Submission to Children’s Commissioner for England: Covid-19 and Disabled Children’s Education
ALLFIE has responded to the Children’s Commissioner for England research into the impact of Covid-19 reforms and school closures for Disabled children and their families.
The Alliance for Inclusive Education has made the following submission to the Children’s Commissioner for England, in response to work being undertaken around the disadvantages that Disabled children and families are experiencing since the Covid-19 outbreak.
ALLFIE’s submission to the Children’s Commissioner: The impact of Covid-19 reforms and school closures for Disabled children and their families
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 right 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).[i]
ALLFIE uses the term ‘disabled children and young people’ because many will fall under the definition of disabled persons in the Equality Act 2010.[ii]
Covid-19 and Disabled people’s equality in mainstream education
ALLFIE welcomes the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on disabled children and their families. We are deeply concerned that the Covid-19 pandemic will deepen pre-existing inequalities between disabled and non-disabled people by exposing the extent of ableism within the state education system.
There has been research into the implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality between children from different socioeconomic groups.[iii] There has been no similar research into exposing the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak upon disabled students, many of them without ANY special educational needs provision or disability-related reasonable adjustments, in addition to having no education for a prolonged period of time, as this educational professional observes:
“I am SLCN-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)
ALLFIE is concerned that disabled pupils are a low priority for the Department for Education and the Government. So far, the Government has done nothing to respond to the growing number of disabled pupils we are coming across that are being denied access to mainstream education despite the law being in place.
The Covid-19 pandemic does not allow the Government to set aside their obligations under both UNCRPD’s Article 24 and Comment 4 to promote and develop inclusive education practices. Similarly, the emergency legislation does not allow either local authorities or education institutions to put aside their duties, as outlined in the Children and Families Act 2014[iv] and Equality Act 2010, around the presumption of mainstream education and the requirement to make disability-related reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils participating in mainstream courses.
Secretary of State for Education’s notice to modify the Children and Families Act 2014 provisions announcement on 30th April 2020
Before the pandemic, the operation of the Children and Families Act 2014 failed to properly work for disabled children and young people. The Government‘s Coronavirus Act 2020[v] notice to modify the Children and Families Act s(42) so that local authorities are only required to use reasonable endeavour to secure the SEND provision specified in the child’s education, health, and care plan (EHCP) from 1st May has been a disaster for many families; it has meant that their disabled children are left unable to participate in online learning platforms and without any form of education for months despite local authorities and schools still having staff on the payroll.
Furthermore, the Government has failed to undertake an equality impact assessment of the Secretary of State for Education’s notice, SEND, and general health and safety guidance, including social distancing, and its influence on providing education for disabled pupils under the Equality Act’s Public Sector Equality Duty during the closure of education institutions. There is a requirement for public bodies to assess the impact of policies and decisions on people with protected characteristics. We have not seen any evidence of this being done in relation to disabled pupils or their families.
The UNCRPD Monitoring Committee has published guidance on Covid-19 and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.[vi] In the preamble to the section around education, it states:
“To reduce the impact of disruption in education, some States are adopting remote learning practices. In these cases, however, students with disabilities are facing barriers on account of the absence of required equipment, access to internet, accessible materials and support necessary to permit them to follow online school programs. As a result, many students with disabilities are being left behind, particularly students with intellectual disabilities.”
Disabled pupils’ SEND provision
Since education institutions closed, the failure to provide any form of education or secure any form of SEND provision for disabled pupils has worsened substantially.
ALLFIE has surveyed its members and invited Facebook posts to enlist disabled school and university pupils, parents, and educational professionals’ experiences of the provision of education services throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Since schools and colleges closed, we have found that:
- 83% of parents are expected to home school their disabled children.
- 54% of parents are not receiving any support from either the local authority or school to help with home schooling.
- 34% of parents are receiving some (but not sufficient) support to help with home schooling
The Family Fund have published findings stating that 74% and 71% of parents reported that their biggest concern was their disabled child’s education and emotional well-being, respectively. In the same survey 75% of disabled pupils were no longer receiving any education psychology, occupational therapy, speech and language, and physiotherapy input, which are vital for enabling children’s education to continue during the Covid-19 outbreak.[vii]
The Government’s Covid-19 SEND guidance emphasises the need for local authorities and education providers to arrange special education needs provision and disability-related reasonable adjustments in a flexible manner, which includes offering services in different ways such as arranging speech and language and occupational therapy online using Zoom or another form of video linking facility. In addition to considering remote learning, the guidance makes it very clear that where necessary in-person services should be arranged for disabled students so they can continue with their education at home. Since the closure of schools and colleges, parents have said:
“One of [the SENCO’s] comments was to tell him he didn’t need to do the work set but this doesn’t address his right to learn. There has been no mention of our son’s EHCP since his mainstream primary school closed. He has muscular dystrophy and problems with handwriting, holding reading posture, etc.” (ALLFIE’s Parent Survey, April 2020)
“There’s a shocking lack of offer of support… There was no offer from [the child’s] school or local authority. Speech and Language Therapy as part of his mainstream SEND unit provision, nothing, just got a call from [the therapist] the week of lockdown advising me to encourage appropriate language!!..” (One parent posting on Facebook, April 2020)
The evidence from ALLFIE’s survey of disabled students faces similar difficulties in arranging the necessary support in the form of reasonable adjustments by their education institutions.
“[There has been] no specific help from college so I need help from my [personal assistant] at home to access work, etc.” (ALLFIE’s Disabled Students Survey, April 2020)
Approximately 66% of health employees are in teams where some had been redeployed; this has affected the provision of advice regarding specific children or the whole school and direct contact work. We are being told that disability support staff such as speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, learning support assistants, and learning mentors are either being redeployed elsewhere or furloughed when they should still be working with their disabled pupils whilst continuing with their home-based education. The guidance includes the redeployment of staff from one educational setting to another to cover staff with Covid-19 itself or Covid-19 symptoms so that some schools can remain open. We never expected that dedicated staff working with disabled children and young people could be moved to work in administrative and healthcare assistant roles within hospital settings; this is simply unacceptable.
There has been published research into the impact that remote education is having upon children and families from a low socioeconomic status. Issues such as computer equipment, quality of broadband connection and learning environment, and parental availability to support their children’s education have been investigated and reported on by independent research organisations. As a result, the Government have started to address the lack of remote learning facilities for families from financially disadvantaged backgrounds by offering targeted support. There has been no similar investigation into the impact that remote education is having on disabled children and their families, nor into any specific targeted assistance.
We have identified a range of issues affecting disabled children and their families since schools have moved their education offer to remote learning.
Disabled people and digital inclusion
Across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. In 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled. For internet non-users aged between 16 and 24 years, 60% were disabled in 2017.[viii] Many health conditions and impairments are inherited, so children will often share similar impairments or health conditions with their parents. It would therefore be reasonable to expect that disabled children will make up a large proportion of internet non-users.
Unlike children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, there appears to be no Government support from disabled children without the necessary computer equipment and assistive technology to allow them to access remote education. There are disabled children having to rely upon charity grants to purchase the necessary computer equipment and broadband internet connection so that they can continue with their education from home.[ix] The Family Fund reported that tablets, computers, and laptops are top of the list for what parents need right now for disabled children during lockdown.7 Clearly, it is absolutely unacceptable for disabled children and their families to have to rely upon charity funding to have the necessary equipment needed to participate in remote education.
Disabled children may be using assistive technology and adapted equipment (i.e. keyboards and screens) when using computer equipment provided by schools. We are hearing that families are prevented from borrowing computer equipment from schools so that disabled children are able to continue learning at home.
It cannot be expected that families have all the assistive technology and computer equipment at home that will enable disabled children to continue with their learning.
Oak Academy remote learning offer
The Department for Education’s sponsored the Oak National Academy School and a BBC online platform consisting of over 160 lessons have been designed with neurotypical children in mind. The learning platform is not inclusive from the start, factoring in the needs of children with SEND. For instance, online lessons do not include BSL interpretation or audio description for disabled children with sensory impairments.10 Furthermore, the online curricula are not differentiated for disabled children with special educational needs, as this parent states:
“[The] local authority should provide differentiated learning and also provide it further in advance, currently materials are uploaded in the morning giving me zero time to look through and work out what he can and cannot access…” (ALLFIE Education Professional Survey, April 2020)
The majority of parents are differentiating the curriculum themselves without any assistance being provided by the school or the online platform provider’s staff team. It is not simply a case of providing disabled children with course content which is clearly written for a younger age group as the adult-child interaction can often be of an inappropriate nature. Our survey findings are supported by similar concerns highlighted by the Special Needs Jungle website:
“For families of children with SEND, there was one big problem – there was nothing differentiated or specialist for them. The criticism has been that it should have been inclusive from the start, factoring in the needs of children with SEND as it was developed, rather than being bolted on at the end….”
The Oak National Academy has uploaded a SEND specialist curriculum which is aimed at special school children with profound learning difficulties which will not be suitable for every disabled child.
Furthermore, the Department for Education’s guidance on remote education does not provide comprehensive advice and support for how disabled pupils can participate online where they can.11
Remote education requires human support
Providing online learning is not simply about having the appropriate computer kit and software uploaded for learning. Disabled pupils often require personal/learning support assistance to structure their learning opportunities and keep their focus on tasks, among other hurdles.
“I have to sit with him the whole time he is learning to keep him on task. Rather than Google Classroom, some kind of face time with a [learning support assistant] or teacher would help, we need proper support to teach new concepts.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey, April 2020)
Disabled children may not always be able to use computer equipment because they do not have the physical ability to do so. We have heard of disabled children being unable to type and not being provided with any assistance to access the remote learning opportunities.
Similarly, disabled pupils will often require the curriculum to be differentiated to accommodate their learning styles and abilities, which requires expertise provided by specialist and classroom teachers and special education needs co-ordinators in conjunction with speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists. Similarly, British Sign Language Interpreters, lip readers, and other communication specialists are also required to support the accessibility of curriculum content for disabled children of all abilities. Learning platform providers must be required to incorporate communication facilitation, it should not have to be provided by parents.
“The challenge for us is accessing online resources, lots of content isn’t captioned and there is very little in BSL. [We] tried using BBC Bitesize today and had [the] same problem with clips not being captioned which is frustrating… I am also a fluent BSL signer so can explain things if required.” (ALLFIE Parents Survey, April 2020)
Alternative to remote education
“Normal families can do home schooling with their children. Zac (15-year-old autistic child) can’t do anything remotely like a child of his age can do… It takes two teachers to keep him sat down at school and he has had behavioural problems since lockdown started.”12
Not all disabled pupils can continue with their learning online for a wide range of reasons. Indeed, 89% of ALLFIE’s respondents said no alternative provision has been arranged if online learning was not accessible for the disabled children. This parent says:
“My daughter is being emailed worksheets to complete. I would like them to send some variety, e.g. links to videos or games, not just worksheets.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey, April 2020)
We found the majority of schools either provided remote education or prepared worksheets. Schools have not provided personal support or advice for parents on creating practical activities that can be undertaken at home or whilst undertaking outdoor exercise to support their children’s learning. As such, disabled children that cannot access remote learning and paper worksheets have been denied state funded education for three months.
Social interactions and relationships
“My son is using technology more than ever. Unfortunately our old laptop and cheap computer is not helping with emotions.” (Parent Family Fund Survey, May 2020)
Education practitioners and parents have raised particular concern over disabled children’s risk of increased social isolation from their school peer groups. Non-disabled children tend to develop their own friendship groups, including WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Consequently, friendships are maintained and sustained throughout lockdown. However, this is not the case for disabled pupils and there is little attempt by the schools to provide support with maintaining relationships either with their mainstream or SEN unit peer groups. Apart from friendships, the majority of parents have reported the withdrawal of psychological and emotional support provided by psychologists, psychiatrists, and CAMHs at a time when it is most needed.
Parents are left without any support
The disruption of school routines has placed considerable pressure upon family life. Families are expected to get on with it with little-to-no expertise. Despite schools still having staff employed, many parents are left to educate their disabled children whilst taking care of other children and holding down paid jobs. Parents are acting as unpaid and unqualified teachers, learning and support assistants, and therapists which has resulted in greater social isolation and pressure.
“Very concerned about young people and families not being supported in relation to emotional, social, and cognitive development in addition to being more at risk in relation to poverty. Further, the government has rescinded the need for LAs to fulfil EHCPs and simply asked them to make their best endeavour.” (Education Psychologist ALLFIE Survey, May 2020)
ALLFIE’s survey is supported by the Family Fund’s findings that have reported the withdrawal of expertise that parents need right now to address the anxieties and deterioration in health that disabled children are experiencing as a result of their school routines being withdrawn due to school closures.
Schools and local authorities can make alternative arrangements
ALLFIE is very concerned over the complacency adopted by some schools and local authorities since the Children and Families Act easements. Whilst we have heard a lot of schools and local authorities are not complying with their legal duties, there are exceptions as these two parents have said:
“Work is set online, but I am [in] almost daily contact with the Teacher of the Deaf via email to discuss any issues and to share information. We have a means of video contact with communication support staff for planned contact time using BSL. Work is set online and accessed daily via an app. Work is not equivalent to a full day in school but I feel it is an appropriate amount for the current situation… Fortunately we have not had any problem so far as my child has good literacy skills.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey, May 2020)
“As and when. Very balanced and supportive. An hour or so a day, a few days a week and then extra if we want. Very much responding to our needs and capacity. Online eye gaze via Zoom and Skype from Speech and Language Therapist Same for physio. Mental health support via the Zoom IE, we meet up with the rest of the class.” (ALLFIE Parent Survey, May 2020)
What these few positive examples highlight is that SEND provision can be provided in an alternative manner by schools and local authorities so that disabled children can continue learning remotely. ALLFIE believe that schools can and must be legally required to do more to arrange the SEND provision for disabled children within their own homes.
Qualifications and assessments
Due to the closure of education institutions, the Government has cancelled GCSE and A Level examinations for all students expected to sit these exams at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. We understand that OFQUAL will work with examination boards to make arrangements to award GCSE and A Level grades based on teacher assessments of students’ performance in classroom-based assignments and mock examinations. Whilst ALLFIE would support continuous assessment, parents have raised concerns over the grading of their disabled children’s work where the school or college have systematically failed to put the necessary support in place.
We are concerned that disabled students will be placed at a greater disadvantage than their non-disabled peers as a result of the various examination and assessment arrangements being put in place by both OFQUAL and higher education institutions. We are still waiting for the publication of the examination arrangements for vocational courses that include on-the-job assessments of students and apprentices.
Our survey is highlighting the extent of ableism in our education system. Our respondents’ experiences are that the design of the learning platforms, the lessons, curriculum, and the learning styles employed are those most suited to the neurotypical student cohort. Consequently, too many disabled students who cannot access standard online learning opportunities with minimum adjustments are being denied their basic right to mainstream education. Parents are telling us that they are not getting any support or alternative provision that could help their children retain and develop their skills. Furthermore, our survey identified that many disabled children with EHCPs are no longer getting the level, quality, or quantity of special education provision, which has resulted in high levels of exclusion and isolation despite SEND staff remaining on the school payroll. Moreover, disabled students are telling us they have immense difficulty in accessing online courses, assessments, and examinations.
If local authorities and education institutions are not providing SEND provision, disability-related reasonable adjustments, or offering a suitable differentiated curriculum using a range of learning methods, then disabled pupils cannot engage in mainstream education alongside their non-disabled peers within either a home or an educational setting. ALLFIE’s work has revealed that the longer the period that disabled students are not participating in mainstream education in a meaningful manner, the wider the potential gap in educational and life changes and achievements between disabled and non-disabled people.
ALLFIE’s evidence so far is that the Coronavirus Act’s changes to SEND legislation will no doubt lead to greater segregation and exclusion of disabled students from mainstream education.
“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 Education Professional Survey, April 2020)
What do we want the Government to do?
- Investigate the adequacy of education provision for disabled pupils in mainstream education and the risk of widening the gap in educational progress between themselves and their non-disabled peers.
- The guidance should be amended so that the child’s/young person’s SEND provision, as set out in their EHCP, must be arranged, even if that is provided in an alternative manner.
- The guidance must be amended so that education providers are placed under a duty to provide parents with the support they require to home school their children.
- Grants must be available for disabled young people without the necessary computer equipment, assistive technology, and internet connection.
- Schools and further education providers must allow disabled students to borrow any equipment that they require.
- Stop the redeployment of therapists into administration and healthcare assistant roles within NHS England.
- Supply clear guidance to universities, further education colleges, and schools on the reasonable adjustments that all institutions must make.
- All online platforms must meet accessibility standards.
- The positive and negative experiences of disabled pupils must change practices in mainstream educational settings as a result of the Government’s Covid-19 social distancing guidance.
Schools and colleges are reopening from 1st June with changes in the organisation of learning and classroom sizes. Given that education providers have kept their staff on the payroll, there is no reason why the Government and education providers cannot implement good practice as set out in the Covid-19 and UNCRPD guidance, including:
- Provide clear guidance to education and school authorities on the scope of their obligations and the variety of available resources when providing education outside schools.
- Ensure access to the internet for remote learning and ensure that software is accessible to persons with disabilities, including through the provision of assistive devices and reasonable accommodation.
- Provide guidance, training, and support for teachers on inclusive education through remote learning.
- Establish close coordination with parents and caregivers for the early education of children with disabilities.
- Provide guidance and distance support for parents and caregivers to assist in setting up equipment and to support the education programme of children with disabilities.
- Develop accessible and adapted materials for students with disabilities to support remote learning.
- Develop accessible educational audio-visual materials to disseminate through different media (e.g. online on demand, televised educational programmes, etc.)
Post Covid-19: Long term
What the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted is that the Government must take urgent steps to strengthen the legal framework that supports disabled students in participating in mainstream education both within mainstream educational settings and from home due to health and impairment-related issues.
ALLFIE’s inclusive education manifesto, which consists of six demands, would move us from the present situation to a fully inclusive education system, as recommended by UNCRPD’s Monitoring Committee. We believe disabled people have the right to:
- An inclusive education supported by human rights laws.
- A coordinated education, health, and social care system.
- An inclusive learning environment.
- An inclusive curriculum.
- An inclusive assessment system.
- An education workforce committed to inclusive education practices.
As the UNCRPD’s Monitoring Committee has recommended, the Government should work with organisations of disabled people like ALLFIE to develop a fully inclusive education system. The Government must fulfil its Article 24 obligations around inclusive education by working with ALLFIE.
We would also welcome the opportunity to provide an oral submission.
For more information, please contact:
Simone Aspis firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Daley email@example.com
[i] United Nations. (2020). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Articles. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-2.html
[ii] Equality Act. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents
[iii] The Sutton Trust. (2020). SOCIAL MOBILITY AND Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality. Retrieved from https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Covid-19-and-Social-Mobility-1.pdf
[iv] Children and Families Act. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/contents/enacted
[v] Coronavirus Act. (2020). Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2020/7/contents/enacted
[vi] 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
[vii] Family Fund. (2020). Impact of Covid-19 Research: UK Findings. Retrieved from https://www.familyfund.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=0dcffffe-f803-41de-9a4a-ccc8fef282d4
[viii]Office for National Statistics. (2019). Exploring the UK’s digital divide. Retrieved from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04#what-is-the-pattern-of-internet-usage-among-disabled-people
[ix] Department for Education. (2020). New major package to support online learning. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-major-package-to-support-online-learning
10 Special Needs Jungle. (2020). What’s wrong with Oak Academy’s specialist curriculum? https://www.specialneedsjungle.com/whats-wrong-oak-academy-specialist-curriculum/
11 Department for Education. (2020). Remote education practice for schools during coronavirus (COVID-19). Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/guidance/remote-education-practice-for-schools-during-coronavirus-covid-19
12 Whittaker, A. (May 31, 2020). Parents describe ‘absolute nightmare’ of lockdown with special educational needs children. DerbyshireLive. Retrieved from https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/derby-news/parents-describe-absolute-nightmare-lockdown-4167640