Difference and disability in schools: Participation or isolation?

Written by: Philippa Stobbs | Published:
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The D of SEND can risk passing unnoticed under the radar. A new guide sets out the legal duties that schools must meet when it comes to supporting disabled students. Its author Philippa Stobbs offers four vital considerations for teachers and schools


In 2019, in the run-up to what was expected to be the imminent publication of a Green Paper on SEND, the Education Select Committee heard from disabled children and young people themselves.

“(The committee) heard from young people that poor support can result in them being isolated in school, unable to access the curriculum and finding it hard to make friends.

“As adults, the training and employment opportunities were found to be poor, deriving from a fundamental lack of ambition for young people with SEND across the country.” (Education Select Committee, 2019)

Many of the points made to the committee are borne out by data and research, including the points made by young people about compromised ambition and social isolation.

If this feels like a rather bleak starting point, I want to move to a more positive place and highlight four ways in which, using the disability duties in the Equality Act, we can support a more positive and proactive approach to ensuring that disabled pupils leave school well prepared for adult life.


A broad definition of disability

The first consideration is about the breadth of the definition of disability! Most of us carry around in our heads a relatively restricted view of who counts as disabled and in consequence we tend to underestimate the number of people who may be disabled. Current estimates indicate that 9% of children are disabled. That is an average of two or three in every class of 30.

One school found themselves facing a claim of discrimination at tribunal. They knew about a number of learning difficulties a particular pupil had but did not think of these as amounting to a disability. They thought of him as “a mainstream child”, a child who should have been following the rules, rather than a child who needed reasonable adjustments to enable him to access learning.

The technicalities of the definition are set out in the guide for schools – Disabled Children and the Equality Act 2010: What teachers need to know and what schools need to do – recently launched by the Council for Disabled Children.

But these considerations are not straightforward, and schools do not necessarily find them easy. Perhaps the tendency to shorten “disability” to a “D” at the end of SEND, in one acronym, diminishes the importance of the separate consideration of disability, the definition, and the responsibilities associated with it.


Disability and difference

The second consideration is about difference and disability. Many of the Equality Act duties require different treatment for disabled pupils. Yet schools are encouraged to have policies that are applied consistently to all children. That very consistency is seen as the essence of fairness: we treat all children fairly; we apply the same rules to all children.

A school doing exactly that was found by the tribunal to have discriminated. The judge said: “To treat everyone the same, to apply the school’s rules and procedures on behaviour management regardless of disability, is to discriminate against a pupil whose disabilities call for a proportionate response, or adjustments, to be made.”

On the other hand, emphasising difference can stigmatise pupils. There are real risks that we see the disability before we see the child, that we make assumptions about what they will be able to achieve, and that we compromise ambitions.

How we encourage an understanding of difference lies at the heart of this. How we handle difference, and the great variety of humankind, is a good indicator of how comfortable everyone feels in their school. The more we can incorporate individual adjustments into our policies and our day-to-day practices, the less we need to intervene individually and risk singling out individual children.


Seeing the bigger picture and thinking ahead

This is the essence of the third consideration: using the wider, strategic duties in the Equality Act to think further ahead and for groups of pupils. One of these wider duties is the school accessibility planning duty.

When we say “accessibility”, we often think of physical accessibility, but this duty requires schools to address curriculum accessibility and the accessibility of information for disabled pupils, as well as the more obvious physical aspects of accessibility.

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) sits alongside the accessibility planning duty and is designed to identify and address patterns of disadvantage for different groups of pupils.

The PSED requires us to consider how well disabled pupils are represented in a range of school activities, in senior roles, or in activities beyond the school day; and at over-representation in other aspects of school life – disciplinary action, exclusion or absence. This kind of information should be gathered on an annual basis, analysed and used to inform the objectives that schools must set to address identified disadvantage.

If we use these wider duties wisely and well, we can be more efficient and more effective in the way that we meet the individual duties. More efficient because we can save ourselves some of those repeated individual adjustments; more effective because we can gradually, over time, raise the bar on participation in every aspect of school life.


Listening to disabled children and young people

The fourth consideration is about listening to disabled children and young people themselves. If we engage with them in considering how best to support their learning and participation, we often arrive at better and more enduring solutions than we do on our own.

The Children and Families Act 2014 highlights the importance of taking into account the wishes, views and feelings of children and young people.

This is reinforced in the SEND Code of Practice and other guidance. Department for Education guidance on Supporting pupils with medical conditions at school (DfE, 2014), makes the point well: “Pupils with medical conditions will often be best placed to provide information about how their condition affects them. They should be fully involved in discussions about their medical support needs and contribute as much as possible to the development of, and comply with, their individual healthcare plan. Other pupils will often be sensitive to the needs of those with medical conditions.”

This is a helpful thought, not just about disabled pupils informing and owning solutions, but also a reminder about the acceptance and understanding of difference among other pupils.

The bigger win is that disabled pupils are more likely to feel that they are accepted, that their views are valued, and, even, that they are welcome. That’s not always a given for disabled children and young people, but, with the commitment of schools, it can be.

  • Philippa Stobbs is assistant director at the Council for Disabled Children, which is part of the National Children’s Bureau. She is the author of the new guide, Disabled Children and the Equality Act 2010.


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Supporting pupils with medical conditions at school, September 2014: https://bit.ly/3NJFfoZ
  • Education Select Committee: Education Selection Committee: Special education needs and disabilities, October 2019: https://bit.ly/3v6vVCs
  • Stobbs: Disabled Children and the Equality Act 2010: What teachers need to know and what schools need to do, Council for Disabled Children, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3xsTDed


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