Back in November, I warned that disability legislation could soon be used to force progressive teaching practices on teachers and schools. This now seems even more likely. Recently, a UK parliamentary committee aired this argument. Apparently, zero-tolerance behaviour policies used by a number of UK schools, and criticised heavily by progressive educators on social media, could be ‘unlawful’.
Today in The Conversation, there is a related article suggesting that New South Wales may be on the verge of changing its approach to educating students with a disability. Much of this is to be commended and we certainly need to end any abuse of disabled students. But note the call for a change in attitudes on the part of teachers.
I predict we will see more of this argument, and parents and politicians need to be aware that all may not be what it seems. The definition of disability has become elastic, and by signing-up to seemingly apple-pie statements, politicians could hamstring schools and teachers.
For instance, disability legislation in the UK and Australia requires us to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities. Nobody would argue against that. If we can install a lift so that a disabled student can reach the science labs then we should. The law in Australia actually goes into some depth about what a reasonable adjustment might look like. For instance, it requires us to consider, “the effect of the proposed adjustment on anyone else affected, including the education provider, staff and other students.”
But this is not necessarily what people mean by a disability or a reasonable adjustment. For instance, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is listed in version five of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and many campaigners consider it to be a disability. When progressive educators invoke disability law, they invariably do so in order to suggest that we make reasonable adjustments for these kinds of disabilities. What are these adjustments supposed to look like? Well, given that the disruptive behaviour of these children is the result of a disability, we should not penalise them for it and should, instead, accommodate it. The effects this would have on staff and other students are ignored.
In one sweep, campaigners seek to make strong behaviour policies unlawful and coerce schools into adopting a more permissive approach.
In fairness, proponents of coercing schools into a more permissive approach have the best of intentions. If only our poorly trained teachers would listen to what the students are trying to communicate to them through their behaviour, they think, teachers would then meet their students’ needs and these behaviours would disappear. But this seems very unlikely given the multiple causes of challenging behaviour. In general, children don’t misbehave in order to inform their teacher that they would prefer a card-sort activity over using the mini-whiteboards. It’s more complicated than that. Even if a child does misbehave as a direct result of the task he or she is asked to complete, there are other factors to weigh. For instance, the task is likely to be more educationally valuable than the one preferred by the child.
The danger for policymakers is that they may think they are signing-up to a policy on disability, only to realise too late that the definition of disability is not what they had imagined. This bait-and-switch is performed at a number of different levels. Nobody, for instance, would condone abusing a disabled child. And yet, what if we start to think of any kind of sanction as abuse? That’s effectively what we have seen in the hyperbolic bouts of school shaming that have periodically erupted on Twitter. People have sought out schools with strong behaviour policies and accused them of abuse.
And at present, the philosophy of progressive educators is not reflected in our criminal justice system. If you are convicted of a criminal act, you will be punished under the law, regardless of whether you have ODD, a conduct disorder or ADHD. Schools are not helping students by making accommodations for them that society at large is not prepared to make.