Cerebral palsy girl wins school apology

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Head claimed it could no longer guarantee her health and safety, but tribunal says necessary adjustments could have been made

A top independent school with the best GCSE results in Wales has apologised to a nine-year-old girl after refusing to admit her into the juniors because of her disability.

A tribunal ruled that St John's College, a Catholic school in Cardiff that charges Pounds 2,500-per-year, had unlawfully discriminated against Isabelle Croad-Protheroe (pictured), who has cerebral palsy.

Her parents are now calling for more awareness and better treatment of children with disabilities in the fee-paying sector.

Isabelle had been in the infants at St John's for three years when she was refused admission to the juniors for the 2007-08 academic year.

During the summer break, Dr David Neville, the head, wrote to Isabelle's parents to say the school could no longer guarantee her health and safety if she moved up to the older junior school building.

Her parents Jane Croad and David Protheroe, who had chosen the school for its family ethos and small class sizes of around 15 pupils, were "devastated" with the decision. They took the school to a special educational needs tribunal.

Mrs Croad, a senior lecturer at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, said: "We knew this couldn't be right. It was a totally selfish decision, which was utterly against the Disability Discrimination Act and against the caring family ethos of the school. Our objective in taking them to a tribunal was to make sure this doesn't happen again."

In January, the tribunal panel ruled that the decision not to allow Isabelle into the junior school was down to her physical disability.

It said reasonable adjustments could easily have been made to help her, including a "buddy system" with an older pupil to help her move between classes and open heavy doors.

Isabelle's disability means she has difficulty walking and often uses a frame. The infants school made several small modifications to the building, such as installing grab rails, to make her life easier.

St John's promotes itself as a "leading independent day school" for boys and girls aged three to 18, with core values of "achievement, friendship and faith".

It was praised in a 2006 Estyn report for its disability and special needs provision.

The tribunal told the school to write letters of apology to both Isabelle and her parents; to review its disability policies and training; and to provide its staff with disability-awareness training.

"The school's actions give out the message that if things get too difficult with disabled pupils, just get rid of them," said Mrs Croad.

"Private schools must be made aware they can't act against the law. Disability discrimination is not acceptable in education or anywhere else."

Cath Lewis, development officer for disabled children at charitable organisation Children in Wales, called for better disability awareness training for all school staff.

"There's a duty on schools to make reasonable adjustments, but sometimes they can't be bothered," she said. "It's more than just putting in ramps; it's about looking at the attitudes of teachers and how they value youngsters with disabilities.

"The school in this case has clearly flouted the law. Just because they are independent, it doesn't mean they can't follow the law like any other school."

Both St John's and the Independent Schools Council refused to comment.

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