If you’re wondering what the Lords were doing on the 15th day of December, they were having a big debate on equality. Maybe leaping around as well.
The Equality Bill had its first debate in the House of Lords last week, just before Parliament closed down for Christmas. The Equality Bill is an important bonzer Bill, aiming to streamline all of the existing pieces of legislation on discrimination into a single piece of legislation. As Michael Jackson might have put it if he was still alive, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, disabled, lesbian, Hindu, polysexual, anything. The Equality Bill will sort you out.
But in seriousness, it’s a serious Bill that the big disabled charties are welcoming, as a “critical friend”. NDCS‘s main interest in the Bill is in what it says about access to examinations for disabled students.
This is an area in which the exam bodies have very bad form. Halfway through the noughties, exam bodies withdrew all support for disabled students in a bizarre misreading of disability discrimination law. NDCS successfully campaigned for that support to be reinstated but there are still concerns that some of the exam bodies still just don’t get it. Disabled students have the right to be able to demonstrate what they can do through a system of flexibly designed exams. It cannot be impossible to do this without undermining the value of the qualification.
The Government has been listening to our concerns and is proposing that the new exams regulator, Ofqual, will have the power to decide what exam bodies should and shouldn’t do when considering how disabled people can access exams. This is a nice idea in principle, but it does give Ofqual a lot of power. So NDCS is working with a range of other charities to make sure there are checks in place to make sure this power is used for the benefit of disabled people.
We’re looking to get the wording of the legislation changed. For example, currently, it says it would be “desirable” for Ofqual to try and “minimise” the disadvantage to disabled students. I don’t like the word “minimise”; it seems to assume that an outcome in which some disadvantage is present is tolerable or acceptable. We want the exam system to work to eliminate disadvantage. And “desirable”? It sounds as if access to examinations is something I might find on an Amazon wish list.
We’ve been busy briefing Lords and, happily, a few of them agree with us. In the first debate on the Equality Bill in the Lords, Lord Low said:
“… the Minister will be aware of the uncomfortable history in which qualifications bodies have misguidedly chosen to demonstrate their commitment to standards that we all share by taking measures that disadvantage disabled people. They have lost the confidence of many disabled people by doing so. Clause 96 of the Bill explicitly authorises an exam system that disadvantages disabled candidates and says in terms that minimising this is merely desirable, not necessary. The wording does not sit comfortably in an Equality Bill. The Government is usually such a champion of the life chances of disabled people and their foundation on basic qualifications that I hope very much that we will be able to move this issue forward through a process of discussion.”
The Bill is going to be debated again in January, and we’ll looking to get the wording of the Bill changed to something that gives full access for deaf students in exams. Hopefully, it will be our first campaign victory of 2010.
This is going to be my last blog before Christmas – so seasons greetings to everyone and thanks for reading and commenting!