A new way of thinking
Disabled children are twice as likely to leave school without qualifications as their able-bodied peers - but until now there has been little analysis of how and why they are underachieving. From December that is set to change. The new Disability Equality Duty (DED) means schools must monitor the achievement of disabled pupils as a distinct group. Until now, the focus has been on pupils with special educational needs, even though many children - such as those with cancer, epilepsy, severe asthma or diabetes - may be registered disabled without being classed as SEN pupils.
Indeed, while 250,000 children have SEN statements, the number of school-aged children with disabilities is more than double that. "Schools will have to consider the wider definition of disability," explains Kathleen Jameson, DED officer at the Disability Rights Commission. "When they do, they may find they have many more disabled pupils and parents than they had imagined."
It is also possible schools will find they have more disabled staff than they were aware of. While around 15 per cent of the UK's workforce have a disability, a survey by the General Teaching Council found that within the teaching profession that figure was just 1 per cent. It may be that teachers are failing to declare their disabilities. If not, disabled teachers are under-represented in the profession, and this is something else schools will have to address under the new duty.
One of the key requirements of the DED is for schools to produce a Disability Equality Scheme, which should outline their strategy for "actively promoting" disability equality among pupils, parents and employees. For secondary schools in England, there's a December deadline looming - but the scheme isn't something which can be bashed out at the last minute. Before putting policy to paper, the DED requires schools to consult with disabled people and listen to their views on how schools can better serve disabled children and parents.
"Consultation is compulsory - and it's crucial," says Anne James, disability officer at Bristol local authority. "Schools need to see things from the user's point of view. They may think a disabled parent isn't coming to parents' evening because they're tired or embarrassed. More likely it will be to do with practical issues concerning seating or parking."
To make the process easier, Bristol LEA has put together a team of volunteers willing to give advice to schools in the area which may have little contact with disabled people. "We wrote to more than 800 disabled people with a cross-section of disabilities," says Anne James. "Perhaps a school has children with hearing impairments, but wants an input from someone with sight difficulties. We can put them in touch." Bristol is also running a series of workshops and producing a handbook to guide schools through the process of writing their equality scheme.
It is understandable if some heads are unclear about the reasons for needing more disability legislation. After all, the Disability Discrimination Act already has schools checking their wheelchair ramps and repainting their disabled parking spaces. But the Disability Equality Duty is different. "It's more about attitude than access," says Kathleen Jameson. "It's about changing the way institutions think."
A change of thinking is long overdue, according to Richard Rieser, director of Disability Equality in Education, which runs disability equality training for schools. Mr Rieser claims that since the Disability Discrimination Act was extended to cover schools in 2002, there have been more than 150 tribunal cases against schools - with the most common complaint being the exclusion of disabled children from school trips. "The number of cases probably doesn't fully reflect the level of discrimination," says Mr Rieser. "There's still lots of room for improvement."
Disability equality schemes must include an action plan and show a clear commitment to promoting positive attitudes towards people with disabilities. There is no ring-fenced money to accompany the new duty, so schools will have to tap into existing funding to support their plans. But tackling the issue of prejudice against disability through the curriculum, in the same way that racism and homophobia are dealt with, is one way of promoting equality at little or no cost. And in Bristol, several schools are already showing that careful consideration of pupils' needs can be more important than spending money. Fairfield school, a mainstream secondary which recently incorporated a school for deaf children into its campus, has begun signing classes at its primary feeder schools, so that all children arriving at the school will be able to communicate with the deaf students.
And at Novers Lane infant school, the caretaker has constructed a simple "learning booth" for an autistic child, allowing the pupil to be part of the class while making concentration easier.
This is exactly the kind of flexible, positive thinking that the DED aims to promote and which could lead to a rise in the proportion of disabled children, currently around 60 per cent, who are educated in mainstream schools. But the real focus of the DED is on helping disabled pupils flourish, in whatever educational setting. "Access to the curriculum is obviously important," says Anne James. "But ensuring disabled children can play a full part in every aspect of school life - that's what equality is really about."
Disability Equality in Education provides training courses and curriculum materials for promoting disability equality www.diseed.org.uk
THE DISABILITY EQUALITY SCHEME
Your scheme must cover the following areas:
* Your school's approach to promoting equal opportunities for disabled children and a positive image of disabled people
* The ways in which you have involved disabled people in the development of your scheme
* Your arrangements for gathering information about the opportunities and achievements of disabled pupils and staff
* A three-year action plan, identifying targets and areas where improvements are needed
December 2006 Secondary schools in England and grant-aided schools in Scotland
April 2007 Primary and secondary schools in Wales
December 2007 Primary schools, and community and foundation special schools in England