It is a typical morning in the Farris household, south-west of Brisbane, with mum Angela busily preparing her son for school before setting out on a nearly 1-hour daily commute to Seton College in Mount Gravatt.
- Mum Angela Farris says her son, who has a learning disability, is learning for the first time at Seton College
- The school is slated to be closed by 2024 due to a drop in enrolments
- Advocates warn the school’s closure could see students “fall through the cracks”
It is a long way to drive each day for a school drop-off, but Ms Farris said it is well worth the trip, given the “life-changing” quality of education her son receives.
Teenager Keegan, 15, lives with velocardiofacial syndrome (VCFS), which has left him with an intellectual impairment, learning difficulties and hearing loss.
VCFS is a genetic condition that is sometimes hereditary. VCFS is characterised by a combination of medical problems that vary from child to child.
But the Year 8 student is among the last cohort who will graduate year 12 at the school.
Their future has been thrown into doubt after Brisbane Catholic Education announced Seton College would close within four year’s time due to a drop in enrolments.
The news has sparked an outcry from students, parents and community members.
“To find another alternative, which isn’t really out there — it will be really hard.”
A typical education with a difference
Seton College offers students a typical high school education with the same range of subjects offered at an everyday, mainstream high school.
Ms Farris said prior to attending Seton College, Keegan floated through the education system, struggling to meaningfully engage with learning.
“It’s the first time, through his education, that he’s learning,” she said.
“He is happy with himself and he is making friends — a diverse group, instead of just latching onto one child.
“It is the first time he can tell us what he is learning throughout the day.”
At Seton, the class sizes are smaller and the student-to-teacher ratios are greater, allowing for more personalised learning.
“They break it down, they do it at a very slow place and everything is highly, highly adjusted for each student,” Ms Farris said.
Students risk ‘falling through the cracks’
Former student Luke Hinschen graduated from the school in 2003 and has since become the president of the Save Our Seton group.
“[Seton] is basically for students who don’t fit in mainstream schools and students who don’t fit in special education, so they might have a combination of dual disabilities,” he said.
Mr Hinschen has been involved in community work with people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.
He said he was concerned students could get “swallowed up” in the system and become disengaged with their education.
“People fall through the cracks,” Mr Hinschen said.
“I fell through the cracks in primary school and I don’t want to see that happen to anyone else. I wouldn’t be here where I am at the moment if I wasn’t at Seton College.”
In May 2019, Brisbane Catholic Education announced it would transition into a school exclusively for students with disabilities.
But the school said enrolments and future applications declined, which left shrinking cohort sizes that “would not allow for proper pathways for students throughout their secondary schooling”.
‘A very unseen issue’
The Glenleighden School in Brisbane’s west is the only school in the Southern Hemisphere that caters specifically for students with speech and language difficulties.
Peter Seldon is the chair of the board at Speech and Language Development Association Australia (SALDA), which runs the Glenleighden School.
He said like Seton College, the school caters for students who do not fit into special schools or mainstream schools.
“These kids appear normal like everybody else and … get left behind because people actually don’t have that instant recognition of there being an issue,” he said.
Mr Seldon said such students often don’t get the recognition and support at a state or federal government level.
Earlier this year, SALDA expressed interest in taking over Seton College, but Mr Seldon said after initial meetings with Brisbane Catholic Education and the Department of Education, it was not likely.
“It’s a very unseen issue.”
Mr Seldon said one in seven children have some form of speech and language communication issue.
“These kids fall through the cracks and that leads to lots of other issues in our society and in our community.
“From our numbers, 60 to 70 per cent of juveniles in youth detention have some sort of communication issues.”
In a statement, a Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) spokesperson said the organisation was disappointed by the school’s 2024 closure and was proud of what its students had achieved.
“Seton has become popular as a school catering for children with disability,” the statement read.
“While that was to be embraced, it did result in a growing imbalance in the student population and increasing complexity of student needs at Seton.
“We did not seek to be reclassified as a Special School.”
BCE said research has shown children with disabilities achieve better educational outcomes when included into schools with an inclusive learning environment and the organisation would continue to do that across its schools.
Current year 8 students at Seton College will be the last cohort to graduate year 12, while current year 7 students will finish in year 10.