The Equality Commission has urged schools to consider how they can adapt to meet the individual needs of disabled pupils during their admission process after a Lisburn grammar school apologised for any hurt or upset it caused a teenage wheelchair user they rejected.
Wallace High School in Lisburn did not make any formal admission of liability in settling a Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal taken by Sarah Clarke on behalf of her son Josh in June, but acknowledged that the manner in which it dealt with Josh’s application for a place in the school “fell below the standard required of it in respect of compliance with disability discrimination legislation”.
Josh Clarke, now aged 13, has type two spinal muscular atrophy and uses a powered wheelchair. Despite his disability, he comfortably attended mainstream primary school and had identified Wallace as an ideal post-primary destination as early as May 2014, following a meeting with the school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO).
Rather than taking on the physical pressures of the transfer test, which would have necessitated the assistance of a scribe, Josh and his family opted for an assessment via an Educational Psychology Report. The results concluded, among other things, that Josh fell within the high-above-average range of intellectual ability. A subsequent Amended Statement of Special Educational Needs by SEELB (now the Education Authority) in December 2014 stated “Joshua should attend mainstream school” and “will attend Wallace High School”.
Sarah, Josh’s mother said: “Josh has always been very bright. In mainstream primary school he had very little issues. The school had to adapt slightly and Josh would have a different learning process in some areas, but it was always inclusive. In some subjects such as physical education he had to take a back seat, but he was always included and always enjoyed being part.
“I’ve known that he was able for grammar school and after visiting the school in 2014 we knew it was a good school for his needs. As well as the reputation; and the close proximity of the school to our home, we were aware that Wallace previously had pupils with similar needs to Josh. Josh was also impressed with the facilities in the school, particularly electric doors and a lift.”
Josh’s parents became concerned that that they had not received confirmation of Josh’s acceptance prior to the general release for new post-primary pupils and, in May 2015, were informed by SEELB that Wallace High School would not accept Josh. They also learned that communication between SEELB aiming to secure Josh’s place had led to Wallace threatening SEELB with a judicial review.
The school listed a number of concerns it had, many of which have been refuted by the family, around Josh’s suitability for the school and criticised the SEELB for what it described as a lack of proper consultation prior to Josh being recommended for the school.
• the school’s physicality and the restrictions this imposes upon the ability for Joshua to attend;
• the impact Joshua’s attendance at the school would have upon other students and their educational experiences;
• the resultant impact upon Joshua’s wellbeing and mental health if he transferred to The Wallace High School; and
• Joshua’s educational standards and those of The Wallace High School.
“I felt that if the school’s concerns were genuine and they were willing to accommodate Josh then they would have asked to meet with us. We feel like they put up obstacles at every turn.”
“I wasn’t angry, I was hurt because this was my precious child who is so bright and so lovely. It’s hard not to take it personally against him,” says Sarah. “I felt that if the school’s concerns were genuine and they were willing to accommodate Josh then they would have asked to meet with us. We feel like they put up obstacles at every turn.”
Josh was quickly accepted into another grammar school, Friends’ School Lisburn, where Sarah said he has settled in very well. “When we learned that Wallace didn’t want Josh at their school the decision was simple for us and it was no longer a consideration. Originally I think Josh was hurt, but he dealt with it very well and Friends’ have been fantastic. However, after we had secured Josh’s place and I recapped on the situation I just felt that it had all been very wrong. Josh is my priority but for children coming behind him I thought there needed to some action to try and prevent this happening again. That’s why I chose to take the case to the Equality Commission.”
In June the school reached a non-financial settlement with the family and the case was withdrawn from the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. As well as acknowledging that the handling of Josh’s application fell below disability discrimination legislation compliance, the school has now pledged to meet with the Equality Commission to review its policies, practices and procedures in relation to disability discrimination legislation and European Law and to take steps to implement reasonable recommendations. The school has also said it will provide training to staff in relation to their obligations and responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
Commenting following the conclusion of the case, Anne McKernan, head of legal services at the Equality Commission, said: “We supported Joshua’s case because it raises an important issue, an important one for everyone, but in particular for people with disabilities: access to education. Access to education is particularly important because education is fundamentally linked to better life chances and better employment chances.
“In this case, which was settled without admission of liability, the school acknowledged that the manner in which it dealt with Joshua’s application for a place in the school fell below the standard required of it in respect of compliance with the disability discrimination law. The lesson of Joshua’s case is that schools must give proper consideration to how they could adapt to meet the needs of an individual disabled pupil.”
A spokesperson for the school said: “The board of governors does not comment on individual cases of applications to The Wallace High School. However, the board takes every reasonable step to treat all applications fairly and, in doing so, seeks legal opinion. Legal advice is then followed. In terms of any resulting dispute with either a parent or an external agency, the board of governors routinely reflects on the process followed and any lessons learnt. The Board is committed to dealing with every application on an individual basis.”