrictions, and disfigurement or deformity
  • psychosocial: includes nervous or emotional conditions, and mental illness
  • head injury, stroke or other brain damage
  • other: includes long-term conditions that are restrictive despite treatment or medication, and other long-term conditions.

Type of school or class

School students with disability generally attend either:

  • special schools, which enrol only students with special needs
  • special classes within a mainstream school, which operate to support students with special needs
  • regular classes within a mainstream school, where students with disability may or may not receive additional assistance.

Most (89% or 338,000) school students with disability go to a mainstream school:

  • 71% (or 269,000) attend only regular classes in a mainstream school
  • 18% (or 67,000) attend special classes within a mainstream school (Table ENGAGEMENT.2).

The rest (12% or 45,000) go to a special school (Table ENGAGEMENT.2).

Table ENGAGEMENT.2: Type of school or class attended by school students(a) with disability, 2018 (%)

Type of school or class

Severe or profound disability

Other disability status

All with disability

Special school

19.7

*2.3

11.9

Mainstream school(b)

80.4

98.8

89.0

Special classes in a mainstream school

21.4

13.4

17.7

Regular classes in a mainstream school only(c)

59.4

85.6

70.8

Total

100.0

100.0

100.0

* Relative standard error of 25–50% and should be used with caution.

(a) People with disability aged 5–18 living in households and currently attending primary or secondary school.

(b) Do not attend special school.

(c) Do not attend special classes in a mainstream school.

Source: ABS 2019; see also tables ENGT7 and ENGT8.

School students with severe or profound disability are less likely than other students with disability to go to a mainstream school and far more likely to go to a special school (Table ENGAGEMENT.2):

  • 59% (or 122,000) attend regular classes in a mainstream school only, compared with 86% (or 149,000) with other disability
  • 21% (or 44,000) attend special classes within a mainstream school, compared with 13% (or 23,000) (ABS 2019).

Recent years have seen little change in the proportion of students with disability attending special schools rather than mainstream schools (Figure ENGAGEMENT.1).

Figure ENGAGEMENT.1: Type of school or class attended by school students with disability, by disability status, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018

Bar chart showing 3 categories of school or class for students with disability. The reader can select to display the chart by disability status and by years 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018. The chart shows school students with severe or profound disability were less likely (59%) to attend only regular classes in a mainstream school in 2018 than those with other disability (86%).

Source data tables: Educational engagement (XLSX, 187KB)

Interpreting changes in school attendance

Changing patterns in the type of school people with disability attend might reflect a mix of positive and negative experiences at student level.

Attendance at a special school might, for example, provide the most appropriate support for some students, but might also result in, or be the result of, increased segregation.

Likewise, attendance at mainstream schools could indicate that the education system has become better at integrating students with disability, fostering inclusion and providing additional, tailored supports. Or it could be that resources are directing the placement of students into mainstream schools even if an appropriate level of support is not provided.

In addition, the increased number of students attending school with additional supports – such as through part-time attendance – might be a positive change if this reflects the most appropriate support (rather than lack of support), or if it enables attendance for someone who previously did not attend school.

Other sources of data on school students

Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability

The Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD) includes information provided annually to the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment by both government and non-government schools.

The NCCD is primarily designed to collect information on the supports received by students with disability to help them participate in education. As such, it produces a support-based estimate of students with disability and is not intended to provide estimates of prevalence.

According to the 2020 NCCD:

  • around 815,000 students received educational adjustments because of disability, or around 1 in 5 (20%) students
  • most students who required adjustments had cognitive disability (55% of students with disability who received adjustments), followed by social-emotional disability (30%), physical disability (12%) and sensory disability (3.2%)
  • students with disability who receive educational adjustments required
    • adjustments of support within quality differentiated teaching practice (33%) – made infrequently or as low-level action. These may include minor adjustments to teaching and monitoring to meet safety requirements through usual school processes
    • supplementary adjustments (42%) – for particular activities at specific times throughout the week. These may include adjustments to teaching, the provision of course materials in accessible forms, and programs to address the student’s social/emotional needs
    • substantial adjustments (17%) – made at most times on most days. These may include individualised instruction for most activities, and closely monitored playground supervision
    • extensive adjustments (8.0%) – made at all times. These may include intensive instruction in a highly specialised manner for all activities, highly modified classroom environments, and extensive support from specialist staff
  • 21% of students attending government schools, 20% attending independent schools, and 19% attending Catholic schools receive adjustments because of disability
  • government schools have a higher proportion of students who receive ‘extensive’ or ‘substantial’ levels of adjustment than Catholic or independent schools – 28% of students with disability at government schools who receive adjustments, compared with 21% at Catholic schools and 17% at independent schools (ACARA 2020).

The NCCD was progressively implemented in Australian schools from 2013, with 2015 being the first year that almost all schools participated. As more years of data are compiled, this collection has the potential to provide more information about trends.

For more information on the NCCD.

Mission Australia’s Youth Survey

In 2019 Mission Australia conducted a survey of young people (aged 15–19) including a cluster of questions focused on disability. The 18th annual survey of young people received 25,100 responses. In Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2019, 6.5% (or 1,600) of young people reported having disability and 91.3% (or 23,100) reported no disability. It should be noted that this study reflects the views of survey participants who self-reported disability. Due to the survey design, it is not considered a representative sample of young people with disability or of the Australian population more generally (Hall et al. 2020).

Young people who reported having disability were:

  • mostly studying full-time (85%) while 6.0% were studying part-time and 9.4% were not studying. This is different from those without disability (94% studying full-time, 2.4% studying part-time, and 3.6% not studying)
  • less likely to be very satisfied or satisfied (57%) with their studies than respondents without disability (68%), and more likely to be dissatisfied or very dissatisfied (16% compared with 6.9%)
  • less likely (92%) to intend to complete Year 12 (of those who were still at school) than those without disability (96%).

When asked about post-school plans, young people with disability intended to:

  • go to university (48% compared with 66% of those without disability)
  • get a job (40% compared with 33%)
  • travel/gap year (24% compared with 28%)
  • go to TAFE or college (20% compared with 11%)
  • get an apprenticeship (15% compared with 11%).

Note that respondents were able to choose more than one option.

When asked how confident they were about achieving their study/work goals after school, young people with disability (40%) were less likely to be extremely confident or very confident than those without disability (47%).

Young people with disability were more likely (64%) to face barriers to achieving their study/work goals after school than those without disability (48%). Of those who faced barriers, the most common barriers were:

  • mental health (28% compared with 16% of those without disability)
  • academic ability (25% compared with 20%)
  • financial difficulty (13% compared with 12%)
  • physical health (12% compared with 4.0%).

Note that respondents were able to choose more than one option (Hall et al. 2020).

Early childhood education

In 2019, children with disability made up 6.8% (or 16,000) of children enrolled in a preschool program in the year before full time schooling (children aged 4 and those aged 5 who were not repeating) (SCRGSP 2021).

In 2016, children with disability aged 0–5 made up 3.4% of children attending child care services approved by the Australian Government. In the 2016 National Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce Census, children with disability in child care services are those who the service provider identifies as having continuing disability including intellectual, sensory or physical impairment (SCRGSP 2021).


Non-school education

Around 1 in 12 (8.3% or 187,000) people aged 15–64 who are studying for a non-school qualification have disability. Very few (1.5% or 34,000) have severe or profound disability. This varies by type of educational institution. Of people aged 15–64:

  • 6.3% (or 89,000) attending university or other higher education have disability, 1.2% (or 18,000) have severe or profound disability
  • 11% (or 52,000) attending technical and further education (TAFE) or technical college have disability
  • 13% (or 46,000) attending other educational institutions (such as business colleges or industry skills centres) have disability; 3.1% have severe or profound disability (ABS 2019).

What is non-school education?

Non-school refers to education other than pre-primary, primary or secondary education. It includes studying for qualifications at postgraduate degree level, master’s degree level, graduate diploma and graduate certificate level, bachelor’s degree level, advanced diploma and diploma level, and certificates I, II, III and IV levels. A student may study for a non-school qualification at the same time as a school qualification.

‘Non-school student’ refers to people aged 15–64 living in households who are studying for a non-school qualification.

People aged 15–64 with disability (9.1% or 187,000) are less likely to be studying for a non-school qualification than those without disability (15% or 2.1 million). This varies by remoteness, disability group, age and sex:

  • 10% (or 138,000) of people with disability living in Major cities are studying for a non-school qualification compared with 6.6% (or 33,000) living in Inner regional areas
  • people with psychosocial disability (9.8% or 63,000) are more likely to be studying for a non-school qualification than people with sensory and speech disability (5.5% or 23,000)
  • females with disability (11% or 114,000) are more likely to be studying for a non-school qualification than males (7.5% or 76,000)
  • people with disability aged 15–24 are nearly 4 times as likely (25% or 72,000) to be studying for a non-school qualification as people aged 25–64 (6.5% or 115,000) (ABS 2019).

When people with disability study for a non-school qualification, they are likely to do so at a university (48%, compared with 28% studying at a TAFE or technical college and 25% at other types of educational institutions) (ABS 2019).

However, non-school students with disability are less likely to study at university than those without disability – 48% attend a university or other higher education institution, compared with 64% without disability (Figure ENGAGEMENT.2).

Non-school students with disability are more likely than those without disability to attend a TAFE or technical college (28% compared with 21%); and to attend other educational institutions (25% compared with 15%) (Figure ENGAGEMENT.2).

Figure ENGAGEMENT.2: Type of educational institution attended by people studying for a non-school qualification, by disability status and sex, 2018

Stacked column chart showing 3 categories of non-school educational institutions attended by male and female students, with and without disability. The chart shows males with disability are less likely (46%) to attend a university or similar institution than those without disability (62%).

Source: data tables: Educational engagement (XLSX, 187KB)

Recent years have seen little change in the type of educational institution attended by non-school students with disability (Table ENGAGEMENT.3).

Table ENGAGEMENT.3: Proportion of students(a) with disability among those attending non-school educational institutions, 2003, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2018 (%)

Type of educational institution

2003

2009

2012

2015

2018

University or other higher education

8.1

6.8

6.4

7.6

6.3

TAFE or technical college

11.9

10.4

9.8

11.9

10.8

Other educational institution(b)

11.8

11.8

11.5

12.9

12.9

(a) Aged 15–64 living in households.

(b) Includes those completing non-school qualifications through a secondary school, business college, industry skills centre or other educational institution.

Source: ABS 2019; see also Table ENGT20.

Other sources of data on non-school students

Other sources of data about students with disability studying for a non-school qualification include the National Centre for Vocational Education Research’s (NCVER) Total Vocational Education and Training (VET) Students and Courses Collection; and the Department of Education, Skills and Employment’s (DESE) Higher Education Student Data Collection, Student Experience Survey and Graduate Outcomes Survey.

These sources define disability differently from each other and from the ABS SDAC. They also rely on self-disclosure of disability. Because of this, figures vary between sources.

Total VET Students and Courses Collection

In this collection, disability refers to ‘whether the student self-identifies as having a disability, impairment or long-term condition’.

The 2020 collection indicates that 4.4% (or 172,000) of VET students self-identified as having a disability, impairment or long-term health condition; 83% (or 3.3 million) identified as not having disability and for 13% (or 501,000) disability status is recorded as not known (NCVER 2021).

Private training providers were the most common provider type for VET students with and without disability. However, in 2020, VET students with disability were:

  • less likely to attend a private training provider (56% or 96,400) than those without disability (73% or 2.4 million)
  • more likely to attend TAFE (34% or 58,000 compared with 21% or 680,000).

VET students with disability were also:

  • about as likely to be full-time students (12% or 20,300) as those without disability (11% or 359,000)
  • more likely to be aged 15–19 (21% or 36,200) than those without disability (14% or 470,000)
  • less likely to be aged 30–39 (15% or 25,600) than those without disability (23% or 740,000)
  • more likely to be female (52% or 89,200) than those without disability (48% or 1.5 million) (for those with known gender)
  • more likely to live in Inner regional regions (25% or 40,400) than those without disability (19% or 565,000) (for those with known remoteness region)
  • more likely to be attending school while completing their VET course (11% or 18,900) than those without disability (8.1% or 250,000) (for those with known school status)
  • slightly less likely to have successfully completed some post-secondary education (54% or 89,400) than those without disability (59% or 1.9 million) (for those with known prior education status)
    • less likely to have attained a bachelor degree (9.0% or 15,100) as their highest level of educational attainment than those without disability (20% or 618,000) (for those with known educational attainment)
    • more likely to have left school after Year 10 and not yet pursued further study (17% or 28,400) than those without disability (9.6% or 295,000)
  • less likely to be in the labour force (employed or unemployed) (82% or 129,000) than those without disability (93% or 2.6 million) (for those with known labour force status)
  • less likely to be employed (47% or 74,500) than those without disability (77% or 2.2 million) (NCVER 2021).

Higher Education Student Data Collection

In this collection, students with disability ‘have indicated that they have a disability, impairment or long-term medical condition which may affect their studies’. In 2019, 7.2% (or 77,600) of domestic higher education students had a disability or long-term health condition that may affect their studies:

  • students who identify as having disability are more likely (3.6% or 2,760) to also identify as Indigenous than those who do not identify as having disability (1.8% or 18,300)
  • the proportion of students who identify as having disability has steadily increased from 4.0% in 2006 to 5.0% in 2012 and 7.2% in 2019 (DESE 2020).

Student Experience Survey

DESE’s Student Experience Survey (SES) contains information on current undergraduate and postgraduate level students of Australian higher education institutions. The questionnaire asks students about their study experiences.

In 2020, 6.9% (or 12,800) of the undergraduate students who completed the SES reported disability and 3.5% (or 3,360) of the postgraduate coursework students.

Data from the 2020 SES show that current students who reported disability in:

  • undergraduate courses were less likely (66%) than those without disability (69%) to give a positive rating to the quality of their entire educational experience
  • postgraduate coursework courses were also less likely (66%) than those without disability (69%) to give a positive rating to the quality of their entire educational experience
  • undergraduate courses were more likely (27%) than those without disability (19%) to consider early departure from their course
  • postgraduate coursework courses were also more likely (30%) than those without disability (20%) to consider early departure from their course (QILT 2021).

Graduate Outcomes Survey

The Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) contains information on satisfaction for undergraduate- and postgraduate-level graduates. It is completed by graduates of Australian higher education institutions about 4 months after course completion.

Data from the 2020 GOS show that graduates who reported they had disability were less likely than those without disability to be satisfied with various aspects of their studies, including:

  • for undergraduate courses – with their course overall (78% of graduates who reported disability compared with 81% of those without disability) and with development of generic skills (81% compared with 83%)
  • for postgraduate coursework courses – with their course overall (77% compared with 82%), and with specific aspects such as teaching (68% compared with 71%) and development of generic skills (76% compared with 81%)
  • for postgraduate research courses – with their course overall (76% compared with 86%), and with specific aspects such as supervision (77% compared with 83%), intellectual climate (52% compared with 65%), skills development (88% compared with 93%), infrastructure (61% compared with 77%), thesis examination (75% compared with 82%), goals and expectations (88% compared with 91%), and industry engagement (49% compared with 58%) (QILT 2020).

Non-disclosure of disability

Not all students with disability choose to disclose their disability.

One survey of 1,100 students (including 253 students with disability) on non-disclosure of equity group status in Australian universities estimated that 11% did not disclose their equity status to their university. Of students who did not disclose their equity status, 11% of students with disability did not disclose their disability to their university (Clark et al. 2018).

Students with disability may trust in the university and believe that disclosure is of benefit to them. Students with disability may also fear prejudice at the university, such as being labelled as less competent or deserving of their academic success. Students with disability also may not believe the university needs the information or do not know why they should disclose.

The survey also found that students with disability are more likely to disclose to a support service than to an admissions centre or on enrolment. The survey suggested that students are motivated to disclose if they feel they need to access supports, and may not know if they need such support until after they have started studying.