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January 2011



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First Published Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Claire Bell with her son

Claire Bell’s diabetic son, Jacob, was devastated when he was told at the 11th hour that he couldn’t go on a trip to Germany. Photograph: Sam Frost

Why can’t I go too?

Disabled pupils in mainstream schools often find themselves excluded from school trips, reports Louise Tickle

For a child with a disability or chronic medical condition, going to a mainstream school can be a major boost to their confidence. But to then be the only person in their class who is excluded from a school trip can be a terrible blow. Despite legislation aiming to make sure this does not happen, parents and charities complain that many schools are not obeying the spirit of the inclusion agenda.

“He was in year 7, at the beginning of his career in mainstream school, the first time we were told he couldn’t go on a school trip,” says Susan Bush, whose son Joseph, now 19, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. “It was a residential to France, and the story we got was: ‘Where we’re staying isn’t accessible, the coach isn’t accessible and France isn’t very accessible’.”

How to ensure that all pupils can benefit from school trips – as required in principle under the Disability Discrimination Act – is challenging some schools.

Bush thought Beaumont school in St Albans, Hertfordshire, should rebook the trip using transport and accommodation that was accessible to her son. But the school said that doing this would add so much to the total cost that the trip might have to be cancelled altogether.

“I said, what about if I came for the week to help?” she recalls. “But that wouldn’t do either. And this was the local PNI [physically and neurologically impaired] school. Because Joseph was just starting there and relationships were important, I didn’t take it any further.”

Souring relationships is often too risky for families who know that their child could face challenges in the years ahead that will require continuous dialogue with staff.

Bush says there were two further occasions on which Joseph was excluded from trips: a geography field trip, which was not accessible, and a theatre trip.

But the school’s perception of the situation is entirely different. The headteacher, Elizabeth Hitch, says: “Of the three occasions mentioned, one was a trip to France in 2002 and the problem was that the venue was not accessible. For the year 9 field trip, an alternative was arranged with other students so that Joseph did not miss out on the curriculum work. The sixth-form theatre trip was an optional trip, aimed at A-level English students, and Joseph was not part of that group.”

She points out that Joseph was able to take part in over 20 other school trips during his time at the school. “We do everything possible to ensure that all wheelchair-users have equal access to all areas of the curriculum, including off-site activities.”

School versus parents

For teachers who feel that they are doing their best, it can be demoralising to be criticised when they make a judgment that a particular trip isn’t, by its very nature, going to work for one child. Parents, on the other hand, say they feel betrayed when exclusion from standard school activities results in their son or daughter feeling miserable and demotivated.

Claire Bell’s diabetic son, Jacob, 13, was stopped from going on a week-long school trip to Germany just 36 hours before he was due to leave. Bell says that, although she had supplied medical information about his condition well in advance, staff who had initially been prepared to supervise his insulin injections subsequently became concerned. The only way he could go, she was told, would be if a parent accompanied him. The school, Sheldon school, in Chippenham, Wiltshire, was willing to fund this, but for Bell it was impossible at such short notice. Bell says Jacob was “devastated” when he heard he couldn’t go.

The school has a different view. The headteacher, Gerard MacMahon, says: “We were very keen that Jacob should go on the trip. However, shortly before the trip, Mrs Bell told the teachers they would be required to calculate the dosages of insulin required by Jacob, and that these dosages may vary considerably. The teachers were understandably very worried at taking this responsibility as they were not medically trained.

“Because I wanted Jacob to take part in the trip, I offered Mrs Bell the opportunity to accompany Jacob at the school’s expense. Unfortunately, she declined.” He adds: “I would stress that Sheldon is an exceptional inclusive school. We have a proven record of giving disabled children full access to school trips.”

It’s not just families who complain that disabled children are being left behind. The charities Whizz-Kidz, Scope, the Children’s Heart Federation and Diabetes UK all say they regularly hear of children being excluded from school trips.

At the Calvert Trust, an outdoor adventure centre, manager Lisa Young says she has been shocked to be contacted on two occasions in the last six months by mothers of disabled pupils, distressed that teachers had excluded their child from a trip to her centre, citing lack of willingness to provide personal care. In each case, the mother had offered to provide the care but the offer was turned down.

The law is not cut and dried. “Under part 4 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (as amended), schools must not treat disabled students less favourably than their peers without justification,” says the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), “and they must plan strategically to increase access to schools and the curriculum over time, including school trips.”

“Without justification” is the tricky bit, says Anita Chopra, partner at education lawyers Match Solicitors. A school might argue that the cost of, say, paying for a child to have a personal assistant for the duration of a residential school trip was prohibitive. “If they succeed in this defence, then there would be no finding of a failure to make reasonable adjustments,” Chopra explains. But, she warns, headteachers must make sure they can justify the decisions they take.

Equal opportunities

The charity Scope says that all schools now have a duty to actively ensure equal opportunities, even if more favourable treatment is required to achieve that objective.

The DCSF, too, is clear. “Schools should be able to identify potential barriers, such as educational trips, for disabled children through their discussions with parents and disabled children/people, and develop alternative solutions,” it says.

The key to finding a solution may simply be to think ahead.

Anya Rowson, whose teenage son, Thomas, has a complex heart condition, says his school, St Cecilia’s in Wandsworth, south London, has always taken exceptional care to ensure that he is able to accompany his classmates on both educational and optional extracurricular trips. “They consider beforehand what the problems might be and then they just get on with sorting it out. Where it would be difficult for him to negotiate the tube to get to a venue, for instance, they have paid for taxis,” she says.

“I have never had to request that kind of assistance, and have never been asked to pay more.”

Sarah Riley, a teacher at the Specialist Inclusive Learning Centre in Leeds, says it comes down to a matter of attitude. “First, think about what you want the kids to get out of the trip, and then choose a destination that fits both that learning objective and the needs of the group, rather than what often happens, which is that the destination is chosen first – you know, oh, we’ll go to that place in France because we always go there.”

Making children who may already feel sensitive about being “different” stick out even more, especially at a time when being part of the crowd is so important, is heartbreaking to watch, says Bush. “This kind of thing does not help disabled people to feel part of the school community,” she says. “His peers thought of him just as Joseph, but suddenly he wouldn’t be allowed to do something, and they’d see him as different.”

Source:   http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/mar/24/school-trips-disability

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