Tackling physical access issues in schools

Inclusive schools are becoming the norm, and equal educational opportunity is now the right of every child. Successfully preparing children who have a disability in company with their nondisabled classmates for full participation in our society first requires that we make our schools accessible.

We are all aware of school access audits and accessibility plans but what do they actually involve? To be compliant with The Equality Act, schools need to have an accessibility plan and to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their school building, access to their information and to their curriculum, so that all pupils, staff or visitors have equal access as their non-disabled peers.  The duty is ‘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.

So, how do we identify any access issues around our premises? A good access consultant, who is sensitive to budgetary issues within school settings, and thus able to suggest practical ways in which schools can ensure compliance with equality legislation, without recourse to costly building works is a good option. Many schools we have advised over the last decade have endeavoured to take on this work themselves and have more often than not, ‘used their caretaker’ to undertake their access audit and their head teacher or Senco to write up the report and plan. This has proved a costly exercise in time and unnecessary building works so have then called in the experts.

 Many reasonable adjustments are inexpensive and will often involve a change in practice rather than expensive building works. Examples of low cost but effective changeto the physical environment that a school could make to increase access might include such things as lighting and paint schemes to help visually impaired children, carpeting and acoustic tiling of classrooms to help hearing impaired pupils and ramps to help physically impaired children.

Examples — A school admits a disabled pupil who is deaf and decides, without consulting the pupil, to install an induction loop in all teaching rooms – but 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. This is at no cost to the school!

 A pupil who is a wheelchair user is unable to access classes on the first floor. A reasonable adjustment would be for the school to rearrange the timetabling and location of classes so that all of her classes are on the ground floor. Although this may be difficult, it does not mean it is not a reasonable adjustment for the school to make. EA Audits would never advise a school to install a lift. That money can be put to much better use for all the pupils in the school environment.

However, there may be instances where this simply won’t be possible such as in the absence of an accessible toilet. More schools find themselves in a tribunal because they do not have an accessible toilet or if they do have one, it is being used as a storage cupboard. Access in a school building is not solely related to its pupils. The school also has a care of duty to its staff and its visitors. Sadly, there is little or no financial assistance available for any necessary works with local education authorities cutting budgets.

An access audit of the school building needs to include areas such as the approach to the building, car park, route to reception, external steps/ ramps,  main entrance,  reception area/ desk, corridors, hallways/ internal circulation, wayfinding and signage, classrooms and facilities, internal stairs, steps and ramps, internal doors, WC’s general/disabled provision, dining hall, staff room, means of escape, building management, lifts/stair lifts and outdoor spaces.

Your aim when carrying out an access audit of your school building should be to identify obstacles to access, look at the options for removing these, and make clear recommendations to improve access.

-Lesley Mifsud, CEO, EA Audits