A MAJOR drive to attract more disabled people into teaching was launched by the General Teaching Council last week. It is backed by SKILL, the national bureau for students with disabilities, and is looking for support from the teacher education institutions.
Figures from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council show that in 1997-98 there were only five registered, and 153 unregistered, disabled students in pre-service teacher training, out of a total of 4846 students. This is only 3.2 per cent, when the rate of disability in this age group is 12 per cent. The council is funding three projects to investigate how to improve the position.
Sheila Riddell, professor of disability studies at Strathclyde University and author of a recent report for the Scottish Executive on education for the disabled, believes women and ethnic groups have made more progress in higher education than the disabled. "Within disadvantaged groups, the disabled are the most disadvantaged," she told a conference organised by the GTC and SKILL last Friday, the International Day of Disabled People.
Norma Anne Watson, the GTCconvener said: "About a year ago, we were given a clear message in the GTC. We were told that teaching is not a profession seen as welcoming people with disabilities. That was not a comfortable message for us. We are not happy if that is the perception."
Matthew Maciver, the council's depute registrar and driving force behind the GTC's move, said: "We must ensure that teaching is an inclusive profession." The council aimed to raise awareness of the issues and draw up "a solid plan of action for bringing about change."
Donna Murray, development officer for SKILL, says many teachers do not own up to their disabilities for fear of discrimination. This disguises the scale and nature of the problem. The lack of disabled teachers also does little to encourage disabled pupils to look to teaching as a career.
The conference heard from Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, that disabled teachers can enrich the profession. "They have the qualities of patience, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness which you need to live as a disabled person," said the former English teacher, who is wheelchair-bound.
But Morag McNeill, a disabled student who has just graduated from Moray House with straight A grades, said her experience had been "a complete nightmare" at times. A lack of information and support required her to spend precious time and energy to get a decent deal. There were problems of access to lecture rooms and school placements. But the main barrier was attitudes: "Many lecturers felt I shouldn't be there, which made me more determined to prove I could make a success of it. I didn't want to talk to my lecturers because they were also involved in my assessment and I was worried that I would be judged on my impairment, not my abilities." She said an independent tutor, not involved in student assessment, was essential.
Don Skinner, the programme co-ordinator for the primary postgraduate course, assured the conference that Moray House has improved its handling of disabled students. Staff were being made more aware of the problems, communications were improving, and attempts made to eradicate "unconscious bias." Four years ago Moray House had 50 registered disabled students. Now there are 100. But the priority is to review what constitutes "fitness to teach," the essential test all student teachers have to face. The teacher education institutions insist there are still question marks over some conditions, such as epilepsy, which can pose health and safety problems.
The GTC's advice is that "handicapping conditions should be a cause of rejection for general teaching only if they are so severe as to prevent effective classroom work." But Professor Riddell, cavilled at the phrase "handicapping conditions" and said there were wide variations in the application of these standards.
Jotter, page 76