Reasonable adjustments for schools in a time of pandemic

Schools have had a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils since amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 came into force in 2001.  These duties were later expanded to include “auxiliary aids and services”.  The phrase “reasonable adjustments” is fairly well known by now, but prompts the question – “what is reasonable?” and specifically, what might be regarded as reasonable in the particular circumstances of a global pandemic crisis.

Overview of the legal framework

Part 6, Chapter 1 of the Equality Act 2010 is the part of the Act which applies to schools.  It applies to all schools in Scotland, i.e. public schools (those managed by a local authority); independent schools; and grant-aided schools (those receiving specific direct Scottish Government funding).

The legal duties rest with the responsible body for the school.  In the case of public schools, this is the local authority as a whole – an important point when the discussion turns to funding and resources.  For independent or grant-aided schools, the managing body (e.g. a board of trustees or SCIO) is the responsible body.

The Equality Act 2010 applies across all nine “protected characteristics”, but there are two types of discrimination which only apply in relation to disability.  These are the reasonable adjustments duty (Section 20) and discrimination arising from disability (Section 15).

Reasonable adjustments

In the case of disabled pupils and schools, it is only the first and third requirements of the reasonable adjustments duty which applies.

The first requirement arises where a “provision, criterion or practice” (PCP) places a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage.  The requirement is to take reasonable steps to avoid that disadvantage.  The EHRC’s Technical Guidance for Schools in Scotland gives the example of a school policy forbidding the use of external USB devices with school computers.  In the example the school amends the policy so that a disabled pupil can be given a login that will allow him to attach an adapted keyboard in class. (para 6.9)

The third requirement arises where, without an “auxiliary aid or service,” a disabled person would be at a substantial disadvantage.  The requirement is to take reasonable steps to provide the auxiliary aid or service in question.  The Technical Guidance gives the example of a school providing a coloured plastic overlay sheet for a pupil with dyslexia.

The second requirement concerns substantial disadvantage which may arise because of a physical feature.  The schools duties do not include a requirement to remove or alter physical features of the school for disabled pupils.  However, there is a planning duty contained in the Education (Disability Strategies and Pupils’ Educational Records) (Scotland) Act 2002 which requires responsible bodies for schools to set out their plans to improve access (including physical access) to the school, on a three year cycle.

Discrimination arising from disability

This type of discrimination occurs where a disabled pupil has been treated unfavourably, because of something “arising in consequence of” pupil’s disability unless that treatment is a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Unfavourable treatment is a fairly broad category and (unlike other types of discrimination) does not require a direct comparison.  That is, there is no need to find someone who has been treated more favourably than the disabled pupil.

Recent cases at the Tribunal have dealt with exclusion from school, the use of physical restraint and a refusal to allow an additional year at school as unfavourable treatment.

In cases where the unfavourable treatment is admitted or established, the responsible body may argue that the treatment was not unlawful as it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate goal.  Often the aim pursued is self-evidently legitimate, and the question is then whether the treatment in question was a proportionate means of pursuing that goal.

The Technical Guidance gives an example (at para 5.47) of a pupil excluded from school meals because she found queueing distressing.  There may be a legitimate goal in this case, but if there are less restrictive means of achieving that goal (e.g. could the pupil be allowed to go straight to the head of the queue?) then the responsible body will struggle to show that the treatment is justified.

Overlap with additional support needs framework

The Equality Act 2010 is not the only piece of legislation which may apply, as disabled pupils may also have “additional support needs” in terms of Section 1 of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004.  There are several areas in which there is an overlap between these two legal frameworks.

It is worth noting, for example, that neither the definition of additional support needs, nor the definition of disability require a formal diagnosis.  Both Acts are more focused on the day to day experience of the individual pupil.  Indeed, the definition of additional support needs specifically includes pupils who require additional support “for whatever reason”.

The First-tier Tribunal for Scotland’s Health and Education Chamber has jurisdiction for both types of case, and can join cases together where this is appropriate.  For example, in a case involving support for a disabled pupil to access an after school guitar club, the Tribunal considered the matter as a failure to comply with the child’s CSP and a reasonable adjustments case at the same time (cf. “Landmark victory for disabled pupil”, Daily Record 19 June 2013)

Issues arising during the Covid-19 pandemic

Questions of reasonable adjustments and disability discrimination arise in school even when there is no global pandemic to complicate matters.  However, there have been some specific issues arising which relate directly to the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response.

  • Some auxiliary services which required close contact with staff were restricted or ceased altogether (e.g. personal care needs, communication support needs).
  • Some auxiliary aids / assistive equipment which required handling (and therefore cleaning) were removed, or were available only on a restricted basis.
  • There was not consistent application of guidance on which children with additional support needs or disabilities could have access to learning hubs during periods of school closure. Disagreements arose as to who was regarded as “vulnerable”.
  • Some pupils required reasonable adjustments in order to access online learning.
  • Legal authority for the closure of schools – Educational Continuity Directions – was not in place at first.  The directions disapplied some of the ASL legislation, but only in a limited fashion.
  • There are ongoing issues relating to pupils who have missed education / transition planning, and reasonable adjustments may be required for disabled pupils.
  • Some disabled pupils found that access to online learning suited them well, and the return to in person lessons has been difficult, or impossible.  Reasonable adjustments may be required in terms of delivery of the curriculum in new and innovative ways.

Recent Tribunal cases

During the pandemic the Tribunal, after a short period in which only urgent cases were progressed, has adapted quickly and well to online hearings and electronic case papers.  There is no current backlog and cases (including disability discrimination cases) continue to be heard and determined.

Over the last academic year (2020-21) the Tribunal has considered disability discrimination cases which have covered a wide range of topics including: differentiation of the curriculum, subject choices in the senior secondary stages, exclusion from school, requests for additional time at school, specific strategies for addressing dyslexia, and the use of physical restraint. Few (if any) were directly related to the pandemic, but that is the context in which they took place.  To the extent that it was considered, it is reassuring to note one Tribunal’s comments in relation to transition planning:

“the COVID-19 pandemic does not remove the obligations of the responsible body to comply with the transition regulations.”

Image by Hatice EROL from Pixabay

Programme for Government 2021-22

The Scottish Government published its programme for government this week. I thought I’d take a quick look at what it says about additional support needs. There is a whole section on education, of course, and much of that will be relevant to all pupils (including those with additional support needs). There are also specific commitments in relation to care experienced pupils and those who are socio-economically disadvantaged. Many of these pupils would fall within the definition of “additional support needs” although that is not always as well recognised as it ought to be.

However, in terms of a specific mention of additional support for learning, we find it in Chapter 2:

We will act to close the gap for children and young people with additional support needs, developing a new approach for how their achievements and successes are recognised, and fully implementing the findings of the Additional Support for Learning (ASL) Review. We will ensure there is appropriate career progression and pathways for teachers looking to specialise in Additional Support for Learning – with the intention that this results in an increase to the number of teachers who specialise in ASL – and explore options for the development of an accredited qualification and registration programme for Additional Support Needs assistants with final proposals to be brought forward by autumn 2023.

A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Programme for Government 2021-22

This is, as others have commented, nothing new. The Scottish Government have already committed to implementing the recommendations of the ASL Review, and the specific commitments about recognising and celebrating wider achievement, providing an ASL-specific career path for teachers, and accrediting ASN assistants, are all taken from that self-same review. Indeed, we are shortly due ASLIG‘s first annual report on the implementation of the recommendations of the ASL Review.

More on that as it becomes available.

Potential Energy (Conclusion)

So, to recap…

Back in June 2020, the report of the independent review of the implementation of Additional Support for Learning legislation in Scotland was published.  The review was chaired by Angela Morgan, and the report, which is worth reading in its entirety, is titled “Support for Learning: All our Children and All their Potential”.

A formal response from Scottish Government and COSLA was issued, which accepted all of the recommendations (save for those which required external input, e.g. involving the Universities delivering initial teacher education) and set up a monitoring framework.

What did Children and Young people tell the Review?

The report begins with a statement of what children and young people might think about the implementation of the law on additional support needs. This is, undoubtedly, a very good place to start. However, it also laments the smaller than hoped for numbers of young contributors to the review.

The Young Ambassadors for Inclusion provided the headlines for this section of the report, highlighting from the outset: “Meaningful relationships between children and young people and staff are important for learning;”

This is a key point, which the review returns to time and time again.

Children and young people also underlined the importance of “willingness to adapt teaching methods to children and young people’s learning styles” and the importance of school being a safe place for them.

Other points noted by the younger contributors included:

  • school staff need to have more knowledge and understanding of additional support needs;
  • the ability and capability of pupils with additional support needs must not be underestimated;
  • more understanding and empathy from peers is needed;
  • timely (and, I presume, effective) responses to bullying are important;
  • consistency of support is required; and
  • communication needs to improve.

Participation

Central to all of this is involving children and young people with additional support needs:

“Children and young people have their own views on what works for them and what kind of support they need.”

For children aged 12 to 15 with additional support needs, My Rights, My Say provides free, independent advocacy to assist children in making use of their legal rights under this legislation.  However, that is only the tip of the iceberg, and pupil participation needs to be embedded within the education system.

Indeed, the first, and overarching, recommendation from the review is on Children and Young People’s Participation:

“Children and young people must be listened to and involved in all decision making relating to additional support for learning. Co-creation and collaboration with children, young people and their families will support more coherent, inclusive and all-encompassing policy making, which improves implementation, impact and experience.”

The good practice of the Tribunal in this area is specifically noted elsewhere in the report: “the needs and preferences of the small number of children and young people who engage with the Tribunal, are evident in the detail of the architectural and interior design of the Tribunal offices, and the operational processes developed to reduce stress and distress.”

Resources – and relationships

The ASL review does not shy away from difficult issues, nor from stepping beyond its strict boundaries when it is necessary to do so.  It is does therefore, highlight the many concerns that exist around funding for additional support for learning as well as the impact of pressure on local authority resources more generally (the term “austerity” is used seven times in the report).

This was also a point that was made by the children and young people who contributed to the report: “Additional Support for Learning needs to be adequately funded to ensure everyone gets the support they need, when they need it.”

The report therefore recommended that its own findings are considered as part of the recent Audit Scotland thematic review of Additional Support for Learning.

However, as important, if not more so, are the staff resources actually delivering the support to children and young people day by day.  The commitment and understanding of those staff and the quality of the relationship between staff, pupil and parents can make or break the educational experience.  Parents contributing to the review spoke of the importance of a professional who “just gets it”.

Time and time again, the review returns to the importance of relationships.  Indeed, two of the report’s nine themes have “relationships” in the title.  Especially in those chapters, but also throughout the report, the fundamental importance of honest trusting relationships is stated again and again.

While this is something that can be taught (and learned), it is much more difficult to legislate for, let alone enforce.   

The Tribunals (and those of us who practise within the Tribunal jurisdictions) have a part to play.  Indeed, the review notes that “it is essential that rights and associated processes for .. the Tribunal should be clear and understood and barriers to access removed”, while also recognising the heavy drain on resources (both financial and emotional) that it can be for all involved. 

Ultimately, it is the success or otherwise of the measures and recommendations from the report as a whole which will determine which cases (and how many) still require to be adjudicated in this way.  The first report on progress against the various recommendations is due from the Additional Support for Learning Implementation Group (ASLIG) in October 2021.  It is important that the report is not just accepted, but actually leads to significant and lasting change for the children and young people whose interests and rights lie at the heart of it.

This article first appeared in the May 2021 newsletter of the Health and Education Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland.

Image by LeoNeoBoy from Pixabay

Potential Energy (Part 10)

The ninth, and final, theme within the ASL Review is “Assurance mechanism and inspection” – which sounds dull, but it extremely important. After all, there is little point in having a review and publishing a report filled with recommendations if no-one is making sure that those recommendations are actually being put into practice and making a difference for children with additional support needs.

Continue reading “Potential Energy (Part 10)”

Potential Energy (Part 9)

Theme 8 in the ASL Review is “Understanding Rights”. As a lawyer, and a former law centre lawyer at that, you would expect me to be in favour of a rights-based approach – as indeed I am.

Things have moved on since the Review was published. It notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law. Now, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill has been passed by the Scottish Parliament. The Bill has been referred to the Supreme Court under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 by the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland, which may delay implementation a little, but is unlikely (as I understand it) to have any significant impact on the main operation of the law.

Continue reading “Potential Energy (Part 9)”

Manifesto Review – Scottish Parliamentary Elections 2021

I expect it hasn’t escaped your notice that there is an election happening soon. As such, and with an optimistic aspiration that it might encourage people consider more than just that issue when considering how to vote, I will review the main political parties’ manifestos.

This is not a review of the whole of the manifesto of each party, but only those parts which relate to additional support for learning. I am aiming to let you know what each party says and to provide some commentary where appropriate. I am certainly not going to tell you how to vote! Comments on the policies themselves and other ideas you wish were included are very welcome – political points scoring and arguments are not! I am presenting the manifestos in the order in which they were released.

Continue reading “Manifesto Review – Scottish Parliamentary Elections 2021”

Case summary – Midlothian Council v PD and PD v Midlothian Council (Upper Tribunal for Scotland)

Back in October 2019, I blogged on a decision on permission to appeal in this case (cf. Case summary – Midlothian Council v. PD). As you’ll remember, permission to appeal was granted and the decision on the appeal has now been published on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website.

The appeal was granted, and the case has been sent back to a new First-tier Tribunal (Health and Education Chamber) to hear the case afresh.

Many of the same issues canvassed at the permission to appeal hearing are covered again in this decision (unsurprisingly). As before, I’ll attempt to cover the main points which might be of more general application.

Continue reading “Case summary – Midlothian Council v PD and PD v Midlothian Council (Upper Tribunal for Scotland)”

Promises, promises

Following the report of the Independent Care Review came The Promise which is effectively the vehicle for driving forwards the actual implementation of the changes required by the review. Yesterday, Plan 21-24 was published.

Plan 21-24 focuses on the period from 1 April 2021 until 31 March 2024. It outlines a set of outcomes that should be concluded by 2024.

There is a lot in the plan, with further detail to follow, but I wanted to take a quick look at what it says about the right to education. There are five specific outcomes which, according to the plan, will be in place “By 2024”:

  1. Care experienced children and young people will receive all they need to thrive at school. There will be no barriers to their engagement with education and schools will know and cherish their care experienced pupils.
  2. School improvement plans will value and recognise the needs of their care experienced pupils with robust tracking of attendance and attainment so that support can be given early.
  3. Care experienced young people will be actively participating in all subjects and extra-curricular activities in schools.
  4. The formal and informal exclusion of care experienced children from education will end.
  5. Schools will support and ensure care experienced young people go on to genuinely positive destinations, such as further education or employment.
Continue reading “Promises, promises”

Potential Energy (Part 7)

Following on from the importance placed on relationships and trust as key values and attributes of staff working with children and young people with additional support needs under Theme 5; we now turn to Theme 6: Relationships between Schools and Parents and Carers.

The review begins by affirming the importance of effective working relationships. Where there are “honest and trusting relationships .. characterised by mutual listening and respect” this allows for “sharing views and airing disagreement without conflict.”

Continue reading “Potential Energy (Part 7)”

Taking Stock – the Audit Scotland education report

Audit Scotland have just published “Improving outcomes for young people through school education”, a report which started out looking at how effectively the Scottish Government and local authorities were improving outcomes for young people, and ended up considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the responses to that. The report covers both issues, up to around January 2021.

The report is not focused on additional support needs, and there is much which is to do with the process of collecting data and evidence. Which is important, but probably not what you want to read about. I will therefore take you through the edited highlights as they are relevant to children and young people with additional support needs and their families.

Continue reading “Taking Stock – the Audit Scotland education report”