Special education

The Macquarie Program has touched thousands of lives worldwide

It was a day that Sue Cairns will always remember. Professor Bernard Thorley had invited her to train as a teacher as part of an early intervention program for children with Down Syndrome. Then a 20-year old undergraduate student in Macquarie University’s School of Education, Ms Cairns found herself inspired by a group of children who were often marginalised by society. 

“Professor Thorley had been appointed to drive special education at Macquarie University. At that time, the discipline was in its infancy worldwide,” explains Mrs Cairns. “Macquarie went on to become one of the leading lights in the field. Its success was driven largely by Bernie and his colleagues.” 

The Macquarie Down Syndrome Program was based on an experimental model that Professor Thorley had seen in action at the University of Washington. He brought together a team of researchers and trainee teachers and the program began in 1975 with 12 children: six had been living at home with their families; six had been living in institutions. The aim was to develop a model for best practice in special education validated through the experiences of children with a known intellectual disability. “There was a little boy called Billy who had lived in an institution. At the age of six, he had the legs of an 18 month old. He crawled around on his stomach. In contrast, there were other little people like Martin who was living at home with his wonderful family, running around and starting to talk,” says Ms Cairns. 

“There was an automatic contrast between the two groups of children. You could see the powerful impact of curriculum and this was all new – it was ground-breaking at the time. We showed that children weren’t uneducable, no matter how delayed they were.” 

Over the months and years that followed, Ms Cairns and her colleagues witnessed transformations in development that had a significant, enduring impact on the children and the lives of their families and carers. An important component of the program was parent support and appropriate schooling – many ‘graduates’ from the program were able to integrate into mainstream education. 

As the first early intervention program for children with developmental delay in Australia, the ‘Macquarie Program’ was adopted by establishments throughout the country and overseas. Mrs Moira Pieterse, Director of the Macquarie Program, focussed on developing curriculum for children with disabilities and their families. The program provided a foundation for a range of initiatives: one such initiative, consisting of parent-friendly guides and video support tools called Small Steps, was aimed at families exploring education through play. Small Steps has been translated into 25 languages and continues to be widely used throughout the world. Mrs Pieterse’s colleague, Robin Treloar, assisted and supported organisations in the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey, Slovenia, Hong Kong and Germany to utilise the principles of the Macquarie Program within their own cultural practices. 

While tens of thousands of lives have been touched by the Macquarie Program, it is the personal bonds with children and their families that Ms Cairns and her colleagues continue to treasure. 

“One day, Bernie [Professor Thorley] was playing with Billy in a rocker and Billy, who was up to then quite unresponsive, just started laughing. I think all of us wept. It was a very exciting moment. We formed strong bonds that have lasted even up to today.”

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