Accessibility Plans as Effective Tools for Inclusion in Schools: Are They Working?
ALLFIE’s ground-breaking research project report, authored by Dr Armineh Soorenian and funded by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL).
This project draws on focus groups, surveys and interviews with Disabled secondary school pupils and their parents and with education professionals across England. It was overseen by the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE).
The law, Accessibility Plans and Disability in schools
Since 2002 all schools have been required by law to publish and implement Accessibility Plans. These plans are meant to set out how, over time, schools will improve:
- the supply of information to parents of Disabled children and young people
- physical access
- teaching and assessment to meet individual need.
By failing to publicise and implementing their Accessibility Plans, schools might be breaching the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) 2001 and the Equality Act 2010 – as well as breaching our international legal obligations.
Under the Equality Act and the 2015 Code of Practice for the Act, schools must not directly or indirectly discriminate against, harass or bully Disabled children and young people. They must make reasonable adjustments – including in teaching and assessment to ensure that Disabled pupils are not at a substantial disadvantage compared with their peers.
Our surveys and focus groups suggest many schools fail to meet these requirements.
Parents participating in the project were confused about their legal rights and wanted to know more about how they could challenge unlawful disabling practices.
- Unlawful and disabling practices must be challenged, primarily by councils. Parents and Disabled young people need a statutory route to challenge schools in the courts.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD)
The UK government signed the UNCRPD in 2009. Article 24 guarantees all Disabled pupils and students a right to participate in all forms of mainstream education. However, the UK placed ‘reservations’ on this when it signed the convention. The UK remains out of step internationally on equal access to education.
Disabled pupils’ individual requirements and needs are often not considered and they are unable to reach their full potential, which again breaches Article 24.
The Disabled young participants are frequently discriminated against due to their impairments – in contravention of Article 5 of the Convention – and had no equal and effective legal protection against discrimination. Limited access to information and poor physical access contravenes Article 9 of the convention.
Disabled pupils are also not able to fully enjoy all human rights and freedoms on an equal basis to other children. They are often denied opportunities to learn and play with their friends which amounts to segregation – contravening Article 7.
Accessibility Plans – a well-hidden secret
Some 17 years after the requirement to produce Accessibility Plans was introduced, schools are failing in their legal duty. Most Disabled young people are facing more barriers than ever.
This has a shocking impact on disabled children and their families.
Disabled young people and their parents are given little or no information – even around the existence of Accessibility Plans. Often parents take 30-40 minutes to find the plans on the school website – with many only looking after we told them they existed. It is therefore unsurprising that few have been involved in their production, development or review. Just 7% of parents had been invited to participate in developing the plans for their child’s school.
None of the parents we spoke to knew anyone who had used an Accessibility Plan to appeal against disabling practices. Many parents did not even know that schools are legally required to provide lifts, ramps or other reasonable adjustments.
Accessibility Plans – fine words but the reality is often very different
Those parents who found their school’s plan felt it was a tick-box exercise. Their promises around access and support are unfulfilled and the fine words are meaningless in practice. Parents agreed that the culture and ethos of a school would determine if the plans were embedded in everyday school life and decisions.
Disabled young people and their parents across England told us they feel let down by their schools and the negative attitudes and lack of understanding from staff the encountered.
One parent suggested schools can use Accessibility Plans to avoid putting reasonable adjustments in place: “The plan can say, ‘We’re not going to do anything’.”
Parents’ scepticism was reinforced by one professional, who told us: “Generally there are quite a few schools that have the documents, but only a limited number of schools embed (them) into practice, and therefore there are very few schools where it actually functions.”
Only 20% of parents in the online survey felt the plans had improved the opportunity for their child to take part in activities, while 23% felt they had improved access. Amongst professionals the figures were 48% and 51% respectively.
Accessibility Plans are supposed to improve the delivery of written information but Disabled pupils generally felt provision in this area is poor. The professional participants recognised that their schools tended to only respond to requests rather than provide information in alternative formats as standard practice. Rather than seeing this as a shortcoming on their part or that of their schools, they blamed funding or low uptake by pupils.
ALLFIE is calling for comprehensive national guidelines to support schools in producing robust Accessibility Plans. They are looking to work with young Disabled people to produce an Accessibility Plans Toolkit for schools. We need more research on the quality of Accessibility Plans and how they are implemented.
Disabled young participants and parents suggested that teachers, headteachers and senior managers should receive regular impairment-specific disability and inclusion training.
Local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education are failing to hold schools to account for the quality, visibility and implementation of their Accessibility Plans – which are a legal requirement. Many schools are failing in their duties and new legislation is needed. Almost two-thirds of the 127 LAs who responded to our Freedom of Information Act request did not even know if their schools had Accessibility Plans in place.
- The Department for Education needs to monitor, promote and enforce the positive and continuous development and implementation of Accessibility Plans.
- Schools and councils need to fully involve parents, Disabled children and professionals in the production, development and review of Accessibility Plans.
- OFSTED should have a legal duty to routinely monitor the impact and implementation of Accessibility Plans, and to include their findings in school inspection reports.
- Accessibility plans should include compulsory training packages for teachers, headteachers and senior management teams, with regular mandatory updates.
In choosing a school for their Disabled child, parents want the same choices and opportunities as other parents – with the clear opportunity to choose a mainstream school. To do so, they need transparent information and reliable support from schools and local authorities – which all too often they are denied.
Instead they face prejudicial and negative attitudes from staff during the admissions process. This prevents many Disabled children and young people from attending their preferred school.
A school rated outstanding by Ofsted told one mother that they ‘just couldn’t take’ her son.
Yet professionals involved in our focus groups and surveys did not recognise these barriers, believing their school’s admission process was no different for Disabled pupils.
We found parents are sometimes forced to choose a special school or home schooling due to fears about inadequate support levels for their child’s educational and other needs. This separation from friends led to mental health problems for some children.
Despite legal protection, the percentage of SEND pupils in mainstream schools has fallen by 24% since 2012 while the number in special schools has risen by nearly a third.
However, instead of funding inclusive and improved provision in mainstream education, the Government is planning costly new special schools.
Accessibility Plans must focus not only on the removal of physical barriers in schools, but on challenging attitudinal, physical, systemic, and other obstacles within the admissions process so Disabled learners can attend their preferred school.
Parents of Disabled young people were generally critical of schools’ physical structures and barriers to access, enjoyment and participation. These include noise and lighting as well as physical obstacles. Children with neurological conditions or autism could be affected by the fluorescent lighting or large groups of children moving around the school at regular intervals.
Disabled children and young people and parents complained about heavy doors, steps and the absence of ramps and lifts/broken lifts. Parents said many accessibility problems arose from the small size of classrooms. Sometimes wheelchair users sit in a corner or by the door where they cannot interact with other children or participate properly in the class.
In schools without lifts disabled children of all ages would be in one classroom with their lessons handed to them on paper. One parent observed: ‘It’s not even teaching. It was just literally giving them paper and saying, “This is your lesson. This is what you’re expected to do today,” and that was it. I don’t even think it was a qualified teacher in there. I honestly think it was a TA. It’s shocking, absolutely shocking.”
Asked in our survey if they thought their child’s school was accessible, 42% of parents of Disabled children and young people said yes, 27% no and 31% said ‘sometimes’. Staff showed bias and inflexibility when asked by parents to address barriers. Clearly, legal duties are often not being met.
Teaching, Learning and Assessment
Teaching/learning methods and assessment procedures should be inclusive and flexible.
Parents often encountered insensitive and discriminatory responses to requests for reasonable adjustments in teaching and assessment to meet their children’s impairment-related needs. Some worried that the various pressures and discrimination around access and learning could ‘break’ their children socially – and possibly emotionally.
Disabled young participants feel the playing field is not level in terms of their ability to participate in classroom activities and the school curriculum – particularly in assessment.
Programmes should be put in place to adequately support Disabled young people, ensuring a consistent and rights-based approach to education. Teaching and assessment procedures must be responsive to – and support – each child’s needs.
British Sign Language should be taught as a modern language while the English curriculum should include emotionally accessible content.
Some rents are told their child is ‘difficult’ and the school refuses to teach them fulltime. Some children only attend school 2-3 days per week under a ‘part-time contract.’ Disabled children make up around 45% of all exclusions. One parent spoke of his child being described by the school as ‘ineducable’ but after home schooling he is doing a chemistry GCSE a year early.
The education professionals who participated in our focus group or survey felt that an effective Accessibility Plan would help schools prepare classroom support for individual students, whether through new use of resources or by adjusting teaching methods. They felt that Disabled pupils would then be able to access their lessons and improve outcomes.
- Teaching staff must structure their teaching around a commitment to maximising all students’ learning experiences by using methods such as multi-level instruction, co-operative learning, individualised learning modules, activity-based learning and peer tutoring.
The Disabled young participants feel many barriers prevent them fully participating in their school community. These include prejudice, poor transport facilities, few trained staff during social time, and inaccessible school activities. This led many to feel isolated – which affects their confidence and self-esteem.
Some of the children report spending break and lunch by themselves to avoid bullying. Others don’t go on school trips – particularly longer ones – for resource or support reasons.
Social inclusion in schools should be a key part of any Accessibility Plan – not an add-on.
Although Accessibility Plans are not required to address social inclusion, it is clear that schools should be required to work towards full social inclusion and participation.
- For schools to create more opportunities for Disabled pupils to socialise with Disabled and non-disabled children in fully accessible settings, including accessible playgrounds and outdoor activities. Accessibility Plans should include anti-bullying strategies.