Equality principles often place teachers on potentially treacherous ground

18th March 2011 at 00:00
Balancing inclusion with children's safety is the key

Secondary teacher

Confused by who has what rights in the classroom in a society stricken with equality gone over the top? The news story about a disabled girl who was banned from a skiing trip made interesting reading (TESS, 25 February). It seemed that, at the eleventh hour, a legal action against Glasgow City Council was averted. This is a very fraught area.

The new Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010 and strengthened legislation designed to ensure there is no unlawful discrimination. Clearly, balancing inclusion with children's safety will always be difficult for school managers but never more so than during a time of increasingly serious financial austerity.

Inclusive education differs from previous concepts of integration and mainstreaming, which were concerned mainly with disability and special educational needs. Learners had to slip into the mainstream like poachers on a dark night. Inclusion focuses on the pupil's right to be involved and the duty of the school to accept them. Inclusion deplores the use of special schools to segregate pupils with disabilities, and rightly so.

Reading through the terms of the Equality Act, I am struck by how much it is grounded in common sense. The protected characteristics of the school pupil - disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation - encompass the full spectrum of human rights. Breaching any of these areas in schools is regarded as an infringement of human dignity, and that's important.

How do we react, though, when the aspirations of parents catapult the need agenda to the want agenda? All parents desire the best for their children and will adopt a lioness mentality in fighting for the right of their offspring to be all they can be. What happens when they want them to be more than they can be?

Obviously, that situation can trap schools in a legal minefield. Dangerous activity should presumably be automatically outlawed, but views on what constitutes risk are subjective. Parents - in their desire for their children not to miss out - may have unrealistic expectations about what their offspring can achieve and making a judgment in a dispute is extraordinarily fraught.

In education, zipping our lips, so as not to compromise the equality principle, may be false economy when we consider the high tariff attached to steaming into disastrous situations. Handling this requires diplomatic skills, like solving the famous logic puzzle about ferrying a boat of foxes and chickens across a river without it descending into a heap of feathers and death.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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