Published: June 5, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2017-25


John Haisken-DeNew, Cain Polidano, and Chris Ryan.

Non-Technical Summary:

Targeted funding is commonly provided to support the individual learning needs of children with disability within Australian schools, yet little is known about the outcomes of these programs. The aim of this study was to take steps towards addressing this gap by examining the early learning outcomes in Year 3 NAPLAN of children who were continuously funded from the commencement of primary school in 2012 under the Victorian Program for Students with Disability (PSD). PSD funding is provided to schools at six levels based on eligibility criteria targeted at moderate to severe needs. This study considered students in Victorian government schools with moderate educational and support needs (levels 1-4), excluding those with complex needs (levels 5-6).

The analysis is based on data from 5,940 Victorian mainstream government school students identified through the 2012 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) as having a disability in their first year of school. Data on the individual receipt of PSD funding in 2012 and 2015 was matched to the AEDC data, as was Year 3 NAPLAN data for 2015. AEDC is a national teacher assessment of individual students. It contains around 100 questions on student capabilities and impairments that are combined to produce indices of development. For the purposes of this study, the level of development is categorised by student’s rank in language and cognitive skills among mainstream government school students in their first year of school.

We find that among children with disability in mainstream government schools, the receipt of funding is highly associated with low levels of cognitive development. However, reflecting the diagnostic basis for eligibility, the funded cohort represents only 17% of all children with disability in AEDC whose development is in the bottom quarter in the state. This suggests that any change in funding based on learning needs at school commencement is likely to be associated with an expansion of funding. Independent of student capabilities, socio-economic status is not found to affect the likelihood of funding receipt, but the school attended does, which may reflect school difficulties in co-ordinating applications for funding.

When examining outcomes from PSD receipt, we find that only 34% of PSD recipients sat NAPLAN compared to 88% with disability who are not funded, a 54 percentage-point gap. Using multivariate regression techniques to adjust for the part of the gap that is due to differences in the characteristics of those who are and who are not funded, including the different levels of development, we estimate that the receipt of PSD is associated with a 28 percentage-point lower chance of sitting NAPLAN. A possible interpretation is that the receipt of targeted funding acts as a highly visible label of disability, which principals use to exclude students, possibly because they believe that NAPLAN testing is harmful for this cohort or because they want to boost their school’s average NAPLAN scores. Regardless, without any other reliable early measure of schooling achievement, the systematic exclusion of children with disability from NAPLAN is an impediment to any assessment of the effectiveness of programs that are aimed to support their learning.

Our recommendation is that any expansion of individually targeted funding should be accompanied by new measures to improve future assessments of program outcome. These may include the linking of other achievement data (such as AusVELS) to disability funding records and tighter requirements on principals to report why funded children from their school are being exempted from NAPLAN.


December 14, 2017