Grammar schools in England will have to ensure their 11-plus entrance exams are accessible to disabled pupils, after a legal ruling found a visually impaired child suffered discrimination when he was refused the opportunity to take the exam.
The boy had applied for entry to Reading School, an academy with grammar school status in Berkshire. But he was unable to sit the 11-plus because adjustments needed for him to take the exam, including the use of larger type on the exam questions, were not carried out.
The boy’s case was backed by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), which said it had been concerned about the accessibility of selective school exams “for a number of years”.
After a referral from the RNIB, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) supported a legal challenge at the government’s tribunal on special educational needs and disabilities. The tribunal ruled that Reading School was responsible for ensuring access to the exam by disabled applicants.
The boy – who cannot be named – subsequently received a place at another grammar school that waived the requirement for him to sit the 11-plus.
“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,” Rebecca Hilsenrath, the EHRC’s chief executive, said.
“Every child has the right to achieve their full potential. Grammar school education needs to be available to all children and that means grammar schools making reasonable adjustments for entry exams in accordance with the law.
“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.”
The boy’s mother said: “As someone who grew up with a severe vision impairment myself, I benefited from a supportive learning environment, and that’s all I want for my children.
“When my son heard he was unable to sit the exam he was upset and in tears, particularly as he had worked hard to prepare for them.”
The EHRC said it is writing to all grammar schools and other selective schools to outline their legal duty not to discriminate against disabled children.
Caireen Sutherland, the RNIB’s principal education officer, said: “We have been concerned about the accessibility of 11-plus tests for children with vision impairment for a number of years. Every year we receive inquiries from parents and professionals regarding the process of testing for grammar schools and how to ensure the tests are accessible.”
Sutherland said the RNIB would work with schools and 11-plus providers to ensure adapted exams were available for children with sight issues, and that parents could contact the RNIB if they had concerns.
The boy’s mother said: “We’re grateful for the support we’ve received, but 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.
“Fortunately, my son started at grammar school last week and is settling in brilliantly. It’s now our hope that other grammar schools ensure their entry exams are accessible to all children and that other parents of disabled children don’t experience the frustration and barriers that we did.”
Reading School and the National Grammar Schools Association were contacted for comment.