Discipline and Disability

With the Education Select Committee’s recent announcement that increasing numbers of excluded pupils are being failed by the education system, schools’ attention is being constantly drawn to issues of discipline. Fundamentally, school rules are important. Here we provide a checklist of the issues a school faces when implementing its behaviour policy, in particular when sanctioning pupils with disabilities.

Let’s take an example:

Boris has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This manifests itself in disruptive behaviour in the classroom, flicking pen lids at fellow pupils, refusing to sit down, climbing over desks and talking when he should be listening. Dealing with Boris’ behaviour takes up teacher time and disrupts other pupils’ learning. The school’s behaviour policy clearly sets out the standards of behaviour required and the sanctions if they are not adhered to.

On the face of it, Boris’ behaviour should be punished in line with the behaviour policy; however, it is not that clear cut. How then should a school deal with this scenario?

  1. Boris could well be considered disabled. The threshold for disability is relatively low and is a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial and long term adverse effect on the individual’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities.
  2. If Boris is disabled, then there is an obligation to consider whether any reasonable adjustments can be made to rectify any disadvantage that he might suffer as a result of his disability. This includes how a school applies a behaviour policy where a pupil is exhibiting behaviour that is related to their disability: for example aggressive behaviour arising from a situation which an autistic child finds intolerable.

If no reasonable adjustment can be made then a school can take disciplinary action, if appropriate. However, if a parent feels that their disabled child has been discriminated against, they can bring a claim against the school in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. It is therefore important for schools to be able to justify any decision that they make.

As we have previously reported, it is no longer the case that by an exemption under the Equality Act 2010 a school can exclude without considering reasonable adjustments where the disability demonstrates a tendency to physical abuse. Schools can still discipline pupils with a tendency to physical abuse, but will be required to show that reasonable adjustments were made and alternative actions considered before excluding.

So back to Boris, it will be important to consider and document:

  1. Why Boris is behaving in this way.
  2. Whether his behaviour is connected to his disability.
  3. Did he have enough support in place at the time of the poor behaviour?
  4. Is it appropriate to sanction Boris or are further reasonable adjustments required?
  5. Would any lesser disciplinary sanction be appropriate in the circumstances (this should not be the case if reasonable adjustments have been made)?

What is important is that any steps that are taken can be shown to be reasonable in the circumstances and that schools document those steps. Specifically is also increasingly vital to avoid permanent exclusion for a single incident and, if possible, work more gradually to that outcome through an escalating series of fixed term exclusions, giving time to implement any reasonably adjustments for a disabled pupil in full and document their implementation.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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