Ability to challenge
Schools and colleges have a new requirement to promote disability equality and prevent discrimination. It's the right thing to do, says Kathleen Jameson of the Disability Rights Commission.
As expected, the latest report from the House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee on disability does not make pretty reading. The current education system is described as 'not fit for purpose' for disabled learners.
The figures speak for themselves: 21 per cent of disabled people aged 16-24 have no qualifications whatsoever, compared to 9 per cent of non-disabled people of the same age.
Disabled 16 year-olds are twice as likely to be out of education, work or training compared to their non-disabled peers.
In a survey, 86 per cent of young disabled people said they thought it would be harder for them to find a job. And they're probably right, given that they're less likely to be in paid employment in adulthood and, if they do manage to get a job, they'll be paid less than their non-disabled colleagues.
It's not just disabled students who are affected by discrimination in the education system.
The Disability Rights Commission has launched a formal investigation into public sector standards, which will look into how training, qualifying and working practices in a range of public professions, including teaching, may pose challenges to the entry and progress of disabled people.
So is it all doom and gloom in the sector? Actually, no. For example, statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the number of disabled students has increased hugely, whilst a submission to the Foster Review showed achievement rates for disabled learners was higher than for their non-disabled counterparts.
There's a real opportunity on the horizon for schools and colleges to further improve the life chances of disabled people in the shape of the new Disability Equality Duty (DED).
The duty, part of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, is a move away from a reactive response to acts of discrimination, to a proactive approach to promoting equality.
Schools and colleges will need to review everything they do and put in place measures to promote disability equality and eliminate discrimination.
Central to the Disability Equality Duty is the requirement to produce a Disability Equality Scheme. Schools and colleges will have to publish a document showing how they intend to meet the duty.
The duty, and producing the disability equality scheme, is an excellent opportunity to bring together all work on disability and take it forward within a planned and structured programme.
One of the key requirements of the new duties is to gather information on the educational opportunities and achievement of disabled students.
This may be difficult for schools as the current processes for gathering information are based around students with special educational needs (SEN) or statements.
However, gathering information on SEN does not address those disabled children who do not have a special educational need or a statement, nor does it take into account the needs of disabled parents, or other disabled people in the community - key as the extended schools agenda develops.
More than consultation
For the first time, there is a legal requirement to involve disabled people in the production of Disability Equality Schemes. Schools and colleges will need to think creatively about involving students, employees and service users, which goes beyond just consulting them.
By involving disabled children and adults, schools and colleges will get expert advice, specific to their institution. As a first step, you need to think about who would be your disabled stakeholders, and start bringing together these groups to find out their views.
The focus of the duty is on actions and outcomes. Schools and colleges will need to clearly set out the actions they are going to take, and report on the progress in meeting those actions.
If you cannot demonstrate improved outcomes for disabled people, over the period of your scheme, then you're not doing it right.
The DED will have a massive impact on education providers. Yes, it's challenging, but challenges are something all of us working in the sector know about.
And this isn't just a tick box exercise, but the chance to change the culture of meeting the learning needs, employment opportunities, and other experiences of disabled individuals in the education system.
The education sector needs to be an engine room for this transformation. But the system will only go as far as the imagination of the people working in it. So, go on. Pick up the challenge - and make it happen.
Kathleen Jameson is disability equality duty officer at the Disability Rights Commission, responsible for producing guidance for schools and post-16 institutions.
© 2013 Association of School and College Leaders