Inclusion Now 57

Why It Is Harder Than Ever for Disabled Children to Attend Mainstream Schools

You would be forgiven for thinking that, by now, it would be more possible than ever before for a Disabled child to attend mainstream school or college of their choice. Well you would be very wrong.

ALLFIE representatives enter Downing Street with 108,000 signature petition

You would be forgiven for thinking that, by now, it would be more possible than ever before for a Disabled child to attend mainstream school or college of their choice. Well you would be very wrong. Far from getting easier, it is actually harder than ever for a Disabled child to attend mainstream education.

You may ask how I know?

Well, I am parent of a Disabled Young man who has just turned 18 and is now in college. I was also until recently an advocate supporting, on a case by case basis, the educational (and human) rights of Disabled students. I am now managing all the SEND provision within a mainstream secondary school. So, I think it is fair to say that I have some insight into the challenges Disabled students and their families face in regards to accessing inclusive mainstream education.

And why is it getting harder?

Well it is far from simple, many factors contribute to education exclusion and in this short article I will attempt to briefly address some of them; Our current Government, under the mantra of choice, has actually systematically dismantled inclusive mainstream provision through underfunding, instead investing in more and more segregated, so called, specialist provision.

On 19th July this year the Government announced the creation of 35 new special free schools for 3,000 Disabled students at a cost of more than a billion – not exactly value for money at a time when mainstream school budgets have been slashed.

Then, there are the consequences of this expensive expansion of free special schools for the few. The reality for many will be little or no educational choice, forced into a segregated setting to fill quotas, with their local mainstream school underfunded and so feeling unable to meet their needs.

It is my experience that mainstream schools are increasingly refusing admission to Disabled students or moving them on and out, because they feel under resourced and inadequate to meet needs in comparison with the well-funded segregated provision that is being created. In fact, the Education, Health and Care plan (EHC plan, which replaced the Statement of SEND) is in danger of being viewed as an automatic passport to special school.

In addition, the increase in academies operating a one size fits all approach, resulting in inflexible policies such as admission, behaviour and exclusion, also make it so much harder for a Disabled student to attend mainstream education.

In my 6 years as an advocate, the majority of my cases were supporting Disabled students who were being excluded from their school because they had breached the school’s behaviour policy. In reality, the school (more often than not an academy) was imposing inflexible rules which discriminated against the student because they could not adhere to them due to their impairment and the lack of any reasonable adjustments.

If you think about it, a Disabled child who is unable to sit still for lessons of one hour due to the impact of their impairment was going to be labelled disruptive and fall foul of the behaviour policy. And this is happening more and more at a time when there is little support or recourse for these students and their families to challenge the exclusion- the system is legally complex, legal aid has been decimated and academies employ barristers! Not to put too fine a point on it – mainstream schools can be hostile environments for any child that does not fit in.

It is a massive irony when you compare what the Secretary of state for Education said on July 5th 2018:

“We know there has been a steady movement of children with special educational needs out of mainstream schools and into specialist provision, alternative provision and home education. At the same time, rates of exclusion have begun to rise after a period of having calmed down. And I hear too many stories about off-rolling. I want to be clear right now: this is not okay. SEND pupils are not someone else’s problem. Every school is a school for pupils with SEND; and every teacher is a teacher of SEND pupils.”

The reality is children with SEN support are more lightly to be excluded from school. For example, in 2018 the Guardian online reported on the disproportionately high number of Disabled children excluded from school and “being denied opportunities by a broken system.” The article revealed that in 2016-2017 fixed term exclusion was issued to 6.18% of pupils with SEND support and 6.44% with SEND statements or plans. However, children without SEND received just 1.63%. We also saw in 2019 a catalogue of damning reports published by the Government on the failure to support Disabled children in mainstream education. The 2019 Timpson review showed disgraceful findings that 78% of permanent exclusions were to pupils who had SEN. ALLFIE’s recent report on school accessibility plans reported how schools were using the plans to drive children away from mainstream schools. These statistics and stories confirm how difficult it is for Disabled children to attend mainstream school when there are so many barriers to their admission or inclusion.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the deep level of exclusion for Disabled children in schools: The impact of Lockdown, social distancing, the difficulty of providing the close one-to-one support some students need. We are witnessing a massive crisis emerging where many children are being denied access to meaningful learning. The whole system has failed our children.

So what’s to be done?

For a start, let’s remind Gavin Williamson, and the government, of its stated intentions two years ago and let’s hold them to account for the future of our children. Let’s encourage, insist, that they put their money where their mouth is and invest in an education system that is fit and inclusive for all.

By Lucy Bartley