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5. Effects of mainstream vs special schooling on employment outcomes for people with intellectual disability

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What is meant by mainstream schooling and special schooling?

In Australia, students with disability can attend either mainstream or special schools.

A special school is one that enrolls only students with special needs. Special schools provide education for students that exhibit one or more of the following characteristics before enrolment: mental or physical disability or impairment; slow learning ability; social or emotional problems; or in custody, on remand or in hospital (ABS, 2019).

A mainstream school is one that enrolls students with and without disability, including providing classes to specifically support students with special needs and/or providing additional assistance to students with special needs in regular classes (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017).

Mainstream schooling and special schooling – the impact on employment outcomes

The Value of Education

An effective education is vital for all young people – including those with disability – as an inadequate education will have consequences across the duration of a person’s life. ‘Under-education leads to unemployment, lower levels of health, social isolation and a lifetime of disadvantage’ (Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, 2016, p.4). Hence choice of schooling, and ongoing engagement with schooling, is vital to a person with intellectual disability and their life opportunities.

Outcomes of mainstream vs special education

It is difficult to compare mainstream and special schools using the research evidence. The evidence suggests that outcomes of each will be significantly influenced by a range of factors at each site including the level of inclusion achieved, the level of resources available, as well as the expertise of the teaching staff (Casey et al., 2005). While the outcomes of mainstream compared special schools for people with intellectual disability remain in doubt, there is research to suggest that the aspirations of young people with intellectual disability for employment are the same regardless of setting (Casey et al., 2005).

Outcomes of mainstream schools

For children with intellectual disability, the opportunity to participate in mainstream schooling alongside their peers without disability is a human right. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2012) argues that:

There are profound consequences when students with disabilities are unable to participate in education on the same basis as students without disability – for the child, the family, the school and for the community. A person’s life chances, employment options, future earnings and value in society are largely determined by their education. Failing to ensure the participation of students with disabilities in education, and to maximise their learning outcomes, is not only discriminatory and unfair, it is also life-changing (p.48).

However, overall, the evidence as to whether mainstream schooling or special schooling leads to better employment outcomes is limited and it is difficult to find good data on this topic, especially in Australia. Internationally, a set of older research concludes that ‘the small existing research base suggests that students with special educational needs achieve more, academically and socially, in a mainstream setting than in special schools’ (Casey et al., 2005, p.277). In the UK, one large scale study conducted in 2002 found that participation in mainstream education:

  • increased aspirations for higher status employment
  • increased aspiration to a higher level course and increased certainty about choice of post secondary course (Casey et al., 2005, p.285).

One Australian study tracked outcomes of students with intellectual disability leaving secondary school in QLD and found that 53% of students of mainstream schools were in paid employment (18% were in ADEs), compared to 44% (8% in ADEs) of students exiting special education units, and 15% (14% in ADEs) of students from special schools (Davies & Beamish, 2009). While samples were not matched, this suggests higher employment outcomes for students with intellectual disability from mainstream schools.

Data exists that attests to a range of other outcomes associated with mainstream education for children with intellectual disability, and that these outcomes have been found to positively influence employment outcomes in the future (Casey et al., 2005). There is evidence to indicate that mainstream schooling, increases:

  • acquisition of social competence skills (Freeman & Alkin, 2000, reviewing 36 articles; Casey et al., 2005):

‘Through participation in general education classrooms, fully integrated children demonstrate better social behaviors such as adjustment, interactions, maturity, and general social competence as judged by others’ (Freeman & Alkin, 2000, p.16).

  • academic language skills and reading skills (Dessemontet, Bless & Morin, 2012).

An Australian review of research found that children progress at least as well in inclusive education as in segregated settings, with a small (but possibly significant) academic benefit from inclusion (Jackson, 2008).

In addition, mainstream schools can offer the opportunity to develop an identity that is not predicated on disability. Placement in segregated settings, and low expectations, can limit opportunities for a person with intellectual disability to fully explore a sense of self and can reinforce the ‘disability identity’ (Midjo & Aune, 2018). Parents and professionals also influence the emerging identities of young people via the support they provide and attitudes they hold of who the young adults are and who they have the possibility to be (Morris, 2004 cited in Midjo & Aune, 2018). In this regard, parents and professionals, including teachers, can strongly influence the experience of a meaningful and valued working life and future dreams of involvement in interesting education and work (Midjo & Aune, 2018).

Recent National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) data compared children with disability (including intellectual disability) who are NDIS participants attending mainstream and special schools. The data showed that children attending mainstream schools were more likely to:

  • be developing independence,
  • have a genuine say in decisions about themselves,
  • make friends outside the family,
  • spend time with friends without an adult present (NDIA, 2018).

Other research has shown that these elements, particularly the extent of social network and social capital, as well as the level of involvement in decision making in their employment goals, are all predictors of increased open employment of people with intellectual disability (Southward & Kyzar, 2017).

However, there is also evidence of negative outcomes of engagement of some children in mainstream settings. Professionals and parents need to be aware that children with intellectual disability in integrated classrooms might not necessarily experience high levels of classroom social acceptance. Targeted strategies may be needed to improve the social status of children with intellectual disability in mainstream education and ensure genuine inclusion, such as ensuring teachers and children are prepared for integration (Freeman & Alkin, 2000).

Outcomes of special schools

The UK study discussed above also found outcomes in favour of special school education. Young people with mild learning or behavioural disabilities attending special schools were more likely than their peers at mainstream schools to aspire to post secondary education, though of a lower level (Casey et al., 2005).

The recent NDIA data discussed above found that children attending special schools were more likely to experience the following outcomes than those in mainstream settings:

  • feel genuinely included
  • be happy at school
  • have parents/carers who feel informed of their child’s goals at school
  • have parents/carers who feel satisfied that the school listens to them in relation to their child’s education (NDIA, 2018).

While evidence related to school outcomes in Australia is extremely limited, some data shows outcomes of students leaving special schools (where the majority of enrolments are those with intellectual disability). A QLD government report showed that 371 students in special schools in QLD completed Year 12 in 2017. Around three quarters of students provided data about their post-school destinations:

  • 31% attended day services
  • 22% were studying in post secondary education
  • 19% were not in the labour force or education and training
  • 11% were in unpaid or volunteer work
  • 7% were looking for work
  • 6% were in supported employment
  • 3% were in open employment
  • 1% had an apprenticeship or traineeship (The Next Step Team, 2018).

This range of outcomes is similar to an earlier report from the Victorian government. Victorian graduates of special schools, including those completing Year 12 or equivalent or VCAL, in 2014 reported outcomes of:

  • 59% attending a day service
  • 29% studying post secondary education, mostly in a TAFE institution
  • 15% employed, with 61% of these in an Australian Disability Enterprise (Department of Education and Training, 2015).

Unfortunately, there is no data to identify the outcomes of students with intellectual disability in mainstream schools to enable a comparison with the outcomes of special schools.


ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2019). Schools Australia, 2018, 4221.0, Canberra,

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017). Disability in Australia: changes over time in inclusion and participation in education. Cat. no. DIS 69. Canberra: AIHW.

Casey, L., Davies, P., Kalambouka, A., Nelson, N. & Boyle, B. (2005). The influence of schooling on the aspirations of young people with special educational needs, British Educational Research Journal, 32, 2: 273-290.

Davies, M. D., & Beamish, W. (2009). Transitions from school for young adults with intellectual disability: Parental perspectives on “life as an adjustment”. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 34, 3: 248-257. doi: 10.1080/13668250903103676

Department of Education and Training (2015). On track survey 2015. The destinations of school leavers who exited specialist schools in Victoria. Statewide report. Melbourne, Performance and Evaluation Division.

Dessemontet, R.S., Bless, G. & Morin, D. (2012). Effects of inclusion on the academic achievement and adaptive behaviour of children with intellectual disabilities, Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56, 6: 579–587.

Freeman, S. F. N. & Alkin, M. C. (2000). Academic and Social Attainments of Children with Mental Retardation in General Education and Special Education Settings, Remedial and Special Education, 21, 1, 3-26.

Jackson, R. (2008). Inclusion or Segregation for Children with an Intellectual Impairment: What does the Research Say?, Queensland Parents for People with a Disability Inc., Qld.

Lovgren and Hamreby (2011). Factors of importance in the world of work for young people with intellectual disabilities, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 13, 2: 91-117.

Midjo, T & Aune, K. E. (2018). Identity constructions and transition to adulthood for young people with mild intellectual disabilities, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 22, 1: 33–48

NDIA (National Disability Insurance Agency) (2018). NDIS Participant Outcomes 2018,

Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment (2016). Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Southward, J. D. & Kyzar, K. (2017). Predictors of Competitive Employment for Students with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities, Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 52, 1: 26–37.

The Next Step Team (2018). Next Step 2018 Year 12 Completers survey. Post-school destinations of Year 12 completers from 2017 Special School Graduates, Brisbane, Department of Education,

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (2012). Held Back: The experiences of students with disabilities in Victorian school, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Carlton.

The authors would like to acknowledge the usefulness of Crosbie, J.: Murfitt, K.; Hayward, S. & Wilson, E. (2019), NDIS Participant Employment Taskforce. Literature review: Employment and economic participation of people with disability, Burwood, Deakin University, as a review of similar literature that provided initial guidance.

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