REACH: Education – for all or for some?

February 16, 2019 by Alison Watson-Shields

Education for people with disabilities has always been an issue of contention and debate ever since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1987.  

Despite education being “central” to many successive governments, since the 1990s very little practical implementation of adapted facilities appears to have taken place within mainstream Schools. This isn’t to say that the government haven’t tried. In 1996, John Major’s government introduced the Education Act. This legislation implemented specific protections for disabled students in the form of a Statement of Special Educational Needs. These statements establish specific provisions that the school can access to more appropriately provide for disabled students. The provisions can include:

  • Scribes to assist in note-taking, crucially during exams;
  • Information technology resources;
  • Medication requirements;
  • The accommodation of any equipment such as wheelchairs, standing frames and walking sticks.

The statement will also address any difficulties that the student has and how to address them. These difficulties can include trouble concentrating in large groups and issues regarding safety. 

While, on the face of it, all of these provisions and logistical steps made by central government and local authorities seem positive. As with every new policy or procedure, there were issues and failings that went along with it. Speaking as someone who was going through the compulsory education system during the time many of these changes were introduced, these procedures constructed barriers where they did not previously exist. Many children identified as ‘S.E.N.’ were educated in specially adapted ‘Special Needs Units’ with an adapted curriculum to suit perceived difficulties. Whilst I freely admit some students who have specialist and complex needs required these services, some students did not require this extra help and, as a result were placed in environments which did not challenge them intellectually.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true; those who required some more assistance were never provided with it. As a result, they did not achieve academically. This, in turn, affected academic attainment and as a result post 16 they did not go on to any further education courses or potential employment.

REACH has worked with several people who encountered such difficulties at school and as a result they have become economically inactive and found it very difficult to attain meaningful employment. 

Thankfully, in recent years, legislation and policy has changed again and, with the introduction of The Social Care Act of 2014, services in schools have increased and been tailored more for those who require them.

So what more can be done? My suggestions are as follows:

  • More support provided in schools to allow disabled students to achieve;
  • More understanding of the range of difficulties that some students face, covering both Mental Health and disability;
  • Access to better support following compulsory education;
  • More information to be provided with regards to disabled students’ options following compulsory education.

This list could be exhaustive, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. I would encourage Local Authorities and central government to research this issue, to try to provide disabled members of the public with more information regarding their options so that they can attain higher education or meaningful employment following their compulsory education.

However, following the BBC News’ article, the targets which schools have to reach for GCSE grades are so high that some schools are excluding children and teenagers with SEN so that their sometimes lower GCSE results will not affect the overall average of the school. This is leaving some young people in turmoil, as they are unable to attend their school but are also unable to join other schools as they are still classified as pupils at the original school. The Department of Education is currently investigating this issue because they are breaking the law by denying these young people the education to which they are entitled.

This problem of providing a satisfactory education to people with disabilities is not just a problem in the United Kingdom. The United States also experiences significant issues when it comes to providing education for people with disabilities. In fact, in 2012 a study argued that it was not cost-effective to provide specially adapted curriculums for disabled students without compromising the educational opportunities of non disabled students.

Fortunately, leading academics and parents are leading the fight for the right for disabled students to be educated in an inclusive environment.

Finally, the British education system was, at one time, a beacon to the world, however, it now seems that we are falling woefully short of this, as if we are setting these young people up to fail at such a young age. What does that say about us as a society in the 21st Century?

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