S02E04 The Principal of Special Education is the family’s choice: In conversation with Cathy Sires


In this episode, we will hear from Cathy Sires, the Principal of St Patrick’s Special School in Dulwich. She shares stories of her teaching background, family, the importance of special schools and her favourite tv show growing up!

In this episode we will hear from Cathy Sires, the Principal of St Patrick’s Special School in Dulwich. 

From Principal positions in rural South Australia in Maree and Nepabunna Aboriginal Schools, to the last 6 years at St Patrick’s, Cathy shares her story and the importance of Special Schools. Cathy has been a passionate and strong leader in education for children with additional needs and gives some great insight into her teaching experience, personal life and how the children and young people she works with everyday give her inspiration.  


based on royal commission hearing on 7th June 


Phasing out of special schools 


Crunchy granola suite


Cathy’s work on the Co-Principal model  

[00:00:00] Michael: Welcome to the integration station. Your go to pediatric occupational therapy podcast. Run by the O TFC group. The integration station strives to support and empower parents, caregivers, and therapists involved with the neuro divergent community and connect listeners from around the globe to explore and celebrate the role of air’s sensory integration and occupational therapy, Dino, and I will be joining guests to discuss a bit about their professional and personal life share stories and engaging conversations to provide an insight into the people we are fortunate to meet every day.

In this episode, we will hear from Cathy S. The principal of St. Patrick’s special school in Dulwich. Cathy has a long history in education starting her career as a junior primary teacher in the late eighties in Leigh Creek country, south Australia, since then Cathy has held rural positions as Aboriginal education resource teacher, deputy principal of Leigh Creek area school, principal of ma and never Nana Aboriginal schools on relocating to Adelaide.

Cathy has been involved in leadership, special education and consultancy within Catholic educat. This included time as special education coordinator at Santa Augustine school in Salisbury, behavioral consultant for the Catholic education system and co-principal of St. Bead Ed’s parish school in 2016.

Cathy began her time at St. Patrick’s special school, where she has been a passionate and strong leader in education for children with additional needs. Cathy also managed to complete her bachelor of education, graduate certificate in professional practice, master of educational leadership and raised three children in that time.

Cathy thank you for, for coming in today, first and foremost. Thank you. Thank you for having me. Of course. I’ve got Dino here with me as well today afternoon, Cathy. Hi, Dino. How you going? I’m well we were just talking off air about how everyone’s days have been and, you know, mixed things today. But what we did want to discuss was and thank you very much, Cathy, for giving me some information prior to coming on.

Just a bit about that, your journey getting to St. Pat’s. But you’re at St. Pat’s there you’ve been there for for six years. How, how have you found your time there? What things have you enjoyed? What things have been challenging and, and just a bit about the school itself and the space.

[00:02:22] Cathy: Sure.

Yeah. Look, I mean, my journey to get to St. Hat’s has been pretty varied, as you said. In the six years I’ve been there. It’s just been amazing to see to get to know the families, to get to know the children, to get to know the staff. It’s an incredible group of people that work there, incredible families.

And of course the students are amazing, you know, some of them. So I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I think, you know, one of the most beautiful parts about St Pat’s is the sense of community. It’s a really small school. We only have 50 students. That’s our capacity, unfortunately. Because we have a lot more families that are on our wait list to come to St Pat’s, but yeah, absolutely the sense of community and the commitment, you know, I say every day that.

Not one staff member comes to work. They actually come because they’re really passionate about being there. And that’s, what’s really important. I think one of the challenges is around the fact that I don’t have more space. We are pretty landlocked where we are. It’s a beautiful location in a nice leafy street, very safe, very quiet, which is exactly what we want for our school.

However, it’s just not meeting the demand that we have for enrollments at this point in time. And that’s probably something I find the hardest is to tell families that, you know, I don’t have a place for their child.

[00:03:31] Dino: Cathy, what on that? What are, what are the most common reactions that parents might have when you say, look, we, we don’t have capacity to have any more students starting in the next few years or wherever it might be, or have come in at year, whatever year level what’s, what’s the common reaction.

[00:03:49] Cathy: Pretty devastated. Actually, I get a lot of tears you know, a whole range of emotions, you know, these families, I mean, just across that threshold to say, I think I’m looking at a special school is tough enough. And then to get to that point and find that it’s actually not gonna happen or not gonna happen in the place that they’ve chosen is really, really difficult for families.

You know, I say all the time, I’m the principal that nobody ever wanted to meet. And I, I name that because I am, because nobody. Starts their parenting journey expecting to go to a special school. And so if they do get to that point to then get a knock back is really, really hard. I think I, I,

[00:04:22] Dino: I, Michael and I talk about this in our assessment team.

And the, the first point of reference that we have with families is usually when, if it’s a child who has quite significant needs is, is somewhere between 12 months and 18 months of age. And one of the first conversations I have with the family is. Get an enrollment for St. Pat’s now, and as much as that can be quite devastating to hear, we know if they don’t get that enrollment or get on that, those get in that process.

Well, before they turn four years of age. And the likelihood is that that the places are not gonna be available for them when they turn five. And so getting in early is really important, but it’s very difficult to, you know, to take all of that on as a parent. So our job sometimes is to just make sure they get something going.

And then hopefully by the time we’re at that age, they, they have some options and choices.

[00:05:12] Cathy: Yeah, it’s a bit like an insurance policy. It’s something you hope you never have to use. And if parents have enrolled and they don’t need the place, you know, because their child, you know, is able to attend somewhere else or they, for whatever reason, then that’s a celebration.

There’s not a disappointment. So, but I, yeah, I do appreciate, we do get lots of referrals from you, which is, which is lovely, but it is also disappointing when we have to say.

[00:05:34] Michael: The space itself, as you said, it’s land locked beautiful location. We were there not long ago for the the expo, the post-school expo which is second year fantastic initiative.

The space itself. What makes it so unique and, and so sought after? Is it, is it the, as you mentioned, is it the location? Is it the, the setup, the equipment? What, what makes St Pat’s a excellent special school in it’s in its own?

[00:05:57] Cathy: Look, I’d like to say there’s a whole range of things. I think I would like to think it’s actually our culture.

I think I would like to think that people feel that real sense of connection and belonging and, you know, being a Catholic school is really what defines us. We’re really privileged. I mean, I feel privileged to lead in a Catholic school that aligns with my values and you know, how, how I. Believe education should be.

And to be able to build those really strong connections with families and knowing that every single person that comes in matters. From child to parent, to family, to therapists, to everyone that really matter in our community. And that’s the feedback I do tend to get from families. They do say sometimes it’s something they can’t put their finger on, but, you know, and, and to me, that’s the culture of, of the school.

As I said earlier, the staff are incredible in, you know, when we show people around, I sometimes ask them to stop being so nice because it doesn’t make it any easier. Yeah. But. They genuinely are there because they want to be there. They have great expertise. Our spaces, as I said, are, are small, but they are, I’m really big on environments looking really beautiful.

I think nothing should look clinical and, you know, just because it’s a special school. So we’ve put a lot of effort into making the most of the spaces that we’ve got. I’m really passionate about it. Never looking, you know, we are a restrictive site in terms of the fact that, you know, we have got fences and those things are a school, but I do want it to make it always feel like it’s a, you know, a really beautiful community for the students to come to.

So I think that’s. You know, some of what defines us alongside of that is that we have a really strong focus on teaching and learning. So curriculum is really important. Individual plans for students, a really important assessment and reporting. So I describe us as an educational setting that cares deeply as opposed to a care setting.

[00:07:40] Dino: And I would agree a hundred percent with that. I think, you know, it’s one thing to say something, but to actually see it and, and see the outcomes for the young people that attend there and. You know, I make no reservations that a client of mine, Alex is one of my favourite people on the earth and he attends a school and has yeah, for many years.

And I remember walking through. With Alex’s parents and, and showing them the school and saying, this is where Alex needs to be. This is going to help him learn. It’s going to teach him. And he’s gonna, he’s going to develop and progress at this school as opposed to a mainstream school. Cause his needs were far greater.

And you know, it’s only through that time that he’s now a young man that you can see that progression and learning. And one, one thing I remember a few years ago, Cathy, was, was I would always ask Alex what he did with his his week or his. And he would, he would muddle things off sometimes. And he said, metiog, metiog.

And I was and I say, Alex, say, say it slowly. I don’t understand what you’re saying in Meg, Meg. And he kept saying it, and in the end I could see his mum. Sue was just laughing through the window. And I, then when I said, what are you laughing? I said, you don’t know what MITIOG is. And I said, no. And. She said it’s made in the image of God.

And it’s, it’s part of the, the curriculum and, and obviously part of being part of a, a Catholic school as well. And, but he retains that information and has that strong connection. I always remember laughing thinking. I didn’t know. So I learned something from Alex that day on plenty of other days as well, but it, it carries through like you, what you say.

Means you know, means a lot and carries a lot of weight. And let me tell you, six years ago, you, there were some fairly big shoes to fill. When you were coming in, it was, it was, oh, I feel sorry for the next person coming in after. The previous principal. But can I say you’ve done an absolutely amazing job.

[00:09:25] Cathy: Oh, thank you, Dino. Yeah, I think I remember thinking that and I I’d heard that feedback myself. You’ve got big shoes to fill, so I think I described it as filling different shoes and, you know, because you can’t be the person that was there, but I felt pretty fortunate to walk into a school that was just doing amazing things.

It’s, it’s easy to build on that. And that’s certainly what the opportunity I had when I went to St. Pat. So it was great,

[00:09:46] Dino: wonderful staff, you know, retain the staff for such a long period of time. You always know an organization is, is great when people don’t ever wanna leave.

[00:09:54] Cathy: That’s right. And that’s, and that’s a great thing.

[00:09:56] Dino: I have tried. I tried for many years to try to steal your occupational therapist, Kylie, but I gave up about eight years ago.

[00:10:03] Cathy: Yeah. And don’t even try don’t even try, I’ve given up, I’ve given up. Yeah. And I think that’s something else that’s really unique. You know, we have allied health on site, so Kylie. An incredible occupational therapist.

She’s part of our leadership team as well. So she really drives learning and she’s passionate about, you know, every individual child and, and their wellbeing. And then we’ve got a another OT, Tom who’s who’s brilliant. And we’ve got a new speech pathologist, Kelly who’s outstanding. So I just pinch myself sometimes, but I don’t like to say too much cuz people like you might steal them.

[00:10:32] Dino: no, they’re where they need to be.

[00:10:34] Cathy: They are.

[00:10:42] Michael: I wanted to have a, just a quick chat about the, as you mentioned well, actually it was Dino that mentioned about MI TIOG made an image of God. And, you know, that’s part of the, part of the curriculum in the Catholic ed system. And it goes across special schools, mainstream and, and, and wherever.

From your perspective, having had experience both in, in well in country and also in the, the government system, as well as in the Catholic ed system, how do you, how do you find the role of faith and religion in the school system and, and its curriculum and how important is that?

[00:11:11] Cathy: Oh, look, it’s absolutely fundamental to what we do.

And we are a Catholic school. You know, we are, we are very clear about that. Do you have to be Catholic to be at St Patrick’s? Absolutely not, but you know, our goal is to ensure that we live those values that define who we are. I love the fact that, you know, we can really, if you probably saw recently with Catholic schools open week, lots of bus shelters with raising hearts and minds.

And I think it’s that real balance between the heart and the mind. Like I said before, you know, we’re an educational setting that cares deeply. And I think that’s, what’s, you know, incredibly important, the sense of community, the fact that we say that everybody matters and they. And I think it’s really a privilege to be able to have that as my, like, hi for me as a principal, as my compass, you know, knowing that if I believe that every person matters, then I can, I can put practices in place that reflect that, you know, one of the things I love to do which people, colleagues sometimes think I’m a bit crazy is I do my first enrollment interviews with families on a weekend, on a Saturday.

Because they do matter, their story matters. And I wanna give them undivided attention for however long they need to share their story about their child or young person. And, and why they’re choosing us. You can’t always do that in the busyness of a school day. You know, things happen and you can get cold away.

So, but we, we just have scope as a Catholic school. I can make those decisions. I’m not bound by having to follow one particular structure because it’s what every school does. I have that opportunity to, you know, create an community or a a processes that work for the families that I’m working with.

So. It is very, very important and the MITIOG curriculum is incredibly important and it is something we talk a lot about with our families at the time of enrollment, because a key part of it is about, you know, children learning to keep themselves safe. And when I talk to parents at enrollment, you know, and ask what is that they want for their child?

The first thing most of them will say is I want them to be safe. And their biggest fear is when their child is not with them and that something could happen to them. So it’s a really fundamental part of our curriculum and we do do a lot of it. But also, you know, our whole re curriculum, you know, our prayer focus.

You know, we have a mass with father James once a term, and we just had a father’s day mass and it was seriously one of the most be. You know, events ever, and it, wasn’t your typical mass. If anyone’s been to a Catholic mass until you’ve been to a St Patrick’s mass, you haven’t probably ever been. But it was absolutely magnificent.

And, and, you know, most of our students were there and engaged for the whole time in their own way. And it was just, yeah. Fantastic. So pretty privileged place to be

[00:13:39] Michael: I’m. I’m glad you mentioned father James, just. You, I don’t, you were there, but he actually married my wife and I, he’s a lovely priest, father James, but anyway.

The other thing I did wanna mention also was obviously and Dino alluded to it before that St. Pats isn’t the only special Catholic ed special school in, in Adelaide. There’s also our, our lady La Vang. How much interaction do you have with those with, with Adelaide lava and also other Catholic ed schools with disability units say such as CA mm-hmm how much interaction do you have with those and how much do they share? Things like curriculum and, and, and what goes on in the school

[00:14:11] Cathy: yeah, look, we do, we do have a lot of interaction with our lady of La Vang we’re building on that. It hasn’t always been, you know, something we’ve done a lot of. Just purely because we’re located in different places. And the logistics of some of that, but certainly looking at ensuring that we align lots of our practices, always happy to share resources Kylie certainly networks with the OT down at Levang, which is really nice.

We have had times where our students are visited the different campuses, which is great. Steph the principal at Levang. And I also network a little bit with the principal of sun Eden and aspect, because. Also very isolated in terms of within their systems being independent schools. But I’m a part of SSEPLA so I interact with you know, engage with principals of other special schools in the department. And certainly in our principal association have a lot of interaction with the principals of our secondary schools with units. We keep really open lines of communication. I say to principals all the time, if you’ve got students in your school that you’re concerned about, or that you are thinking.

The parents are talking about, maybe them coming to us, let us know so that we can make sure we can accommodate, because I’m very passionate that if a family started on a, on a journey in Catholic education, we, I feel a real responsibility to make sure we can keep that going. And, you know, and that’s the other thing, you know, around you know, so many families have got children with siblings in Catholic schools and, you know, if just because their child has a disability shouldn’t mean they shouldn’t have a Catholic education as well.

[00:15:36] Dino: Giving away my secrets to getting families into St. Pat’s is it always, always go with your, your local Catholic, if that’s where you’re starting and, and work your way from there. Mm-hmm but Cathy, you talk about networking and question. I wanted to ask you is probably more, a bit more personal. But where do you look for, for your inspiration?

Where do you find where you need some advice or maybe you need some inspiration or you’re not sure about something. Where do you. As somebody who’s been in the education system for many years, what, what do you do?

[00:16:06] Cathy: My inspiration comes and it’s, you know, it’s gonna sound a bit cliche. My inspiration comes from the kids and that’s probably where I learned the.

From our students and our families, our parents, they’re just so insightful. And when you can catch a moment to, to have a conversation with them, we learn a lot. I think, as a staff as a school community or a staff community, when there’s not real hierarchy, we’re all there together to learn. We bounce ideas off each other, you know, I’m on yard duty.

I’m, I’m in the classrooms if I need to, but I’m. What everyone else is doing as much as I can, obviously I’ve got principal work I have to do as well. Certainly linking in with colleagues in other schools. Other principals is really important, like you said before, networking with the principals in the other special schools.

I have a fabulous walking buddy that I walk with. Who’s a principal in the department. We walk at ridiculous hours of the morning, but you know, having that kind of person, that you can bounce ideas off, but inspirationally, you just need to spend a day at St. Pat’s. That pretty much ticks that box.

[00:17:00] Michael: You say a very similar thing you know that your inspiration comes from the clients that you work with on a day to day basis? And. It goes back to that, what you, what got you into the job in the first place and, and why you’re so passionate and how you then ensure that the culture of the organization that you’re working in also shares those values.

And it goes back to whether it’s religious values or, or not those, those values that underpin who you are, are so important. And I can, I can hear that in how you are explaining that. And a key thing of that is that the people that I’m with every day are what drives me to keep doing .

[00:17:33] Cathy: I often find, I, I be sort of, you know, in something in my office that I need to be getting done, whether it’s a report or something. And then it’s just like, I actually just need to go and probably spend five minutes with some students or, you know, pop into a classroom for a minute. And yeah.

[00:17:46] Dino: It’s so you, you lead by being able to be visible in the space with, with others and with, with, I guess, with the students as well, which, you know, I, I think I, I read somewhere or whether my wife pushed it in front of me and said, you know, great, great leaders teach others to be great leaders. And they do that through example. And that’s, you can’t do, you can’t do that by being in a, in a system of hierarchy, you have to be able to be at that level and be accessible as much as you can.

And as, as difficult as that can be, it can be really rewarding when you see others being. Provide that leadership for, for newer staff or less experienced professionals as well, so

[00:18:24] Cathy: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, often there are times when I might go to support, you know, a situation. My first thing is to the teachers, you know, what do you need?

What do you need me to do? I’m not the expert on, you know, everything in, in the school, just because I’m the principal. So it is about working together, you know, and it is a real team approach at, at the school. There’s no question about that. It wouldn’t work. I would like to be in the classes and things more than I am, but those principal responsibilities just pile up.

[00:18:48] Michael: Well, I think we also joke about at times that we sometimes go, oh, I’d much prefer to see, just book me in a client. I, I won’t worry about doing that paperwork or that management stuff. Let’s just, I just wanna see that client just wanna see that person I just wanna work with with those people. And as, I guess it comes back to that, that that’s got you into the job in the first place into that sort of work and working with the people that, that we do.

We talked to Cathy about her family life parenting, and also her interests outside of work.

[00:19:24] Dino: I wanna ask you another personal question if that’s okay. Because I, we, I can read a lot about what you, no, you can. I know what you do at the school, but I wanna know a bit more about you. What, what are your interests, do you feel comfortable about talking about your family?

Because in this day and age, sometimes in the professional scope, we know not even allow to ask somebody whether they have kids or a partner or things like that. What are you willing to divulge about? In my practice. I tell my families everything about my kids, about my wife, that she’s the CEO and I now work for her.

And I’m really happy with that. But that’s just me. I’m, I’m interested in what you are happy to divulge about you, who you are, because ultimately when parents, again, come to see you, there has to be some personal connection. What, what can we know about Cathy?

[00:20:10] Cathy: Okay. What can you know about me? As I said, I was not sure that I’m overly interesting in a lot of those things. So I’m married. I have a husband Mark who is amazing support has been, I met him in Leigh Creek. So I did what I said. I’d never do. And went to Leigh Creek and found someone and got married and stayed 11 years when I was only gonna stay for four. So yeah, he’s amazing. He works in building he’s a site manager for a building company. So very different fields of work, which is great. But he’s, you know, incredibly supportive of what I do.

I have three, I was gonna say children, they’re actually adults. But they’re children still. So I have Harrison who’s 25 and he works in marketing. And then I have a son Jack who’s just about to graduate as a teacher so he’s currently looking for employment next year and really keen to go country. Probably with a little bit of a nudge from his mother and I’ve just, I’ve told him that country is not Clare or anywhere like that country is country. So, and then I have a 21 year old daughter, Isabella who’s in real estate. So three amazing kids that you know, and I think when I think about work, when you said, do you know, like, what do families know. I always think about what opportunities did I have with my children that these families should have for their, yeah. I had choice about education for my children. I could choose where they went to school.

That’s not something all of our families get. So I think that’s where I come from. When I meet with families is, well, what, what did I want for my children? And how can I create that for these families to be able to say, this is an informed choice of what I want, you know, for my children. So yeah, we, we are a really close family.

I come from a family of. Still got my mom and dad who live nearby. And so we have lots of nieces and nephews and cousins. So really close family. We do lots of family things together, our own family. We, we just still go camping a lot. You know, love to, to get away, love to I love entertaining and cooking tend to have, do a lot of cooking and having a lot of people to, around to eat, which is really nice.

So yeah, it’s great. Two of the, two of the kids live at home which, you know, as I say, I’m encouraging one to head a little bit further country, but I think I’m a big believer that an experience in the country as an educator is something you, you just can’t buy. It’s the best thing you can ever do. So, yeah.

So I don’t know. What else there is to tell about me really? It’s it’s not boring.

[00:22:20] Dino: Not boring. Did you play sport when you were younger?

[00:22:22] Cathy: I did. I did. I played a lot of sport when I was younger, so my mom was actually a tennis coach, so we grew up playing a lot of tennis. We still give her a hard time that we don’t feel we ever got the tennis lessons that the other kids got that she coached.

But yeah, grew up playing a lot of sport, tennis and, and netball particularly. And what else? Yeah, I. I love walking. I lived near the beach, so I do an awful lot of walking and that’s really probably what I do more for my wellbeing than for fitness. And, you know, I’m not gonna run a marathon anytime soon, but I certainly make the most of taking the time to, I have my morning walk with my friend and that’s our real mentoring, you know, good chance to solve the world’s problems.

And then I, you know, enjoy doing, doing other walks as well, which is, which is great.

[00:23:04] Dino: As a, as a parent, Cathy, what is your perspective then on cuz you’ve, you’ve gone through this journey on how much we allow our children or parents allow their children these days to make some. Mistakes and learn from them as opposed to preventing them from doing that by being involved and making sure they, they are, they don’t maybe make those mistakes.

I guess what I’m saying is, are you a parent that believes in, you’ve gotta let, ’em go a bit or support them as much as you can.

[00:23:33] Cathy: I’d be interested to hear if you ask my children that what they would say, but I think, look, I’m somewhere in between. I look, they have to make mistakes. The key thing is you just have to be there when they’ve made the mistake to sort of, you know, get back on track again.

I, but I also do like to provide a lot of support. I hope it’s more advice and support than direction if you know what I mean. I look, I’ve been pretty lucky. Our, our three children have, you know been pretty easy to parent in, in the scheme of things. And so I think. I’ve never been overly challenged in, in too many ways, but, you know, growing up, it was really tough when they start that sort of you know, that sort of at 1314 and, you know, can I go to a party?

I remember once my son told me that he asked if he could go to a party and I said, sure, if I can ring the parents, he said, oh, don’t worry about it. . And I said, okay. And he goes, oh, now nobody can go. And I. Pardon? He said, oh yeah, the other kids check if you, if I allow to go, oh,

[00:24:27] Dino: You’re the barometer, right?

[00:24:29] Cathy: Yeah. So that he, I was outsourcing, parents were outsourcing their parenting to me. So I would do the checking if the party was legit and then they would decide whether their children could go check.

[00:24:37] Michael: That’s a great, you were the house of Review. You were the, the Senate.

[00:24:41] Cathy: Absolutely. Absolutely. But, yeah, so I think, I think it’s a little bit of both, a little bit of letting them make some mistakes, but also, you know, you don’t want them to make a mistake that can have a really significant impact if you can, you know, guide them a little bit before that actually happens.

So and they still look, it’s interesting that doesn’t matter how old they are. They still ring for advice and still ring for chat and still ring for problem solve and those sorts of things, which I. Really appreciate sometimes depending on what they’re asking. Yeah. That’s exactly right. And how much it’s gonna cost.

[00:25:12] Michael: Parents that come through to the school then. I guess if we’re, we’re talking about parenting, do you find yourself providing support or advice to them or is it more, you’re just listening to them and trying to take in their story and, and, and provide as much guidance as you can. How, how do you, how do you share your parenting experiences with parents that come through the school as a Principal.

[00:25:35] Cathy: Yeah, look certainly prior to being at St. Pat’s I was a behavior consultant for seven years with Catholic education. And probably then was when a lot of people would ask me those kind of, you know, parenting advice, type things. And I remember working with families with children with really complex behaviors of concern, and they would say to me, oh, you know, Cathy, you must just, you must just nail this.

Well, I didn’t. And I don’t. And you know, if you had have come to my house at eight o’clock in the morning, you would’ve heard me. You know, screeching at someone to get out of bed or find their shoes or, or do whatever, you know, with the families at, at St. Pat’s I guess, look, I really am a listener. You know, they know their children better than anyone inside out they live at 24 7.

And so I learn from them. I guess the advice I give is more around. Perhaps actually probably more affirmation of what they do cuz the parents can be really hard on themselves. You know, particularly for children that have perhaps developed some routines that, you know, in their mind are not that helpful.

And they say only I had of, you know, hindsight’s a wonderful thing. So just affirming that actually what they’re doing is absolutely. Okay. And you know, it, it doesn’t matter. They they’re doing an incredible job with their own children. So probably not a lot of advice rather than.

[00:26:57] Michael: There has been much more debate recently about school inclusion and integration, particularly in light of the Royal commission into disability. The Australian coalition for inclusive education is a national coalition of disability, advocates, and organizations, and it has developed a 10 year plan for inclusive education in a.

A recent journal article in the journal of inclusive education raised the question about the future of special schools based on complying with the UN rights of persons with disabilities within this context, Cathy advocated for the importance of special schools and also the potential barriers of inclusive education within the short term.

So, I guess I’ll address the elephant in the room. There’s, there’s been a lot of speculation around potentially what special schools will look like moving forward with potential of more of a I guess in, in, in integrated or inclusive education. What, what has been your. Feedback from parents who previously may have had a child at say a mainstream school have come to St. Pat’s for example, what has been your feedback about that difference and, and the role, the special school in that situation?

[00:28:06] Cathy: Yeah, it’s the elephant in the room. Isn’t it? Mm-hmm yeah. Look, I think for me, it, it, to me, it always comes back to parent. Okay. So that’s, that’s the bottom line. If parent, when, when parents make a choice and I never wanna be seen to be in competition with a mainstream school or doing it better than them, you know, everybody intentionally goes about their work to do a really good job of it.

And so we do, you know, yeah. Sometimes parents come across and, and they, you know, have joined St Patrick’s because they feel that that’s the right place for their, their child at that point in time, you know, my experience is the families generally. They’re happy and it works and they understand it’s not maybe where they thought they’d be, but it’s where they’ve landed.

And, and it’s what they want for their child. You know, I hear comments from parents saying, ah, they found, they found their village. They found their people here, you know? And when you hear comments like that, it’s really affirming. You know, I think it’s a difficult time when parents make the transition.

Sometimes it’s easier for the families that start right when the child starts school, that transition across from mainstream into special school. I know there’s a lot of people that think special schools shouldn’t exist and, you know, in the perfect world. Wow. Wouldn’t that be amazing if we didn’t have to.

You know, different settings, but again, I come back to its parent choice and for families, if they feel that’s the right setting and we can offer that setting, I think it’s, you know, important that we, we provide that I, I get really concerned when we hear of the comments around special schools shouldn’t exist, but I don’t know that the workers work has been done yet that the other environment is ready.

So it’s fine to say everyone should be included. Absolutely. I could not agree more. I’m the biggest advocate for inclusion provided the environment where the, the children would go is ready with resources, with skills, with expertise, with understanding absolutely. And safety.

[00:29:57] Dino: I mean, I think safety is huge. I think you, you. mentioned that before. That’s the main, the parent’s main concern. And I think, you know, when I, I look at the structure of the, the school from a physical perspective, I would be comfortable if I had a child with special needs, knowing that it would be very unlikely. They could ever escape yeah.

Now. Whether that’s through wanting to explore the world outside the school, but in, you know, and a lot of mainstream schools do have fences and, and you know, around them and they have locked, you know, locked the students in, but they’re so, so much bigger that children can get lost in those systems. And these children, many of them are vulnerable.

And so, you know, you don’t know. I, I think, I think the argument, I, I haven’t really heard the argument as much as potentially you have Cathy or Michael. My argument is what is best place for this young person to reach their potential and learn. And if a mainstream school environment with supports and, and training was were, they were able to provide that then fantastic.

But I, I think we need to look broadly and say, well, what is the difference between St Pat’s and other special schools is in your opinion. I know I have an opinion about it, and I’m very open about that. I think there are, there’s a great, vast divide between. The level, I guess, in my opinion between special schools.

And I think if families do look at the, or people look at special schools in particular, some and say, well, that’s not a place that I would want anyone to be in. I think you’d be, you know, I, I would agree with them, but then if they haven’t seen St Pat’s or Suneden, or even a lady La Vang and seeing what they are trying to work towards, then they wouldn’t have.

Great perspective. I think there’s like mainstream schools, you have those that you would say are, are fantastic. And that maybe those that aren’t so great, but that exists across every educational setting. So why, you know, why is this any different? Why is this argument even occurring? Is, is I guess what I’m saying. .

[00:31:54] Cathy: I, I would agree. I mean, it’s, it is about the environment that the child’s in, and as you say, safety’s the thing that’s most important. I just get really nervous when it becomes more of a You know, a viewpoint that people wanna take, because it’s the right thing to say that, that school down the road should be inclusive.

Absolutely. They should be inclusive, but what I’ve seen, and this is just in my experience and it’s not everywhere. They go to a school because they’re saying we’re inclusive, but within the setting, it’s highly exclusive because the child’s taken out of the classroom, you know, at St. Pat’s everybody belongs and can participate in everything.

What that looks like might vary from student to student, but it is inclusive. You come at recess time, they’re all in the yard. They’re all in the swings. You come to our school mess, they’re all participating our assemblies. You know, everyone can participate in what we do. I get really nervous when someone says they should be at the school down the road and they need to be inclusive.

Absolutely. And then I would go there, particularly when I was consulting and the child’s taken out to the rainbow room or the engine room or the whatever room because they can’t, they’re not managing in the classroom. So I I’m offering inclusion if it’s absolutely authentic and it’s, it’s resourced and considered, and it’s comes from a really educative perspective.

[00:33:08] Michael: That potentially having this more inclusive system might. Put off some teachers that they’re gonna get some children that have additional needs and they don’t feel supported or equiped teaching or the skills or even with the support. Do, do you feel that there, that potentially could be something that happens?

[00:33:24] Cathy: Yeah, I, I think so. I mean, obviously teachers, you know, everyone goes into teaching to do a really great job and. You know, teachers are fearful. If they feel that they can’t manage a cohort of students or that a particular student is causing, you know, in their mind, you know, they’re a barrier for them to be able to provide the curriculum or the programs that they want to in their classrooms.

And it is a real concern. I mean, teachers talk about, if you ask teachers generally around what causes them stress. So they’ll talk about it’s meeting the diverse needs. Any given classroom, that’s a given we’re gonna have diverse needs in classrooms, but how do we make sure that those teachers are upskilled?

And that’s where I think, you know, I would love to have more opportunity for people to come and visit us. I’m not saying we get everything right. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we need to all learn from each other. We can learn from mainstream schools. And I think mainstream schools could come and learn from some of the things that we. .

[00:34:15] Dino: What what’s the if you had a perfect or you had were in control of maybe planning or being able to get the people involved that you wanted to, whether it’s political level or, you know, whatever it might be to get a system that was in place, where do you, where would you put the most resources right now? A across the education system.

[00:34:38] Cathy: Where would I put the most resources I would put the most resources into supporting, well, I mean, I’m gonna come from the perspective of disability aren’t I? So of course, yeah. But of supporting students with disabilities in every single school setting, because if a parent chooses, regardless of the level of disability, a mainstream school, that is okay, and that school needs the support and the resources and the training to actually.

Authentically make adjustments so that child can thrive and flourish in that school environment. I never want a parent to be coming to me, wishing that they were somewhere else, but it didn’t work. So they have to, that’s not what we’re about. I want them to choose us because they feel it’s the right place for their child.

Not because other places aren’t offering them what they should be offering them. So I would love to see more opportunity for, you know, that really rich learning for educators around supporting all students with disabilities in their school settings, whichever school setting that is.

[00:35:34] Dino: So, what about the the, you know, the now I guess at state level we are going to have, or potentially have in every school, an autism consultant, is that what the, the title is?

[00:35:44] Michael: Yeah, I think a something that’s come from the yeah, the assistant minister for, for autism that’s been advised, but yeah, an

[00:35:52] Cathy: autism specialist teacher in every school, I think it was.

[00:35:54] Dino: So how many schools would that be?

[00:35:56] Cathy: Well in the department. Oh my goodness.

[00:35:59] Dino: Lot. And wow. That that’s a very look, I think it’s, I think it’s fantastic. You don’t, you don’t ever wanna shoot down great ideas. And I think it’s a great idea. Don’t get me wrong. My concerns are more at the logistical level. How do they get trained? What type of training do they get? How do they sit in that education system? There’s a lot of crossover as well. And you know, it’s, it’s, there’s a lot, it’s, there’s a lot of work to be done, I think

[00:36:22] Cathy: yeah. I, I agree. I mean, when I heard that I went. Wow. What are the logistics behind that? What makes someone an expert autism teacher? You know, we don’t have a university degree where you come out with a bachelor of autism specialization, you know, or whatever. So, you know, is it someone that’s passionate?

Is it someone that’s had experience? What does that look like? And then how is that resource distributed in a school setting? I mean, for me, I think one of the biggest benefits, and I’m not saying this cuz I’m sitting in OT, F C , but I absolutely believe in allied health support in schools. I think that’s where.

Schools need the greatest support. I can’t fathom even thinking about what life at St Pat’s would be like without the allied health team that we’ve got. And it’s not just because they’re fantastic. Just the whole concept of allied health. And I think I’m hearing in Catholic head, lots of principles I talk to are looking at getting allied health.

Into their schools and Catholic head have put some great resources behind some projects where regions of schools are getting OTs and speech that actually are part of that school community and are there with the staff, walking with the staff all the time, rather than, you know, just sort of coming in and out.

So I personally think that’s where a lot of resources need to be put. And I think it’d be great to give, you know you know, graduates opportunities to go out into schools and see what, I don’t know. I’m not, I’m not in allied health, but I’m not sure how many graduates at uni are thinking they’d go and work in a school as an OT or a speech pathologist, but how do we get them in our schools to see the great work that they can be doing and the impact that they can be making and the change that they could be making, working in school.

So for me, if I had an endless bucket and I was in control of when you said before, Dino, absolutely getting allied health into schools. It’s, it’s becoming essential. I think

[00:38:05] Dino: It certainly makes more sense than having a number of providers coming in and yeah. You know, having limited space and then having to manage a diary full of so many providers.

I mean, I guess that’s what NDIS has increased the number of, of private providers wanting to go into school to support students who are eligible. And I guess, I guess going through in another, another direction, There are equally many other children who don’t have a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder who equally need support.

Now, what, where are those families gonna stand up and say, well, that’s great that you’ve got an autism advisor, but now what about more, more advisors or where does my child get access to? So it, I think it’s a long time before that’s going to be effective. But it’s certainly an initiative. I think that you, that this government, at least they’re putting it out there going all right, this might backfire and looks, you know, may take a while, but at least it’s initiative it’s, it’s showing something that’s different and may, you know, potentially not work that well, but at least I would applaud the effort at least.

[00:39:08] Cathy: Yeah. I agree with you. I agree. And I think, as I say, though, when I talk about, you know, allied health, you made a good point that allied health lens, regardless of the, in that cohort of 25 students, all of them are gonna have some need that, an adjustment to the environment.

Could help being aware of, you know, things that regulate students in classroom environments. All of those things can be beneficial to lots and lots of students. So we don’t wanna be just pointing to one or two students that are gonna get the support from a specialist. It’s around. How does that teacher have support for their whole class?

Because there there’s multiple needs, as you said, diagnosed and undiagnosed in, in our classrooms. Absolutely.

[00:39:54] Dino: I, I wanna ask a question. Can I ask one more question? Before you get to your… cathy, I, I wanted to bring up a point about physical activity because as occupational therapists in the, I guess in the sensor integration framework that we work in, we value physical activity.

We value play very highly in terms of what it provides for children’s development across the lifespan. How do you incorporate elements of play and creativity in the curriculum at St.

[00:40:20] Cathy: It’s a very significant part of our curriculum. You know, when we look at our learning areas, you know, we call it, we have numeracy in play, so they that’s reported on, we collect data on, we have engaged a lot with nature, Playa across, you know, across our school and across lots of curriculum areas.

We don’t have a lot of space. So our hall area, which you’ve probably been in is one area that is used for Big body movement and those sorts of things. We have lots of swings in the school, which is rare. Schools don’t have swings. I’ve maximized our swings. We’ve got trampolines, we’ve got all the things that schools got rid of you know, for good reason, I’m sure and complex. Well, I’m not sure. I’m just saying that to probably no, no, I’m saying that cuz it was the right thing to say.

[00:40:59] Michael: Yes, correct? No, no. Fair enough. That’s fine.

[00:41:01] Cathy: We couldn’t be without our swings. We access also one of our community participation activities is going to the local or. Not so local, but a YMCA, we have groups that go Bush walking.

So we’ve got, you know, some of our classes that go Bush walking in the mornings up to Michael Perry Reserve. That is a fantastic activity for them to do. They absolutely love it. It’s rain, hail or shine. Pretty much probably avoid hail, but other than that, they’re out there. They love it. They’ve got their backpacks on and out.

They go Bush walking. So we try and incorporate as much of that. The program as we can, but play is fundamental for our students. You know, we have, but you’ve. We’re mindful that it’s not just play, it’s play based curriculum. So it’s integrated into the learning learning intentions that we have for the students.

You know, we bring the play into it, but there’s a learning intention in everything that we do. And that’s what I think’s really important because it’d be very easy to disguise all learning as play or disguise or players learning. Mm-hmm . And we are very clear that, you know, it’s part of the curriculum. But it has a learning intention.

[00:42:02] Michael: And I know you well, we’ve talked about it before. And we, we interviewed guru on sensory integration, obviously the, the theory and practice we use here, who said something similar in terms of the difference between what sensory enrichment is and what sensory integration is, and it’s that understanding and, and almost using the theory or in your case, the, the curriculum in the play.

And for us, it’s using play as a, as a way to ensure that the sensor integration is done effectively, and it’s not just providing an environment. Neurotypical children to be able to engage. It’s it’s ensuring that what you’re doing is, is learning.

[00:42:35] Cathy: Absolutely. Absolutely. And again, once again, this is the value of having allied health in the school.

You know, being able to support teachers, to look at how we bring the curriculum and the need for, you know, sensory integration, the need for movement, the need for play, or to come together in a really effective way. So, you know, to. In isolation, we, I don’t think we’d be as effective as it is with us having, you know, allied health.

And again, with, even with our speech, you know, communication is absolutely a priority in our school. You know, one of the biggest things we know that the challenge for our students who are not verbal is not. Having a voice. So all staff at St. Pat’s we pretty much all wear an iPad all the time with Proloquo2Go on it so that every child has a voice wherever they are, whenever they need it to say whatever they need to say, I’m not great at it.

I’m getting better. I do drive my family nuts when I try and practice at home and talk to them through the iPad. But Kelly, our speech pathologist is really leading some fantastic work in ensuring that we give every child a voice wherever they need it.

[00:43:36] Dino: So important. I can’t use Prolo. I, I found that I’m I struggle.

I struggle with. But, you know, in, in practice. Yeah. In the old days they used to have a thing called a Chat PC. Yeah. And the Chat PC was this bulky. It was comp it was digital, but it was, and it was hard to press, press the thing wouldn’t wouldn’t voice. And it was like $3,000 for this chunky thing. So it comes such a long way and the technology is there to support it. So, you know, we should use it and encourage it.

[00:44:02] Cathy: We’re using a new, the new Prolo. We are sort of trialing it. So we actually had One of the developers out from Amsterdam and he visited St. Pat’s last week, which was fantastic. Wow. And gave us a lot more insight. So you’ve just gotta have someone that’s, that’s passionate that leads it in the school.

Yeah. And Kelly, our speech pathologist is and does, and she works with the families and I’m blown away with what the students can do. They navigate it way quicker than I do. I’m lost. And they they’re telling me what they need or what they want or how they’re feeling way before I found

[00:44:28] Michael: Oh, I think growing up with the, the digital technology age, some of these, some of these kids. Gotta look at my son and he learns how to swipe a phone well, before he should be able to anyway, I don’t give him the phone very often.

Alright, Cathy, I thank you very much for sharing some wonderful insight your, your background and also of your time at St. Pats and, and some other things there. But I also wanted to ask just a few other questions and more lighthearted ones. And we are very big. We talked about play child themes and, and child-led stuff. But I wanted to actually ask a bit about some of your favourite things when you were growing up, if you can remember?

So if you can remember, what, what was the favourite toy or, or maybe it was something that you heard bear or something, or favourite thing you had as, as a child?

[00:45:12] Cathy: Look at. I remember being given from a friend whose children had grown up some Barbie dolls, which I remember thinking were the most amazing things ever and the lady that gave them to us also used to make some of our clothes. She was a dress maker, so she would make something for the Barbie outta the off cuts from what she made for us. Oh wow. So you can imagine how good it was. Customized Barbies. Yeah. Yeah. You can imagine you’re wearing the same thing as your Barbie dog, so it didn’t get much better than that.

That was fantastic. And I. I did collect stamps, which I don’t share very often

[00:45:40] Dino: I did too. That’s terrible.

[00:45:43] Michael: Hey. Yeah, it’s they don’t, they’re too expensive now to collect. So, you know,

[00:45:46] Cathy: well, nobody posts letters either, so you can’t soak them off the envelope like we used to do

[00:45:50] Dino: I remember doing, I don’t even know why I got into that, but.

[00:45:52] Cathy: No me either, but we still have family discussions with my brother that who ripped her off with the better stamps. And yeah. So it’s, it’s been a bit of an ongoing family joke, the stamp collecting so well,

[00:46:02] Michael: I think it moved on to playing cards and stuff. Playing cards is a really big thing in, in the nineties. So I don’t know, or maybe people were still collecting stamp stamp anyway.

favourite board game. And it could be maybe one growing up as a child or favourite one you play with your family

[00:46:18] Cathy: And we do play a few board games, particularly when we go camping. And my son’s beautiful partner Beck she’s a real board game person. So she’s got us into a lot of new board games that are, are really good, but growing up, we played a lot of Monopoly. Yep. That was sort of the thing. You know, it was just all about making all that money and getting all that property and probably life hasn’t changed too much.

[00:46:34] Michael: Did you have a favourite bit place on the board? I’m assuming you played the British version did you have a favourite.

[00:46:40] Cathy: Absolutely Park Lane. You had to get park lane.

[00:46:43] Dino: What did you choose to be you? The thimble, the wheelbarrow, the dog?

[00:46:47] Cathy: I used to like to be the boot

[00:46:48] Michael: I was the car, I think, as I liked cars.

[00:46:50] Dino: . Always went the wheelbarrow

[00:46:51] Michael: Yeah. You can put all your money in there.

[00:46:53] Dino: Always lugging. No, it was always lugging stuff. .

[00:46:55] Michael: How about a favourite TV show when you’re growing up?

[00:46:57] Cathy: Oh, look, that’s probably the easiest question you could ask. It has to be the Brady bunch. Ah, there you go. Absolutely. It was like reality TV. When you were sort of 10, you know, envisaging living in that beautiful house and running down the stairs and having a housekeeper give you your lunch bag. I mean, life wouldn’t have gotten any better than that. So we all watched the Brady bunch growing up.

[00:47:17] Michael: I think they only stopped doing reruns of that in channel 10. Not that long. Yeah. it was on for a while. Yeah,

[00:47:24] Dino: it was. I think that was on before. Happy. It was always Brady bunch and then happy days.

[00:47:28] Michael: Some great shows. Oh yeah. This one’s, this one’s a little bit interesting, but I’ll, I’ll throw it out to you. You’re trapped in a lift and can only choose one of the following to save you. Mm-hmm who do you choose? I’ll throw in an next one here as well. So who do you choose and why? MacGyver? Indiana Jones. James Bond firefighters or the man himself Dino

[00:47:54] Cathy: Okay. That’s a tough question.

I, number one would hate to be trapped in the lift. I’m a little bit claustrophobic. I, I like fresh air. So being in the lift, so I’m going to go firefighters because they’re probably more likely to turn up. Yeah. And in my state of stress, I probably don’t wanna be interacting with James Bond or Indiana Jones or anyone too famous. So, and Dino, if you were there, I’d trust you to save me.

[00:48:16] Dino: I’d just probably call my dad.

[00:48:20] Michael: he is my next one on the list. Dino or Dino’s dad.

[00:48:22] Cathy: Yeah, no, I think I’ll go to the firefighters. They’re likely to turn up and probably know what they’re doing.

[00:48:26] Michael: The last one I wanted to ask is just a song that you come back to when you need to pick me up or something to just cheer you up a bit.

[00:48:32] Cathy: Ooh. Are you into, are you into music? I am. Okay. I am, I do enjoy music, but I hadn’t really thought about it. A particular song or an artist or, yeah, look. Hmm. Couldn’t put my finger on one in particular. I, I love a lot of sixties music. I just think that’s really upbeat. They were sort of, you know, good positive songs usually with positive messages, you know, as opposed to some of the more recent music.

So probably, you know, I, I listen to a bit of, I’ve got a few playlists at home that I, I listen to that are a little bit more easy listening. So yeah. I, but probably if I really wanted to a bit of a PI, I love a bit of love bit of Neil diamond. Oh, nice. Yeah. Yeah. You can’t really go wrong with that.

[00:49:20] Michael: All right. On that, on that note then. Cathy. Thank you so much for joining us it’s been, it’s been fantastic. I’m sure Dino has enjoyed it as much as I have. Absolutely. So thank you so much for coming in. Thank you for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

[00:49:36] Dino: We’ll get you back again. Don’t worry. Oh yeah.

[00:49:37] Michael: Thanks. We’ll make a part 2. Okay. Thank you. Thank you, Cathy.

Further Listening

Related episodes