Published: 09 Sep 2020
All grammar schools in England have today been warned not to discriminate against disabled children during this year’s 11+ entry exams, following a successful legal challenge by a disabled child, funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
The child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has a vision impairment and an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP) specifying the adjustments he needs in school. Despite this, he was unable to sit an entry exam to a Berkshire grammar school when the adjustments weren’t made.
The boy’s parents applied for him to take the 11+ entry exam for Reading School but accepted an offer for him to sit the exam at a different school, which was closer to home, but was also part of the Slough Consortium of Grammar Schools. The day before the exam, the school said they couldn’t make the adjustments that had been requested, including larger fonts on the exam paper, saying they would cost in excess of £2,000.
The case was referred to the EHRC by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB). The EHRC provided funding for it to be taken to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability), which concluded that Reading Grammar was responsible for making sure adjustments were in place.
It also said that, if applying through a consortium, there should be a written policy in place to set out how adjustments should be made for disabled children to take the exam.
The success of this case means grammar schools and consortiums must improve accessibility arrangements for entry exams, which have been delayed due to coronavirus (COVID-19).
Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said:
“It is completely unacceptable that, at a crucial and formative time in a child’s educational life, they should experience discrimination in a way that could damage their confidence and be denied the opportunity of a better future.
“Every child has the right to achieve their full potential. Grammar school education needs to be available to all children and that means grammar schools making reasonable adjustments for entry exams in accordance with the law.
“The Disability Discrimination Act is 25 years old and the Equality Act over a decade. It is the law that disabled children are entitled to equal access to education, and in 2020 we shouldn’t have to be reminding schools of their responsibility to make exams inclusive.”
Following the ruling, the RNIB has written to the Association of Grammar Schools and 11+ providers, to ensure this year’s entry exams are accessible.
Today, the EHRC has sent letters to all grammar schools and other selective schools, to remind them of their duty under the Equality Act 2010 not to discriminate against any disabled children.
Commenting on what the legal challenge meant for her family, the boy’s mum said:
“As someone who grew up with a severe vision impairment myself, I’ve hugely benefited from a supportive learning environment, and that’s all I want for my children.
“When my son heard he was unable to sit the exam was upset and in tears, particularly as he had worked hard to prepare for them.
“On receiving the Tribunal decision we were left with mixed feelings; on the one hand we were happy with the outcome, but we were equally disappointed that we’d had to bring a claim of discrimination to get justice for our son.
“We’re grateful for the support we’ve received, but, challenging a process that is both arduous and unequal for children with special educational needs is inherently unfair and the whole experience has left us fatigued and disappointed.
“Fortunately, my son started at grammar school last week and is settling in brilliantly. It’s now our hope that other grammar schools ensure their entry exams are accessible to all children and that other parents of disabled children don’t experience the frustration and barriers that we did.”
RNIB Principal Education Officer, Caireen Sutherland, said:
“We have been concerned about the accessibility of 11+ tests for children with vision impairment for a number of years. Every year we receive enquiries from parents and professionals regarding the process of testing for grammar schools and how to ensure the tests are accessible.
“We hope that this decision will go some way to ensuring that grammar schools now make appropriate arrangements so that everyone, including children with vision impairment, has equal access to the tests.
“We are keen to work with schools and 11+ providers to ensure the provision is in place and accessible.”
At the hearing, Reading School accepted that the adjustments requested were reasonable, but argued that they had no knowledge of the request as it was made via the Consortium, despite allowing for the alternative test arrangement to take place.
The legal case was led by Chris Barnett, solicitor at Sinclairs Law, and counsel, Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers, who represented the boy at the First-tier Tribunal.
If you have concerns about your child’s ability to sit the 11+ exam because of issues with their sight, please contact the RNIB helpline on 0303 123 9999.