Patterns and duties: 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.   

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

The best-known disability duty in the Equality Act is probably the duty to make reasonable adjustments, and most of us are aware that a failure to make reasonable adjustments can amount to discrimination. Most of us are also aware that discrimination can happen in other ways too. But most of these better-known duties are owed to individual people or, in the case of schools and education, to individual pupils.

However, there are wider disability duties in the Equality Act that apply to schools. These duties require us to think further ahead, for groups of pupils and about the different ways in which we organise ourselves to provide education for pupils in our schools.  

If we use these wider duties wisely and well, we can be more efficient and potentially more effective in the way that we meet the individual duties: more efficient because, if we make wider changes to different aspects of school life, we save ourselves repeated individual adjustments; and more effective because we can gradually, over time, raise the bar on every aspect of school accessibility.

I want to pick up two of these wider duties in the Equality Act: the school accessibility planning duties; and the public sector equality duty, or PSED.  

When we say, ‘accessibility’ we often think of physical accessibility, but the accessibility planning duties require schools to address curriculum accessibility and the accessibility of information for disabled pupils, as well as the physical aspects of accessibility that we may tend to think of more readily.  

Even the physical aspects of school accessibility planning are quite broadly couched: they are about

improving the physical environment of the school for the purpose of increasing the extent to which disabled pupils are able to take advantage of the education and benefits, facilities or services at the school.

This takes us beyond doorways, ramps and lifts and into thinking about a whole range of ways in which physical aspects of the school enable or frustrate access to learning, recreation, mealtimes, activities in the extended day, in effect, everything that the school offers. So, bearing in mind pupils with different impairments, we need to consider how, for example, we might adjust the physical arrangements of a playground to enable autistic pupils to access and enjoy recreational times, or the adjusting the acoustic environment of classrooms to enable pupils with a hearing impairment to better engage in learning; or colour contrast in corridor markings to enable pupils with a visual impairment to find their way around the school more independently.  

Anticipating the range of needs among pupils already in our schools, those known to be coming to our school and those who may be coming to our school in the future, is a key ingredient in planning. Anticipating also means thinking at the design stage of any changes planned for a school and considering the accessibility implications of the proposed changes.

Whilst I have talked about the breadth of the physical accessibility requirements, above, I have only referred briefly to the fact that the duties include planning the increased accessibility of information for disabled pupils and the increased accessibility of the curriculum. Whilst, under the Equality Act, Ofsted can inspect how well schools have met their accessibility planning duties, they are much more likely, without reference to the accessibility duties, to consider whether what they see tells them that:

The curriculum is successfully adapted, designed or developed to be ambitious and meet the needs of pupils with SEND, developing their knowledge, skills and abilities to apply what they know and can do with increasing fluency and independence. (Ofsted) 

It amounts to roughly the same thing.

The public sector equality duty sits alongside the accessibility planning duty and is designed to identify and address patterns of disadvantage for different groups of pupils.

Not least because of the strength of the individual duties under the Equality Act, we are encouraged to think about individual pupils, their individual needs, and their individual circumstances. Without losing any of that, the accessibility planning duties and, more explicitly, the PSED require us to look at patterns. At a national level, these patterns are obvious, but how do they play out at the school level? Do we know, for example, whether exclusion or absence disproportionately affects particular groups of pupils in our school? They do nationally. Are we aware of how well disabled pupils are represented in a range of school activities, or in senior roles, or in activities beyond the school day? This is the kind of information that should be gathered on an annual basis, analysed and used to inform the objectives that schools are required to set at least every four years.    

Schools are, of course, expected to comply with these duties: draw up and revise their accessibility plans, publish information about equalities annually, analyse the information and publish objectives to address disadvantage and promote equality of opportunity. The benefits for schools go much wider than the satisfaction of knowing that they are complying with equalities legislation: I argued at the outset that meeting these duties can lead to greater efficiencies and to greater effectiveness than repeated individual adjustments. Embedding these equality considerations in the culture and ethos of the school, in school policies and in everyday decisions, is more likely to achieve a wider range of positive outcomes for the school community, where: 

… all pupils can thrive together, understanding that difference is a positive, not a negative, and that individual characteristics make people unique (Ofsted)

The bigger win is that disabled pupils are more likely to feel that they are expected and even that they are welcome. That’s not a given for disabled children and young people.

In her fourth and final blog, Philippa will be considering, Living the values.