Jordan Baker & Nigel Gladstone
Special needs classes in public schools are heavily concentrated in the most disadvantaged parts of Sydney, with 92 in the Blacktown local government area alone but none in Hunters Hill, Lane Cove or Mosman.
In the Liverpool and Campbelltown council areas there is an average of just over one class for students with disabilities per school, an analysis of NSW Department of Education figures by the Herald shows.
Yet in the northern beaches, Ryde and Sydney council areas, there are half as many special needs classrooms as there are schools. In Hornsby there are nine special classrooms among 33 schools.
Experts said the divide suggested socio-economically advantaged parents were better able to navigate medical systems and pay for early intervention services, such as speech pathology and occupational therapy, before their children began school.
"Without that support [during early childhood] there is a massive pressure on kindergarten," said Henry Rajendra, senior vice president of the NSW Teachers Federation.
"[Children] arrive undiagnosed and without the necessary early intervention and therapy services. This issue is greatly exacerbated in poorer communities, rural communities and amongst Aboriginal children.
"What would assist all students is access to early intervention therapy services. I strongly believe that pre-schooling is the magic bullet for our system."
David Roy, a lecturer in the school of education at Newcastle University, said disability advocates had noticed concentrations of special needs in disadvantaged areas, but there were no studies to explain why.
"Disability is not linked to poverty, although it creates poverty," he said. "It suggests that there is something else going on.
"Where they are financially able are better able to access intervention, parents are better able to advocate for their children to be included in the mainstream classroom. It's easy for schools to say too difficult, you should be going to a special school.
"Parents with less social capital just accept what a school tells them."
In wealthy areas, parents of children with disabilities were also more likely to be able to afford to send their children to independent schools, Dr Roy said.
"A higher number of independent schools actually do take on a proportion of children with a disability because it meets their ethos requirement, their policy requirement, and there is funding attached to it.
"Some of the high status independent schools recognise because you have a disability, it doesn't mean you have an intellectual disability."
Mr Rajendra called for governments to honour the Gonski funding model, which would increase funding to public schools. That would allow them to "provide the funding, classroom resources and staffing to meet the needs of students with disabilities," he said.
The figures show Fairfield has an average of 1.3 special needs classes per school and Blacktown has 1.2. In the northern beaches, Ryde and Sydney council areas, there are half as many special needs classrooms as there are schools.
The classes, attached to mainstream schools, support children with autism, intellectual disability, or group together students with similar support needs.
The NSW Department of Education is working on a new strategy for children with disabilities in public schools.
A spokesman said special needs classes were established by the number of students in a local area whose needs could best be met in that setting.
"Each student identifying with a disability in a public school is assessed and then considered by a panel of school and specialist staff to establish their individual needs and what will best meet those needs," he said.
"If a special needs class is shown to provide the best educational opportunities, the student will be offered a place or given specialist support in a mainstream class until a special needs class is established."