We've heard a lot about inclusive schools and how many parents have struggled to find one for their child. It's a complex picture involving lack of funding, lack of expertise and some ambitious schools not wanting their performance tables sullied by children who might put a dent in them because of their learning disabilities. On top of this, not every school is physically accessible to disabled children, because of a lack of elevators, disabled and/or changing places toilets, or the human help to ensure a child with complex medical needs can safely attend.
The government says that children should be educated in mainstream settings where possible and this is something that inclusive schools campaigners, ALLFIE, the Alliance for Inclusive Education, wholeheartedly agree with. But, given the current situation I just mentioned, that's an uphill battle. ALLFIE, however, is a tenacious organisation and, while they can't do much about some of those issues, they want to take the conversation forward when it comes to accessibility in education settings - and they need your help. Today, ALLFIE researcher, Dr Armineh Soorenian is on SNJ to tell us more...
Inclusive Secondary schools more inclusive: Could you tell us about your experiences?
My research into British schools has shown that most disabled children feel they are excluded at school and often bullied. I now work with the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE). As a disabled person-led organisation, we have been particularly concerned about school budget cuts and the impact that cuts have on children with special educational needs or disabilities. Our recent campaigns around this issue won support from the Local Government Association.
We have also recently been funded by Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning (DRILL) to conduct a research project about Accessibility Plans. We are exploring pupils’, parents’ and educators’ real-life experiences of accessibility in schools. We hope this project will support work to enable disabled children and young people to feel more included and part of their school communities in every way.
As a disabled researcher, and the lead for this project, I started work with ALLFIE in May 2018. To begin with, I set up a project advisory group including a disabled academic and a parent of a disabled child. Initial research has been done using Freedom of Information data, and I am now planning focus groups. The project will explore the stories and opinions that people share in these group discussions to understand any gaps between the aims of the law, and the real-life experience of people in schools.
Accessibility Plans are intended to help disabled children and young people to make best use of the education, benefits, facilities and services available to them. The Equality Act 2010 and the Equality Duty 2011 highlight schools’ responsibilities to produce Accessibility Plans.
What should councils and schools be doing?
Schools and local councils are required to plan for:
- Increasing access for disabled pupils to the school curriculum. This covers teaching, learning and the wider curriculum of the school, such as participation in after-school clubs, leisure and cultural activities or school visits.
- Improving access to the physical environment of schools. This covers improvements to the school buildings and outdoor areas, as well as physical aids to access education.
- Improving the delivery of written information to disabled students. This includes making things like handouts and timetables available to disabled pupils. The information should take account of students’ impairments and learners and parents’ preferred formats and be made available within a reasonable time frame.
- In principle, disabled children should feel more included in their school community and have a more equal educational experience as a result of the improvements made through schools’ Accessibility Plans.
Schools must, and academies should, publish their Accessibility Plans on their websites – but there is no requirement for schools or academies to share this information with Ofsted. Inspectors may consider Accessibility Plans as part of their pre-inspection analysis, but the information is not routinely recorded or collated centrally.
In my initial research for this project, I also learned from Freedom of Information requests that not all local councils in England have an accessibility strategy in place for the schools they are responsible for. Even if they do, many of these are either insufficiently detailed or out of date. Most local councils in England do not monitor how many schools have Accessibility Plans, as this is not a legal requirement. Since Ofsted and most local councils don’t monitor this, there is no evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of schools’ Accessibility Plans for disabled children and young people. It is also unclear how well parents are informed about the Accessibility Plans of their children’s schools, or how much they have a say in creating them.
Lack of monitoring means lack of action
The impact of this oversight can be felt by disabled pupils and their families. As they begin to think about the transition to secondary school, disabled young people and their families may struggle, fight and compromise in order to achieve a reasonable outcome for their children.
In most cases, disabled students are not only required, but also expected, to leave behind their friends and attend a school deemed accessible by their local education authority, only to find upon arrival that the school may not be as accessible as they had initially been led to believe. If nothing changes for the pupil, it is almost irrelevant that there is even a plan in place. An Accessibility Plan must be effectively implemented if it is going to make a difference to students’ lives and improve their ability to access education alongside their siblings, friends and classmates.
Even in schools where Accessibility Plans are in place, participants may feel they are not generally implemented or have not been regularly reviewed. Better understanding of this area should help disabled learners and their families challenge inadequate Accessibility Plans. The findings will inform policy and debate on this subject at a national level. The project will help ALLFIE in pressing for change and may assist education providers producing the plans, as well as local authorities guiding disabled learners.
We will hold focus groups for the project in four regions in England – concentrating on Leeds, London, Bristol and Manchester. In each location we will hold discussions with different groups: disabled young people and children, parents of disabled learners, and educators and professionals.
The focus groups will begin in November 2018, starting in Leeds. Further groups will be held in the other regions in autumn and winter. Disabled children and young people will receive book vouchers for their participation.
Even if you don’t feel well-informed about Accessibility Plans, why not get involved and share your own experiences with us? Learning about a diverse range of people’s first-hand experience will help us work toward empowering future generations of disabled people by increasing their education opportunities and removing barriers. Your contribution has the potential to lead to real, positive and sustained change in schools, driven by yourselves. Help us help you to get Accessibility Plans which really work.
If you are interested in getting involved in the focus groups, or would like more information about the project, please contact me at Armineh.Soorenian@allfie.org.uk.
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She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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