Equality of Educational Opportunity for Children with Complex Medical Needs

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 6 March 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Disability; Equality; Access to Education

BBC NI Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith has reported on a recent judicial review which found that The Education Authority (EA) breached the human rights of two pupils with complex medical needs, where in one case the pupil was prevented from attending school for long periods and in the other, access was hindered. The situation arose during the Covid 19 pandemic when the pupils were denied transport to school as they had serious respiratory conditions which required ventilation and it was decided that this was going to pose a risk to the drivers of the school buses.

The finding of the review of the action brought by the Children's Law Centre (CLC), acting on behalf of the pupils was that both pupils were "treated differently to other children in the state" because of their additional needs.

In the first case, the child was unable to go to school for two years as their parent had no means of transport to get her there. The result was that she was unable to start primary school at the appropriate date and there was a two year delay until September 2022 when appropriate transport was provided by the EA. During this period the EA were able to provide some home schooling.

In the other case in the absence of school transport, the parent drove the child to school each day, with a healthcare assistant and equipment from February 2021 until June 2022.

The parent of that pupil said their child was "made to feel different".

The EA said it would "take on board all learnings from these cases".

Disabled children denied transport to school by Education Authority - BBC News

This case highlights the considerable harm that was caused to the most vulnerable children in our society by the pandemic and the lockdowns that resulted. I have written before about the implications for mainstream pupils of the school closures and the limitations that became evident of home schooling, however well organised it was. Equally we are still picking up the negative after effects of the suspension of normal state examinations. These effects and the undoubted disadvantages caused to mainstream pupils pale into insignificance however when we consider the impact of the lockdowns on the families with children with complex medical needs, for whom the access to our wonderful special schools is a lifeline. Without the support, care and expertise of the teachers, classroom assistants and therapists who work with these children every day, the quality of their lives were profoundly affected. It is hard for us to imagine how difficult that must have been. During the lockdowns our normal lives were curtailed to some degree but not on the scale of the change to these particular children’s daily experiences. Equally the respite care and emotional support for the parents of the children was lost during this time too and their needs were not met. The evidence for this is that many special school staff voluntarily continued to come in to work during the pandemic to be available for these families and children in spite of the risks.

The effect on many children with additional needs, of absence from school during the pandemic has been huge. Unlike mainstream pupils returning to their classrooms, they often struggle to readapt to the physical and emotional interaction of everyday school life. During lockdowns their world shrank to their home and family with little or no contact with the outside world. Many of these children with additional needs now display distress symptoms when they come back to school. The NSPCC have flagged up this problem too. They warned in the context of the pandemic, that children with special educational needs and complex medical needs, unlike mainstream pupils faced lots of additional challenges at home and at school, which were enhanced due to COVID. Their routines, regular support and the people they saw may have been different and this would have affected them both in the short and longer term.

 Supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities | NSPCC

The advantage to a child with additional needs being able to attend school normally is summarised by the comments of her family in the BBC NI report above when they said;

“being able to attend school had changed their daughter's life. She would have been up 90% of the night when she couldn't go to school as she wasn't getting physically tired. We put her to bed but then she would get up between midnight and 02:00 GMT and that was her awake.”

“As soon as she started school she was like a different child. She loves school and all of the activity she does."

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2008 and which was ratified by the UK in 2009, has 145 signatories. Article 24 of the Convention is on education and includes the following recommendations;

  • persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability
  • persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education
  • persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live

Education for children with disabilities: improving access and quality

The guidance above published by the government in October 2020 is clear on this issue. It also states “that disability results from the barriers facing people with disabilities – attitudinal and physical barriers that lead to exclusion from society. This ‘social model’ of disability contrasts with the ‘medical model’ which sees people with disabilities as having a problem that needs to be managed as opposed to being equal members of society.”

Once again we find ourselves discussing whether we as a society are willing to dedicate the public funding necessary to allow all children and families to have the same quality of life which we take so much for granted.

This article is correct at 06/03/2023

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

View all articles by Frank Cassidy