We are firmly committed in our English schools to equality and inclusion, on paper. Current DfE Guidance on Behaviour & Discipline (January, 2016) makes several clear references to a legal requirement under the 2010 Equality Act for behaviour policies to make reasonable adjustments in relation to disabled children and those with SEN.
For example, we are reminded that, to be lawful, a punishment:
must not breach any other legislation (for example in respect of disability, special educational needs, race and other equalities and human rights) and it must be reasonable in all the circumstances. (p7)
The Equality Act 2010 orders that schools must make reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled children are not placed at a substantial disadvantage. This includes ensuring that discipline procedures do not discriminate against pupils who may have a condition that impacts upon their behaviour, such as autism. It also means ensuring staff working with disabled children have appropriate training to adjust their practice.
However, the legal framework and DfE guidance is evidently having little impact on the ground, which is as uneven today as it ever has been for disadvantaged children.
Just read and absorb the opening sentence of the extract from the DfE’s most recent statistical release on exclusions, below. Surely, when year on year, pupils with SEN are 7 times more likely to be permanently excluded than their peers, we must consider whether they benefit from any protection at all – or whether they are in fact the victims of institutionalised discrimination.
This type of discrimination operates at a structural level – it’s to be found within the structures, processes and procedures of organizations. So the permanent exclusion of a child with ADHD might be experienced by a school as a one off – and a painful one; no headteacher likes to exclude. However, the DfE release reveals a bigger picture – that this one-off event is part of a clear pattern and might therefore be regarded an expression of unintentional but nonetheless systemic discrimination.
Setting aside the small matter of the law, if closing the gaps means anything, it has surely got to mean that policy makers address as a first priority this deep and enduring inequity. A permanent exclusion doesn’t open up a gap but a chasm; it’s the closing of a door and the entrenching of a disadvantage. How serious can the DfE’s commitment to social justice really be when Schools that work for everyone – its consultation on ‘more good places’ – makes no reference whatsoever to children with special needs, many of whom have no place, good or otherwise, within their community schools?
“If this lot were seals or whales, there’d be a bloody outcry.”