Church school challenged on fair access for kids with disabilities

By staff writers
June 19, 2007
Samuel and Jonathan Bartley

A church school’s refusal to admit a wheelchair-bound child highlights important questions of access, inclusion and the obligations of both voluntary-aided schools and the education sector as a whole, says the parent involved.

Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley's son Samuel, who has spina bifida, has excelled at his local nursery. But St Leonard’s Church of England primary around the corner from where they live in Streatham has said that he cannot attend along with his sisters.

The head teacher says this is because they cannot meet the needs of “a child like Samuel”. But no written explanation has been received by the parents from the school itself, which is also refusing to discuss the matter directly. The Church of England's Diocese of Southwark advised the church school to cut all communication with the family in February.

The case has been referred to the local education authority, Lambeth in south London, which says it does not have enough money to ensure wheelchair access.

The assessment of the adaptations required to meet Samuel’s needs have been carried out without those involved ever meeting him or examining his small red wheelchair.

Requests for an assessment involving Samuel have been refused five times, in spite of letters from expert therapists, physiotherapists, nursery staff and medical professionals.

Says Jonathan Bartley: “It’s very disappointing and upsetting. The diocese has closed ranks with the school. The Christian institution, it seems, is washing its hands of the need to provide proper access for disabled children in all its schools.”

St Leonard's and the Local Authority are also citing financial constraints. But Bartley says that its architect’s assessment (which includes a 'therapy room' that no-one seems to know the exact purpose of) appears out of proportion to what is actually needed - and hinges upon a teaching block being, technically, a tiny bit too small.

Bartley also points out, in an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper (Inclusion? Not in Samuel's case ) that St Leonard's has under spent £80,000 each year for the past three, and has recently found tens of thousands of pounds to refurbish a derelict house to create new staffrooms.

A state-of-the-art video-conferencing system was installed so that pupils could communicate with a school in Gran Canaria. Both the head teacher and deputy were awarded two-point pay increases (backdated six months) at the same governors' meeting where the decision to exclude Samuel was made.

The Bartleys and their expert advisers estimate that the modifications, which would benefit not just their son but other disabled children, would cost just a fraction of the £200,000 that the school seems to be claiming.

Lambeth says that the head teacher cited, as a reason for denying Samuel a place, problems with a pupil who had been briefly incapacitated following an accident.

However the Bartleys point out that this bears no relation to their son’s carriage – because it was large, cumbersome, manual, and driven by someone whose leg stuck out at 90 degrees.

Since 2002, schools have been required to produce accessibility plans, anticipating that disabled pupils may wish to attend, which set out how adjustments will be made.

But when the Bartleys asked St Leonard's school for a copy of its plan, it could not produce one and it seems the plan was never written. This is despite the fact that its governing body discussed several times in 2005 the school's belief that the reception classroom might be too small for wheelchairs.

“Like lots of schools and LEAs, it appears not to be prepared to pay the price of turning the inclusion rhetoric into reality”, says Jonathan Bartley, who has been forced to resign as a governor at the school.

Lucy Bartley, Samuel’s mother, earlier helped write an inclusion policy for St Leonard’s, which has boasted of its access and inclusion commitment on promotional literature.

Meanwhile, Lambeth is proposing to bus Samuel to another school three miles away. Comments his father: “As things stand, Samuel will be sent outside his familiar church, local community and the network of relationships vital to his long-term development.

“His sense of being ‘different’ will be heightened because he will be transported on an LEA bus, rather than driving himself around the corner with his friends and sisters.

“Any new relationships that he does make will be with children who live miles away. And as any parent knows, it is often relationships formed at the school gates that facilitate a young child's social life. We will be unable to participate in that.”

Though he has severe disabilities, Samuel is a bright child with a wide range of interests. His parents say they are especially disappointed by the attitude of the diocese, and the school itself, to the situation.

The parents have had Samuel's admission deferred by six months, specifically to allow the school and the diocese to come up with an approach which they hope will be more compassionate, imaginative and constructive.

Jonathan Bartley comments; “We have tried to find ways of creating a ‘let’s see how we can tackle this problem together’ approach. But we have met a wall of bureaucracy. They don’t recognize that this is not just about one child, it’s about keeping faith with disabled children as a whole.”

Lambeth Council says it has a total budget of £250,000 for access and inclusion works affecting 55 schools in the current financial year.

A disability rights advocate told Ekklesia: “This is an utter disgrace. But the solution isn’t to deny the needs of particular children, it’s to challenge the huge gap between rhetoric and actual financial commitment on the part of government, business, groups like the churches who sponsor schools, and the community.

“Trying to shift the blame on parents – as if they are somehow unreasonable for expecting inclusion to mean something, is unhelpful and unfair.”

Jonathan Bartley adds: “Our admission appeal won't be heard by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal until at least September 2007. But all 30 places in what would be Samuel's class were allocated in April.”

He comments: “Needless to say, I have resigned as a governor at St Leonard's, and our relationship with the school is tense, which is incredibly difficult for our eight-year-old daughter. Indeed, when we collect her at the school gate, many of the governors - former friends - struggle to meet our gaze.”

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia, the Christian think tank, which for a number of years (and quite independently of this particular example) has raised – and will continue to raise, says Bartley's directorial colleague Simon Barrow – "deep concerns about the policies of faith schools on inclusion, cohesion, admissions and employment."

Bartley commented: "Obviously Samuel's situation is very personal to our family, and our overriding concern is to do what is best for him. But we recognise, in raising the matter publicly, that this case is not just about my child. It is also about policies and practices which offer fairness and welcome to all children, whatever their needs. That is both the core Christian issue and the key educational one."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.