Heads fear 'unlimited obligation' of new duty

21st October 2011 at 01:00
Schools will have to pay for equipment for disabled pupils

At a time of cuts to education spending, the prospect of becoming liable for a whole new set of costs would be a nightmare for most headteachers.

Yet next year schools in England will find themselves picking up the tab for a raft of equipment needed by disabled pupils. The bill could potentially run into thousands of pounds per child.

While nobody in the profession would want to deny vulnerable children the support they need, the decision by the Government finally to introduce this new duty - which is part of the Equality Act - concerns teachers at a time of serious pressures on budgets.

Schools have told the Department for Education it could leave them with an "unlimited obligation".

The act was passed last year and the DfE has now announced the new duty will come into force on 1 September, 2012 and officials are running a consultation on the change.

It will mean school children who have a physical or mental impairment which has a "substantial and long-term adverse effect" on their ability will be entitled to aids, or extra support if they would be at a "substantial disadvantage" without it.

Heads' leaders are sympathetic but worried about the impact on budgets. "We understand the need to provide these aids. But this change needs to be properly costed so schools know the financial implications," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL.

Previously, legal duties of this kind did not apply to schools because it was thought statements of special educational need and the Disability Discrimination Act, which said teachers had to make "reasonable adjustments", were sufficient safeguards.

Not so, said Brian Lamb, who chaired an inquiry into SEN for the previous government, recommending schools should not be excluded from having to provide auxiliary aids. Although Mr Lamb is pleased Coalition ministers are changing the law, he believes schools still need "clarity" about what they should be providing.

"At the moment the difficulty is getting education and health services to agree who should be providing aids. If they can't agree, even a statement isn't a sufficient remedy if there is no clear obligation on anyone," he said.

Jo Campion, deputy director of policy and campaigns at the National Deaf Children's Society, has long been part of the campaign urging the Government to act on the duty.

"Sixty-five per cent of deaf children are currently failing to achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE, including maths and English, and access to specialist support and equipment, such as radio aids, is vital to help them learn," she said.

Opinion is divided on the impact of this change, according to the DfE. When the Equality Act went through Parliament "many" respondents to a consultation felt the new duty would not present a "significant new burden" on schools because teachers already try to help pupils as much as possible. But others were concerned it could potentially make schools and local authorities legally responsible for providing a wide range of aids and services for the first time.

Governors will be able to take into account costs and whether the aid will be effective when making their decision. Parents will be able to seek redress through SEN tribunals if they do not think schools have taken reasonable steps to provide an auxiliary aid or service. Headteachers will hope this isn't a situation they have to encounter.

The law

The Equality Act 2010 has replaced all existing equality legislation such as the Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act and Sex Discrimination Act.

Schools have similar duties to those they have had to comply with in the past. For example, they cannot discriminate against pupils because of their sex, race, disability, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation. The new act extends this protection to pupils who are pregnant or undergoing gender reassignment.

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