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Children’s Commissioner for Wales questions children with disabilities’ access to secondary schools

A spotlight report published today (18 November 2014) into wheelchair accessibility in secondary schools has uncovered inadequacies in the current system intended to increase access to schools for disabled pupils.

The report by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales looks at how local authorities implement their duty under the Equality Act 2010 to plan the accessibility of schools for disabled pupils.

Key findings include:

  • Families of children with disabilities find the application for a secondary school place a struggle, with many feeling they have to fight and compromise in order to achieve a reasonable outcome for their children.
  • Some children with mobility difficulties are not only required, but also expected, to leave behind their friends and attend a school deemed accessible by the local education authorities, often only to find that the school may not be as accessible as they had been led to believe initially.
  • Negative attitudes of staff both in schools and local authorities are causing concern among professionals working in disability equality and related areas.
  • Reports that children who use a wheelchair are sometimes excluded from certain classes due to their disability such as cookery, science or from school trips.

The Equality Act 2010, and earlier regulations dating back to 2001, require local authorities to plan the accessibility of schools for pupils with disabilities and individual schools are required to have an accessibility plan in place. The Act does not, however, require schools to make their buildings physically accessible. In 2012, Dr Sue Hurrell, an independent researcher and campaigner and parent of a child who has cerebral palsy and who uses a wheelchair, worked with a journalist to issue Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all local education authorities.

Of Wales’ 22 local education authorities:

  • 8 confirmed they had no accessibility strategy
  • 3 said there wasn’t a strategy available to share
  • 3 declined to respond to the FOI request.

In 2013, FOI requests were re-issued to all 22 local education authorities. This time:

  • 11 of the 22 either had a weak strategy, providing insufficient information on their intentions for improvement, or no strategy at all
  • 6 had out of date strategies or were merely statements of intent
  • Of the remaining 5, only 2 accessibility strategies resembled what was intended by legislation.

Commenting on his spotlight report, Keith Towler, said:

“Education is a key part of childhood. Not only do children learn and develop at school, they establish relationships and gain new experiences. Is it right that families are left unhappy, stressed and having to fight for the right for their children to be educated in a school alongside their friends and peers, with some even moving house to try and make the transition to secondary school easier? Is it right that some wheelchair using pupils are sometimes excluded from some classes such as science and cookery? Is it right that local authorities are under obligation under planning duties to have an accessibility strategy with detailed knowledge of accessibility within their school stock, but a large majority fail to produce one?

“How can we expect children and young people to reach their full potential when these physical barriers are placed in their way? While there are clear statutory duties in place to make schools accessible, this has not been sufficient. I find it difficult to accept that schools are not under the same duties as other public buildings in their requirements under the Equality Act 2010 to make their buildings physically accessible. Despite this missed opportunity, there are statutory duties in place and we need to make sure local education authorities and schools fulfil these obligations.”

Included in the spotlight report are six priorities for improvement, including:

  • A call on the Welsh Government to refresh its ten year old guidance ‘Planning to Increase Access to Schools for Disabled Pupils’ within the next 12 months; and
  • A call on all local education authorities to undertake an audit of their secondary school stock within the next 12 months to ensure they have clear information on the current position in relation to accessibility for disabled pupils in their area.

Dr Sue Hurrell added:

“The best place to start building a society that is welcoming to people with disabilities is in our schools. If they cannot accommodate children who use wheelchairs then those children start their lives feeling excluded. And all of our children will fail to learn at first-hand what equality really means.”

CASE STUDY 1

The parents of one child reported that a lack of choice of secondary schools had a negative impact on the whole family. The local authority could not provide comprehensive details of accessible schools. They reported that the attitudes of some professionals in both schools and the local authority was ‘unhelpful’, ‘not welcoming’. The whole process was ‘confusing and a complete mess’.

CASE STUDY 2

Another family moved house in order to try and make the transition to secondary school easier. However they still felt there was no planning around the needs of the individual children or consultation with the parents. Strategic plans were ‘never seen in time’. When adaptations were agreed it was another three years before the changes were finalised, with arguments over whether it was the school’s or the local education authority’s responsibility to pay. This family reported that staff attitudes towards disabled children was very mixed.