Lord Touhig: Government must ensure disabled children are not unfairly excluded from school
Over the years the school exclusion system has eroded and has had an adverse impact on pupils with learning difficulties and autism, says Lord Touhig.
Everyone should be treated equally and fairly—in a sentence sums up the intention of the 2010 Equality Act.
But does it? Is everyone treated equally and fairly? No, not according to a House of Lords committee report examining how the law affects disabled people.
The report, published in March 2016, stated that most people said the Equality Act makes things harder for disabled people.
In particular the report highlighted Regulation 4(1) of the Act, which allows schools to claim that they are not discriminating against pupils with disabilities if they have this ‘tendency to physical abuse’.
The National Autistic Society, of which I am a vice-president, believes that effectively allows schools to exclude pupils with conditions such as autism, without necessarily trying to meet their needs and provide the support that would enable them to manage their behaviour.
This is not about excusing poor behaviour nor is it saying that children on the autism spectrum are likely to be aggressive.
But it can be the case that the behaviour of children on the autism spectrum may appear challenging if reasonable adjustments have not been made for them.
Adjustments may include assistance with communication, a quiet room, a highly structured daily routine, and other things – particularly training for staff in understanding conditions such as autism and recognising potential triggers for meltdowns or a change in a pupil’s behaviour.
The House of Lords committee recognised this and said the regulation should be amended.
Government promised to consider this but so far there has been no action.
I have been concerned about the whole thrust of school exclusion policy for some years now.
I became a school governor at the age of 18. I’m not sure if it was legal because the voting age was 21!
In those days no pupil was excluded from school without the express permission of the chair of the school governors having listened to a case made by the headteacher.
That exclusion was never more than two weeks, but over the years that system has been eroded.
I believe that this has contributed to a worrying trend and has had an adverse impact on pupils with learning difficulties and autism.
Reports have shown that 70 per cent of pupils excluded from school in England and Wales have learning difficulties.
Rather than meeting the needs of these young people and seeking to help and support them, it is far easier to simply kick them out of school.
When I served in the Commons I came across many cases of soft exclusions—pupils being told by a form teacher to go and not come back for two weeks or even until next term.
This is illegal. Pupils with autism and learning difficulties are entitled to be treated the same as everyone else.
They daily face the challenges of life with autism or a learning difficulty. They are truly amazing people.
They are able and talented and contribute to our society, our economy or way of life.
All they ask of us is to be treated as equals and be given the same chances and opportunities that the rest of society enjoys, the chance to a decent education and to live a full and happy life.
That is not too much to ask. Is it?
Lord Touhig is a Labour and Co-operative peer in the House of Lords.