Living the values: a blog from Philippa Stobbs

CDC recently launched a new guide for schools*, Disabled Children and the Equality Act 2010: What teachers need to know and what schools need to do. To accompany the launch of the new guide Philippa Stobbs is providing a series of blogs that focus on different aspects of the duties that provide some challenges for schools. This is the fourth and final blog in the series.  

*A new guide for early years settings is also about to be published.


In the first blog in this series, I focused on the fact that both SEN and disability legislation require us to do things differently for disabled children and young people and, in the context of schools, disabled pupils. At the same time different treatment can separate and stigmatise and, if not provided sensitively, often does.

In this blog, I want to look at some of the more subtle ways in which different treatment can, without us even being aware of it, put disabled pupils at a substantial disadvantage.

There are often subtle ways in which expectations of disabled pupils are compromised. If you dig around a bit, you can see this at all levels of our educational life, from pronouncements by secretaries of state, threaded through our education press, and in ordinary everyday conversations with children and young people themselves.  Respectively:  

Secretaries of state: I quote one, un-named here, who talked, in the same speech, about the need to ensure that our education system stretches the most able at the same time as talking about the children who need extra help, support and encouragement to get the basics right.

Threaded through our education press: developing effective independent work for the most able …and producing writing frames and help sheets for the least able; it being crucial that our most able students fulfil their potential, while providing help and support for students who struggle with learning.

The cumulative effect of conversations with children and young people, as reported to the Education Select Committee (2019) by children and young people themselves: [the Committee] heard from young people that poor support can result in them being isolated in school, unable to access the curriculum and find it hard to make friends. As adults, the training and employment opportunities were found to be poor, deriving from a fundamental lack of ambition for young people with SEND across the country.

The risk of compromised ambition is borne out in a report from a team of researchers who have carried out secondary analyses of some of the big longitudinal studies to identify the long-term impact of childhood identified SEN and disability. One of these studies identified the compromised expectations of disabled teenagers of themselves, in terms of their future educational and occupational ambitions, compared with their non-disabled peers with the same outcomes at GCSE. This effect was identified even where their parents held higher ambitions for their child.

In the Select Committee report, quoted above, there is also a reference to the social isolation experienced by disabled young people. The same team of researchers referred to, above, examined the social isolation experienced by disabled adults. Drawing on three of the major cohort studies they traced the social isolation experienced by disabled adults to childhood identified disability.

There is a range of research that offers some explanation about the roots of this social isolation. Much of the research indicates that disabled children spend a disproportionate amount of time with adults, in comparison with their peers. This can compromise their ability to engage with their peers and form the social relationships that are part of growing up and growing independence, but are also an important part of the learning process itself. The unplanned use of teaching assistants can have the effect of isolating pupils from their teacher, their peers and the curriculum. Even in the playground there is some evidence that adults don’t always encourage disabled children to engage in forms of play with their peers where they could, and where children would be interested in and capable of taking part. As one pupil said:

The school seems to think that just because I am disabled I need a lot of protecting This makes all my classmates think I cannot fend for myself without the help of an adult.

These are just two ways in which we can put at risk positive long-term outcomes for disabled pupils. But this is not about beating ourselves up about getting this wrong, it’s more about trying to raise awareness of the very subtle ways in which we may unwittingly contribute to compromised ambitions and social isolation.  

One of the most important ways in which we can address these issues is by listening to disabled children and young people themselves. If we engage with children and young people themselves in considering how best to support their learning, their access to all the education and benefits, facilities or services at the school, we often provide better solutions and better access than we can by devising our own solutions. We also create shared ownership of solutions which augurs well for their success and sustainability.

Support for taking into account the wishes, views and feelings of children and young people is clearly set out in the principles that inform the Children and Families Act, and are reinforced in the Code of Practice and other guidance under the legislation. Bearing in mind that many children with medical conditions are covered by the definition of disability in the Equality Act, it’s not unhelpful to turn to the DfE guidance on Supporting pupils with medical conditions at school, for this point:

Pupils with medical conditions will often be best placed to provide information about how their condition affects them. They should be fully involved in discussions about their medical support needs and contribute as much as possible to the development of, and comply with, their individual healthcare plan. Other pupils will often be sensitive to the needs of those with medical conditions.

A helpful thought not just about disabled pupils informing and owning solutions, but also a reminder about the benefits of engaging the wider school community in understanding difference, and, though not explicit here, I would add, celebrating it too.