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Sue Hurrell looks at what schools and local authorities can do to improve access for wheelchair users

My daughter (pictured right) has just started in Year 6 in a mainstream primary school in Cardiff. She loves school and has been very happy and made great progress with her learning. She also has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair most of the time.

When she first started in the nursery, every entrance was accessible via a ramp but there were no disabled toilets or lifts to the upper floor. Although we had been assured that adaptations would be made, we really struggled to persuade the local authority (LA) to install a disabled toilet in the infant building. We then had the same battle when she moved to the junior building, so for almost a year she had to travel across the playground to use the toilet. The council has not installed a lift and so my daughter’s year group has stayed in the same rooms for four years and not progressed to the classrooms upstairs that normally accommodate most of the juniors. This is not a major problem, but does mark her out as different, makes a large part of the site effectively “out of bounds” to her, and has risked causing some resentment amongst her peers. 

Adjustments to school trips and other activities have almost always been made without us having to ask, but we have sometimes been caught in the middle of discussions about who should pay for things, such as accessible coach transport and postural support equipment for the toilet. This is because budgets are tight and there are grey areas where it is not clear whether health services, the LA or the school is responsible for purchasing items or providing support.

Whilst the school curriculum and aids and adaptations are bound by the duty to make “reasonable adjustments”, school buildings and grounds are not, and instead these come under planning duties set out in Schedule 10 of the Equality Act 2010 (with wording lifted unchanged from SENDA 2001). This is a rather well-kept secret and many senior education staff are unaware of this exemption for schools from a duty that affects all other public buildings. The planning duties were put in place 15 years ago, presumably to give schools and authorities time to deal with the significant backlog of work required to make schools accessible. 

Moving with the times

Much progress has been made across the UK, especially in areas where there has been significant investment in new buildings. There is also evidence that the planning duties were taken seriously when they were first introduced. However, my research on local authorities in Wales last year showed that only two of 22 local authorities had up-to-date plans compliant with Schedule 10. In 2012, when I researched Cardiff’s schools, nearly half of secondary schools were unable to accept a wheelchair user. Conversely, further and higher education in Wales (which have never been exempt from the RA duty) all cater for wheelchair users. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales launched a report in November 2014 with recommendations on this issue, based on my research. Unfortunately, there are no data available on the wheelchair-accessibility of the UK’s schools, and neither Ofsted nor Estyn has systematically monitored progress, which makes it difficult to estimate what still needs to be done. Anecdotally, I understand that several counties in England also have many inaccessible schools, and so each year significant numbers of wheelchair users, including those with no additional learning needs, are forced to attend a different school to their friends and siblings solely because of this problem.

Even if they are not legally bound to put in lifts and disabled toilets, excluding a child from the school attended by peers and siblings cannot be justified 15 years after disability discrimination was outlawed in schools. I have found that most education professionals do not dispute this, but are faced with problems of timing if the need for major adaptations is identified as part of the normal admissions cycle. What is needed is better planning at LA level. It should be possible to identify pre-school and primary-age children with disabilities and find out from families which schools they are likely to apply to, if known. LA-wide support is often available for children with ASD, sensory needs or dyslexia, for example, but there is a need for similar central knowledge of the needs of children with physical disabilities. So any school that is due to have a wheelchair user for the first time should know where to obtain advice on issues such as accessible school trip transport, building adaptations, toileting and adapting the PE and music curricula. All too often, parents have to help solve these problems in isolation, even within the same local authority area.

Thinking ahead

Sometimes, solving a practical problem is hampered by disputes about whether health, education or social services should make the provision. This can put families in a difficult position trying to mediate between different agencies. Multi-agency meetings provide an ideal opportunity to pre-empt and resolve these issues collectively and SENCOs have an important role in making sure these items are on the agenda.

There are specialist companies that carry out access audits on schools and these can be very useful in identifying potential problems. However, accommodating a child starting in Reception or Year 7 does not necessarily mean making the entire school site accessible straight away. Often, what is needed is adaptations made gradually as a child moves through a school. This can be more problematic in secondary schools where timetabling is complex, but it can usually be achieved. It is more important to make things work than to make them perfect, and families are prepared to accept a less than perfect solution if plans are in place to make improvements over time.  

Our experience is that the most important factor, without question, is the attitude of senior managers and SENCOs towards diversity in the school. I have been fortunate that my daughter has had so many teachers who have been excited about having her in their class, who have valued her for what she can do, who have made the effort to see things from her point of view and see past the challenges and look for inventive solutions. But the inclusive approach of the management team has been crucial. Despite the practical challenges we have faced at times, I have always known that my daughter is a valued member of the school community.

It is also important not to give a child and family the impression that any costly work is being done “for them” and so they should be grateful. Accessibility work is done for all future wheelchair users and also disabled staff, family and community members. 

Changing attitudes

The UK has become far more wheelchair-accessible in recent decades, as a result of sustained campaigning, to the extent that we are beginning to take this for granted. I suspect that the reason why some schools have been left out of this progress is that as adults we tend to fight adult battles and forget about our childhood challenges. And wheelchair users are often the same, focussing more on accessible public transport and workplace equality. However, being excluded from a community (not just a building) solely because you cannot climb stairs tells you, at a formative stage in your life, that you are not valued and must lower your expectations. And vice versa: attitudes formed in childhood have life-long impact, and children taught alongside disabled peers are more likely to develop into inclusive and accepting adults. If we want to make our world more inclusive, and if we believe that disabled children have a right to a great education and a choice of schools alongside their peers, then all schools should be fully accessible.  

Further information

Dr Sue Hurrell is a former parent governor at her children’s school, and a former chair of governors at a  special school. She is currently a trustee of two charities that support the families of children with disabilities. 


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