Schools on equality alert

16th April 2010 at 01:00
The financial and legal impact of new anti-discrimination legislation hits home

Schools face tough new laws in October which could add significantly to financial and legal pressures on local authorities, The TESS has learnt.

The Equality Act, which will apply throughout the UK, imposes additional obligations to ensure children with special needs are given the same opportunities as everyone else - ranging from access to school trips and plays, to what happens in the classroom.

They are part of a raft of anti-discrimination measures, which are also aimed at tackling everything from homophobic bullying to pay disparities in the workplace.

Councils say they are already reeling from the costs of implementing the 2004 legislation on additional support for learning. Estimates suggest the bill increased by pound;8 million last year alone

The Glasgow-based Education Law Unit, which is funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said schools should be put on alert.

Iain Nisbet, head of the unit at the Govan Law Centre, said current legislation allows schools discretion so they are not required to lay on auxiliary aids or extra staff and resources.

The new legislation changes that position where it is "reasonable" to do so, in order to ensure disabled children are not placed at a disadvantage. The test of "reasonableness" is likely to be a fertile source of controversy between parents and schools.

Independent Special Education Advice (ISEA) Scotland, which provides guidance and support to parents who have a child with special educational needs, welcomed the changes.

Advocacy manager Lorraine Dilworth said: "It's not uncommon for parents to have difficulties around their children getting to go on outings with other children. Usually it's because they can't get extra staff, so the child ends up not going."

The new law could also help parents to fight for their children's right to be supported in the playground or to take part in the school show, Ms Dilworth said.

Mr Nisbet agreed: "One important thing about the school section of the legislation is that it's not just about the classroom but the whole life of the school - homework, play time, the after-school chess club, the netball team."

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, pointed out that schools were very inclusive places.

But cash-strapped councils were already cutting back on existing support for disabled children, he claimed, and these new rules could simply lead to activities being cancelled.

Cuts to public spending would affect the frequency of school trips more than the equalities legislation, predicted Leslie Manson, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

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