School budget cuts and the implication on accessibility planning

All schools must comply with the Equality Act 2010 and have an ‘Accessibility Plan’ which details how they ensure equal access to all staff, visitors and pupils. The plan must also show how access can be improved for users with disabilities within a given timeframe and undertake ‘reasonable adjustments’ where possible.

Schools have a duty to “to take such steps as it is reasonable to have to take to avoid the substantial disadvantage to a disabled person caused by a provision, criterion or practice applied by, or on behalf of a school, or by the absence of an auxiliary aid.”

The National Audit Office announced that a recent study it conducted concluded that in the 2019/2020 school year, increasing pupil numbers and staff costs meant that schools would need to spend 8% less per pupil; a significant reduction which virtually all schools will struggle to implement. Although schools are given more money by the government than they were 5 years ago, increasing costs from areas such as staffing and pensions means it is hard to keep up.

With an 8% reduction in spending per pupil, schools are under significant pressure to make cuts. In the summer of 2019, this went as far as a junior school in Norwich asking for ‘volunteer painters, gardeners and decorators’ to help prepare for the new school year (BBC.co.uk). In September 2019, it was reported that 20 schools in Birmingham will have to close half a day a week to reduce costs.

Schools are being forced to make teachers redundant, some are closing early, and others are even having to drop subjects from their curriculum. With teachers’ salaries making up the vast proportion of any school’s budget, schools are trying to manage with fewer members of staff.

Unfortunately, accessibility planning in schools seems to be one of the areas that falls to the bottom of the pile, regardless of its increasing importance. This is likely because the lack of accessibility planning only crops up when a specific issue arises. For instance, the arrival of a disabled visitor or pupil with SEN. Headteachers are under vast pressure and are juggling a lot of competing demands on their time. They are however aware they need to have an Accessibility Plan, but due to lack of resources, are typically producing insufficiently comprehensive plans which tend to lack coverage of important issues.

It is possible to find an online checklist that provides a superficial ‘tick-box’ approach to evaluating a school’s physical accessibility. This unfortunately is used by many schools trying to save some money. The school SENCO or Caretaker is usually then the one given the task of carrying out the school access audit and writing the Accessibility Plan.

There are two main issues with this, the first being that an online checklist usually only refers to that of the physical access. Regrettably, the belief that an Accessibility Plan only needs to address physical issues is a common misconception amongst education professionals.  In fact, physical access only accounts for 1/3 of the Accessibility Plan – the other two thirds considering access to the school’s curriculum and access to information. Secondly, a SENCO or a caretaker is not usually in the position to deem what is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment.’

This is usually a stumbling block for most when trying to undertake their own access audit. An experienced access consultant who is sensitive to budgetary issues within school settings is able to suggest practical ways of ensuring compliance with equality legislation without recourse to costly works. However a SENCO or caretaker undertaking this work would not typically have the knowledge to decipher what is considered reasonable and what is not.

To make matters slightly more difficult, the Equality Act 2010 does not actually state what is considered ‘reasonable’. Although this may cause confusion for some, it actually is designed for flexibility – what is reasonable in one circumstance may not be reasonable in another. It is obviously not possible to say what would or wouldn’t be reasonable in a certain situation without an understanding of the relevant context. However some factors which may help decide are issues such as the financial cost of making an adjustment, the practicality of the adjustment in question, the resources of the school and the impact on other pupils.

Many of the schools we have advised in the past have originally tried to take on the work themselves as a result of that discussed above. However, this has actually proven more costly as not only has it taken up the precious time of those involved, but due to the fact they are not trained specifically in accessibility, it has resulted in unnecessary and costly building works.

Reasonable adjustments do not always have to be costly, and an access consultant can advise on how to save money.

Example – by ensuring all classes for a pupil in a wheelchair are on the ground level, the school has demonstrated that they have made a reasonable adjustment resulting in this pupil having access to not only the building, but also the curriculum. This would be deemed perfectly reasonable (and cost nothing) rather than considering the expense of a stair lift.

Pupils with the same disability may need different adjustments to overcome the disadvantage. It is important not to make assumptions about a disabled pupil’s needs, because this may lead a school to provide a completely ineffective adjustment. Again, this is something we see far too often when a school undertakes their own access audit.

Example – A disabled pupil who is deaf is due to start. The school’s SENCO undertakes an access audit and concludes that induction loops must be installed in all of the teaching rooms. However, the school did not consult with the pupil first and didn’t realise that the pupil does not use a hearing aid and so is unable to benefit from the induction loop. The pupil reads lips and so a reasonable adjustment would have been to tell all staff to ensure that they face the pupil when speaking to him.

As mentioned, a school’s Accessibility Plan must also take into consideration not only those with a physical impairment. Those with sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment, mental illness, and so on also need adjustments. This area is extremely difficult for an untrained eye to deem what is considered reasonable.

Example – An independent school provides a dyslexic disabled pupil with extra sessions with a specialist teacher and adds the cost of this to the pupil’s school fees. This would be discrimination.

To conclude, it is no secret that schools are under significant budget constraints and desperately struggling to cope with the funding cuts. The importance of accessibility planning should not be underestimated and schools resorting to doing it themselves is ineffective and failing to capture all relevant aspects of accessibility. Using a checklist downloaded from the internet might seem like an immediate saving, but it comes at the cost of good outcomes for those with accessibility needs. Using an access consultant with the required breadth and depth of relevant expertise does not carry a significant cost and results in an adequate Accessibility Plan which demonstrates a school’s desire to be inclusive to all.