ALLFIE Survey Report: Coronavirus Impact on Disabled People’s Education
Read the findings of ALLFIE’s Inclusive Education Survey on the impact of Coronavirus (Covid-19) on education for Disabled pupils and students during lockdown.
In April 2020 the Alliance for Inclusive Education surveyed Disabled students, their parents and education practitioners, to discover emerging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic following the closure of educational institutions.
This report explains our survey findings and covers:
- Survey findings
Who is ALLFIE?
The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) is the only national organisation led by disabled people working on educational issues and, in particular, working to promote the rights of disabled students (including those with SEND) to be included in mainstream education, as set out in Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
ALLFIE uses the term ‘disabled children and young people’ because many will fall under the definition of disabled persons in the Equality Act 2010.[i]
Why has ALLFIE undertaken this research?
ALLFIE wanted to know how disabled students’ education has been affected as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic after the closure of educational institutions. Whilst statutory education-related services are facing an unprecedented time, we wanted to find out whether decision makers and staff are working within the spirit of the law to ensure that, as far as possible, disabled students’ rights to mainstream education are upheld during lockdown.
ALLFIE’s survey encompassed three individual surveys: one for disabled students, one for parents and one for education practitioners. We wanted to identify:
- To what extent that schools expected parents to home school their disabled children.
- What support parents received in supporting their disabled children access mainstream education.
- The accessibility and inclusivity of the online platforms.
- Alternative provision for children unable to participate in online learning.
- Disabled students’ experiences of remote education, alternative curriculum and support during closures of universities.
Coronavirus Act 2020
- The Secretary of State for Education can issue a notice permitting local authorities to use their reasonable endeavours to secure the education, health and care (EHC) provision as set out in the child or young person’s Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
- Local authorities are permitted to complete the child or young person’s EHC assessment and plan process in any timescales required in the regulations set by the Secretary of State for Education.
For many disabled students (over the age of 18), there have been temporary modifications to the Care Act 2014[iv] around securing care provision that might be needed to access mainstream education.
- The Care Act 2014 allowed local authorities to only provide community care at a level that does not severely interfere with the basic human rights of those needing that care.
Equality Act 2010 duties
The Equality Act 2010 duties remain in place without temporary modifications by the Coronavirus Act 2020. As such, education institutions are still under public sector equality, general anticipatory and individual duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Furthermore, schools are also required to publish an accessibility plan covering increasing accessibility of the curriculum and information for disabled students.
Remote education and specific legislation
The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018[v] requires uploaded content on the websites and mobile applications of publicly funded education institutions to comply with European accessibility standards such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 between September 2020 and June 2021. Education institutions ought to be well on their way to having accessible online learning platforms and as such the Coronavirus Act 2020 would have no impact because the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 remain in place.
UNCRPD Article 24
The Coronavirus Act 2020 does not allow the Government to put aside disabled students’ human rights under their international treaty obligations. The Government is under a positive duty to develop a fully inclusive education system that welcomes all regardless of impairment, health condition or ability under UNCRPD Article 24 and Comment 4.[vi] The UNCRPD Monitoring Committee has published Covid-19 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Guidance[vii] with a specific emphasis on remote education.
Disabled pupils and families denied access to mainstream education
Disabled pupils and their families have been particularly adversely affected by the lack of education provision during the closure of schools.
- 83% of parents are expected to home school their disabled children.
- 54% of parents have not received any support from either the local authority or school to help with home schooling.
- 34% of parents have received some (but not a sufficient level of) support to help with home schooling.
ALLFIE has surveyed its members and invited Facebook posts to enlist disabled pupils, university students, parents and educational professionals’ experiences of the provision of education services throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Survey respondents identified online learning and assistive technology, accessibility of virtual platforms, in-person support and coursework assessment arrangements as being major barriers that disabled students experienced in participating in mainstream education during lockdown.
Online devices and assistive technology
During lockdown, our survey revealed to what extent disabled students have access to the technology and internet access required to complete school, college and university work. Whilst some parents reported that they had the necessary online devices and internet connection to enable their disabled children to engage in remote education, we were informed this is not the case for all, especially for those with a lower socioeconomic status, as this specialist teacher observes:
“Many of [our] learners are without the equipment needed to access Microsoft Teams which is where [the] school is currently setting work. We’ve got 400 laptops in the ICT suite sitting [there] idle. Let’s give them to the children. Let’s give them whatever they need so they can access learning.” (Specialist Teacher ALLFIE Professional Survey April 2020)
Many disabled students are only able to use computer facilities involving expensive assistive technology and hardware provided on-site by the education institutions, as reported by Disabled Students UK:
“A large proportion of disabled students report to us that they have not been given the same tools, software or adapted furniture which they had used and relied on at university…”
The ownership and expense involved in having the same ICT set up at home and on-site has become a real barrier for both disabled students’ ability to learn and complete coursework after the closure of many education institution facilities, including access to computer rooms and labs.
Accessibility of virtual platforms including curriculum
We found that most schools are using virtual remote education platforms so that students can continue with their course learning and work during lockdown. A few disabled students and parents told us of education institutions that have been working tirelessly to make the remote learning experience as inclusive as possible.
“We have a means of video contact with Communication Support staff for planned contact time using BSL [British Sign Language]. Work is set online and accessed daily via an app…Fortunately we have not had any problem so far as my child has good literacy skills and I am also a fluent BSL signer so can explain things if required. School have been good; work set has been realistic and there is [a] means of contacting subject teachers and specialist staff if needed.”
However, for the overwhelming majority of families and disabled students their experience of remote education has been one of exclusion. Some parents have generally commented that the “online learning materials are for neurotypical children only” or “online activities are for other rather than their own disabled children”. These parents share similar views of those articulated by disabled students’ experiences of remote education:
“[There are] Virtual Learning Environments (Blackboard) but the content isn’t accessible 90% of the time. Curriculum content and learning platforms haven’t been changed except more material added – the average accessibility of that online content has actually decreased as speed/readily available content has been prioritised above access.” (ALLFIE Disabled Student May 2020)
Some respondents provided us with examples of their uploaded curriculum. Study materials and lessons are inaccessible for disabled students:
“Many of the core readings for my modules are unavailable online, which adds even more worry to this particularly difficult time. I fear that the university will fail to understand why the quality of my assignments will not be equal to that of my previous work. Circumstances have changed drastically, however, the university does not seem to have grasped this.” (Disabled Student Survey, April 2020)
“The challenge for us is accessing online resources, lots of content isn’t captioned and there is very little in BSL. Tried using BBC Bitesize today and had [the] same problem with clips not being captioned which is frustrating.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey, April 2020)
Aside from the accessibility of online materials, parents have reported that the course curriculum and schoolwork is not inclusive of disabled pupils, as articulated by this parent:
“Every two or three days, a teaching assistant sends us five or six maths worksheets and her art teacher sets work for the whole art class but not [work that is] differentiated for my daughter. Pretty much, that is all that’s being sent..” (Parent Survey, April 2020)
Parents have said that the Oak Academy online lessons and content does not include accessibility features such as BSL interpretation.
Rather than differentiation, schools with remote education facilities have decided to create a segregated curriculum, targeted at disabled pupils with profound learning difficulties.
“The Oak Academy has developed a segregated curriculum for disabled children with profound learning difficulties which [is] not a good example of inclusive remote education. This is not a solution for many disabled children who have benefited from the differentiation of the mainstream curriculum. Parents have told us that they have to source the curriculum themselves without assistance from their school’s teachers and SENCOs.”[viii]
Parents’ experience of remote education is that it will not work for all disabled students because they prefer to learn in a more tactile manner. Whilst most education institutions provide no alternatives, a couple of parents reported how schools are helping to set appropriate school work for their disabled pupils. For example, this parent explains:
“Learning grid with some ideas for simpler learning tasks at home, some actual sums and spelling especially for him. Simpler learning tasks and sent home materials such as cubes, number board and reading books [the] day before lockdown. Not doing online learning, [his] teacher thinks of tasks for me to do with him at home and I submit them through Microsoft Teams.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey May 2020)
Disabled students reported that Higher Education institutions have not undertaken an Equality Act’s Public Sector Equality Duty equality impact assessment around the impact of remote education upon disabled students’ ability to complete their courses. Disabled students reported that higher education online learning platforms have been designed with non-disabled learners in mind, with little consideration paid to the accessibility of the curriculum, study materials and lessons. Similar sentiments have been made by parents who are reliant on individual schools to decide for themselves if and how remote education will be delivered for their pupils within the spirit of Government legislation and policy.
“Parents are at the mercy of individual interpretation of Department for Education advice by headteachers. Some local authorities are more equipped to support schools than others due to austerity cuts. This leads to variable provision.”
Whilst some schools are delivering inclusive remote education, this is not the case for all. Despite the Public Sector Website Accessibility regulations being in place, universities are still failing to make their virtual platforms accessible for disabled students. We have found that virtual platform providers may not be complying with making their online learning opportunities inclusive of all. Whilst virtual platform providers cannot take full responsibility for differentiating the curriculum without prior knowledge of individual students, education institutions have nevertheless failed in their duty to complete this work as required under the Equality Act’s reasonable adjustment duties.
The Government permitted NHS England (NHSE) staff to be deployed from their NHSE day-to-day jobs to administrative and health care assistance roles needed to staff the Covid-19 wards. To facilitate this, the Government modified the Children and Families Act s(42) so that local authorities are required to use their reasonable endeavours to secure the SEND provision. The Department for Education are aware that the social distancing guidance could leave disabled students without any support at home during the closures of schools. Consequently, the Department for Education published guidance providing education providers with an extensive list of ideas on how SEND provision can still be arranged remotely for many disabled students.
Research respondents have reported concern over the support that disabled students received during lockdown. Education professionals are aware that families will be at home without any guidance as to how to support their children with their education.
“I am very concerned about young people and families not being supported in relation to [their] emotional, social, and cognitive development.” (ALLFIE Professional Survey May 2020)
“Braille materials [have been] provided for key subjects for [my] eldest child, although this may be withdrawn due to staff redeployment. Currently had no contact regarding [my] youngest child.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey May 2020)
Parents are telling us that they are not in receipt of therapy because therapists have been deployed from working with disabled children in schools to working in support roles on NHSE Covid-19 wards.
Whilst virtual therapy works for some disabled students, this may not be the case for all of them. Education practitioners, parents and disabled students highlight the importance of the continuation of in-person assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think the Department for Education comment that education practitioners can be delivering therapy online is far removed from the reality of what we are being asked to do and it is not helpful. We should be ‘out there’ virtually helping parents and schools manage the situation.”
“Non-Medical Help support has become non-existent, with very little left being distanced [including] ‘Skype’ like calls and support which does not really work.” (ALLFIE Disabled Student Survey, April 2020)
“I have to sit with him the whole time he is learning to keep him on task, rather than Google Classroom some kind of FaceTime with an learning support assistant or teacher would help, we need proper support to teach new concepts.” (ALLFIE Professional Survey May 2020)
For various disabled students, there is no replacement for the quality of in-person support provided on-site. Some disabled students learn better face-to-face where the practitioners are providing assistance on-site either within the school or home environment.
“Very much responding to our needs and capacity. Online eye gaze via Zoom and Skype from Speech and Language Therapist Same for physiotherapy [and] mental health support via Zoom, i.e. we meet up with the rest of the class.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey May 2020)
“Online support and contact newsletters, with additional resources and ideas. Much more practical ideas for learning, and Occupational Therapist, Speech and Language Therapist ideas etc. Mental health [and] well-being has been at the forefront of the thinking of our school.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey May 2020)
Strong emotional support comes from the development of personal relationships between practitioners and families or disabled students. Negative impact of social isolation during lockdown has taken its toll on disabled students, as highlighted by these parents:
“Students are finding it difficult at home, lack of motivation, [not] understanding the work being set and not being with their friends. Seeing high levels of anxiety and there [has] been a rise in some of our very vulnerable students self-harming.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey May 2020)
“Being isolated in lockdown during the final months of a university degree is difficult for most but [for] those with disabilities, in particular [those] on the autism spectrum, this has been a massive barrier to learning and has severely affected their mental health.” (ALLFIE Disabled Students Survey 2020)
Education aside, education professionals and families have expressed concern over the social isolation their disabled children are experiencing without school intervention. Schools have failed to set up WhatsApp groups as a way of reducing the social isolation experienced by disabled pupils, particularly if they are not in any school friendship groups.
Education practitioners and parents have expressed concern over the lack of appropriate schoolwork, SEND provision and school routine for prolonged periods of time and its impact upon disabled pupils. Education practitioners have warned that five months without formal education will have a profound impact upon the education progression and attainment gap between non-disabled and disabled pupils and their life chances. Indeed, practitioners have warned:
“I am Speech, Communication and Language Therapist -based within a mainstream junior school. My pupils are not in school and some are struggling to access online learning opportunities. [I am] concerned that [the] existing gap will widen further and that pupils will need an extended period of readjustment on [their] return to school.” (ALLFIE Education Professional Survey April 2020)
Despite local authorities being required to use their reasonable endeavours to secure SEND provision, we have found that the majority of disabled children are at home without any assistance that would enable engagement in remote education and completing schoolwork.
Local authority assistance
Local authorities are still under a duty to arrange both SEND provision and educational placement for all young people up to the age of 25 completing courses up to A Level (Level 3) course standards. Apart from social care provision, local authorities have no duty to provide educational provision for young disabled people completing higher education courses.
Schools that remained open during lockdown have been expected to prioritise providing education for disabled children with EHCPs alongside the children of key workers. During this period of time, many parents accepted that their disabled children will be educated at home.
“The focus needs to be on keeping children and young people safe, but far more could be done to support families. Systems, including in my own service, have been too reliant on families’ [schooling]. There needs to be much more holistic support for families with better communication across agencies. Services need to fit families flexibly rather than the other way round. This is particularly so for support for social, emotional and mental health – fixed pathways and venues are not what is needed.”
There are parents who felt that sending their disabled children to school would be too risky.
“Local authorities should have [provided] full support during [lockdown] and not force us to send my child to school while my husband and I are in the at risk category.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey May 2020)
Similarly, some parents decided it was in the best interests of their disabled child to attend school.
“I have fought for her to go back to school and can only send her in two half days because they say the teaching assistants have to have five days in between working with her. The other kids are in school every day though.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey May 2020)
Families reported that, in general, there has been either none or insufficient engagement between themselves and the local authority’s SEND department, who have a responsibility to arrange therapy, mental health and social care services and the provision of specialist equipment such as play equipment. From many families’ perspectives, it appears that local authorities have interpreted the “reasonable endeavours” to mean no endeavours to secure the SEND provision for disabled pupils with EHCPs.
“Plans have been modified to ensure reasonable endeavours are legally shown but the reality is if they’re not in school [then] we’re relying on parents delivering mostly, not a lot.” (ALLFIE Practitioner Survey 2020)
“The local authority is appalling. Social care support and the behaviour of the leadership of the SEND department is an utter disgrace. A national scandal.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey 2020)
Except for a few, families experiences have been that the local authorities are not working in the spirit of the Children and Families Act modified s(42) duties.
Whilst a few disabled students have been well-supported in continuing with their mainstream education at home, this has not been the case for the overwhelming majority. There has been little-to-no forward planning of the continuation of disabled children’s education at home. The Children and Families Act’s easements and school closures have meant that the majority of disabled children and young people have been without SEND, Health and Social Care provision and a curriculum for over five months.
Moreover, the majority of schools have not provided any differentiated online or alternative off-line curriculum for disabled pupils, despite NHSE and school staff remaining on the payroll. This is not helped by school online platform providers failing to consider the incorporation of accessibility features into their virtual lessons and uploaded curriculum.
Disabled university students’ experiences are similar to those of disabled school students; they have reported being unable to continue with their courses online because of the inaccessibility of the curriculum and alternative provision to remote education. Whilst the non-availability of non-medical support and assistance is not such an issue, disabled students have expressed their preference of support provided on site rather than remotely.
Similarly to schools, higher education disabled students’ services have not been available for disabled students. Whilst families and disabled students and practitioners know that providing education provision for disabled students during lockdown will be challenging, what has surprised us is the thorough lack of any education being arranged for disabled students, leaving them with no or very limited access to mainstream education despite the Department for Education’s Covid-19 SEND guidance and the Equality Act 2010 still being in place.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 and subsequent education and social distancing guidance have not only provided insufficient protection against disabled students being denied mainstream education, but we also believe that the Government are in breach of their UNCRPD Article 24 obligations in arranging inclusive education provision even during lockdown.
“It is without [a] doubt a travesty of our time that non-disabled people are struggling to make adjustments to [their] everyday life due to Covid-19. And yet for far too long disabled people have been denied equal rights to mainstream education. No other group has been systematically excluded from mainstream education because of their personal characteristics, i.e., their impairment.” (ALLFIE Practitioner Survey 2020)
[i] Equality Act. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents
[ii] Coronavirus Act. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/contents/enacted
[iii] Children and Families Act. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/contents/enacted
[iv] Care Act. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/23/contents/enacted
[v] The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2018/852/contents/made
[vi] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (2008). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/article-24-education.html
[vii] United Nations. (2020). Covid-19 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Guidance. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Disability/Covid-19_and_The_Rights_of_Persons_with_Disabilities.pdf
[viii] Special Needs Jungle. (2020, May 4). What’s wrong with Oak Academy’s specialist curriculum? Retrieved from https://www.specialneedsjungle.com/whats-wrong-oak-academy-specialist-curriculum/