Back in August the government introduced a bill to allow schools to be replaced with "Centres of Online Learning". The bill is currently before select committee, and in a rare move the Ombudsman has made a submission, raising concerns about them being used as a dumping ground for disabled students:
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has called for significant restrictions on online schools including legislation to stop them becoming dumping grounds for children with disabilities.
Online schools could become the default for disabled children that physical schools did not want to enrol, he said.
"I'm really worried about what the unintended impact of this could be on those who schools might wish to exclude because its convenient," he said.
"I'd want there to be, if you don't mind, if we're going to go this way, an actual statutory safeguard to guarantee the right of disabled people to attend physical schools if they wish to."
Judge Boshier said children in online schools risked social isolation and full-time attendance should be restricted to those who could not access a physical school because of illness or remoteness.
Online learning has a definite place in our education system, but this is also a real risk. Schools frequently try and deny entry to disabled children, or try to exclude them, despite a statutory right to free public education. And creation an online alternative means a real danger of those kids being forced into substandard education and denied social contact by discrimination.
The Ombudsman also points out other serious problems with the bill: online schools won't be covered by the Ombudsman's and Official Information Acts, and the Minister will purportedly have absolute discretion over their closure (the latter obviously being a reaction to the government's repeated losses in court over school closures in recent years). So in addition to being a discrimination risk, its a shift towards unaccountability and autocracy (which in turn invites poor governance and abuse of power). Neither move is welcome, and hopefully the committee will fix these problems.