When Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace, south east London, turned down Idayah Miller's application, it claimed it was unable to accommodate her wheelchair. Is this a sensible precaution for a school with narrow corridors or could they be accused of discrimination?
A series of different acts has left schools with two key obligations towards children with disabilities. One is to ensure they are not treated less favourably. The other is to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate these pupils. Crucially, these responsibilities extend not just to children already at the school but also to pupils applying for a place.
But what is meant by reasonable adjustments? "Reasonableness is very difficult to define," says Katie Michelon, education specialist at law firm Browne Jacobson. "The cost and disruption involved in making an adjustment has to be weighed against the benefits it will bring to the child. It can only be judged on a case-by-case basis."
In the example of Idayah, who has cerebral palsy, it was suggested that widening the corridors at the school would cost pound;7 million - a figure many people would consider unreasonable. In any case, major changes to school buildings are not covered by the legislation, although schools do have a duty to work towards becoming more accessible over time.
However, there are some changes schools would certainly be expected to make. These might include scheduling lessons for wheelchair-users on the ground floor, asking teachers to face the front so a deaf child can lip- read or enlarging handouts for children with sight difficulties.
Then, inevitably, there are the grey areas. If a school has its ICT suite on the second floor for security reasons, could it reasonably be expected to move it? What about putting a computer on the ground floor and setting up an intercom, or spending pound;30,000 installing a lift? In these situations, it is not clear how far a school is expected to go in making adjustments.
However, schools should not use funding or access issues as an excuse to turn pupils away. "It's often a question of attitude," says disability access consultant Richard Rieser. "Most problems can be avoided by careful timetabling or by allowing a pupil to leave class early to avoid the rush. If the willingness is there, then there are always solutions."
Harris City Academy has subsequently apologised to Idayah and her family for its "poorly drafted and inappropriate" letter explaining its decision. The school insists that "disabled students, including those in wheelchairs" have full access to the curriculum. Idayah's father has said he is appealing against the decision.
Schools that refuse to admit a pupil because of their disability risk legal action, whatever justifications they think they have, warns Ms Michelon.
"Headteachers can point out possible drawbacks to a child choosing their school, but they need to word this carefully."
WHAT TO DO
- Consult with local authority access officers.
- Consider creative solutions to potential problems.
- Explore the availability of grants for any work that might need to be undertaken.
- Consider the exact nature of the disability, rather than, for example, labelling someone a "wheelchair-user".
- Seek legal advice on any issue of reasonable adjustment.