Grammar schools must improve their accessibility arrangements for disabled children taking entrance exams to ensure they do not face discrimination, Britain’s equality watchdog has urged.
The plea from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) comes after the family of a boy won a legal challenge against a Berkshire school which failed to make adjustments for the 11-plus entry test.
The child who has a vision impairment, and cannot be named for legal reasons, was left “in tears” when he discovered he would not be able to sit the entrance exam that he had worked hard to prepare for.
The parents of the boy – who has an Education Health and Care Plan specifying the adjustments he needs in school – applied for him to take the test for Reading School, but accepted an offer for him to sit the exam at a school closer to home which was part of a local consortium.
On the eve of the entry exam, the grammar school said they could not 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, which was funded by the EHRC, was taken to a First-tier Tribunal, which concluded that Reading School was responsible for making sure that the adjustments were in place.
It also concluded 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.
On the result of the ruling, the boy’s mother said: “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.”
She said the family were left with mixed feelings as they were “disappointed” they had to bring a claim of discrimination forward to get justice for their son.
“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,” the mother said.
Grammar schools and consortiums must make sure entry exams due to take place this term are accessible to all children, the EHRC has said.
Following the success of the case, the watchdog is sending letters to all selective schools in England to remind them of their duty under the Equality Act 2010 not to discriminate against any disabled children.
There are 163 grammar schools in England, with many concentrated in certain areas of the country, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire.
These schools, which collectively teach about 167,000 children, select pupils based on academic ability, and youngsters typically take an entrance exam known as the 11-plus.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, 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.”
She said: “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.”
Ashley Robson, headmaster of Reading School, said: “Reading School is committed to making reasonable adjustments for all candidates relating to our entrance test.
“We, along with the Slough Consortium of Grammar Schools, and other schools within the wider consortium, will be amending our processes in line with the findings of the tribunal.”
The Government published guidance in July advising schools to delay their entrance exams – which usually take place in September – until as late as November to allow children to catch up due to Covid-19.
Mark Fenton, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association, said: “Grammar schools take their duties under the Equalities Act very seriously and make a large number of adjustments every year for children with a range of disabilities who are taking admissions tests.”