Inclusive teaching and learning in higher education

Once a young adult turns 18 they are no longer legally required to participate in education.  However, the Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) can now provide support to young adults until they are 25 years old provided their learning outcomes have not been met. This has encouraged many young adults with special educational needs (SEN) to continue into further education at local colleges or remain at residential placements for longer. 

The EHCP does not support young adults who decide to attend higher education (HE) courses, such as university degrees. This can be a real barrier to those who have received SEN support throughout their education but have the ability and desire to continue their education to university. A study by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2009 showed that disabled people are considerably less likely to be in higher education by the age of 19 than other people without disabilities[1].

On 27 January 2017, the Department for Education published a new report looking at inclusive teaching and offers further guidance to help universities, colleges and independent higher education providers (HEPs) support their students. The aim of the report is to demonstrate examples of good practice and the risks of avoiding inclusive teaching practices in order to encourage more able students to have the confidence to attend university.

Complying with statutory regulations

The report stresses the importance of understanding the obligations for HEPs under the Equality Act 2010 (Act).  The report found that the duty to make reasonable adjustments is far broader than many HEPs realised. It clarified that HEPs must consider the letter of the law when deciding whether to facilitate reasonable adjustments and not to rely on personal interpretation of what is “reasonable” or not.

The reasonable adjustment duty is defined in section 20 of the Act as taking reasonable steps to:

  1. Avoid putting a student with a disability at a substantial disadvantage compared to others without a disability
  2. Ensure people with disabilities are not disadvantaged by a physical feature. A reasonable adjustment could involve removing or altering a physical feature and
  3. Provide auxiliary aids to avoid putting a person with a disability at a disadvantage

The HEP must ensure that the reasonable adjustments are anticipatory as well as being in response to individuals’ needs. The onus is always on the HEP to justify its approach to reasonable adjustments, rather than the individual justifying the need. The report argues that most inclusiveness practices will meet the duty to provide anticipatory duties.

In addition to the Equality Act 2010, there is also the Teaching Excellence Framework (Framework) and the Equality Act 2010 Technical Guidance on Further and Higher Education (Technical Guidance).  The Framework aims to enhance the quality of teaching and learning by ensuring all barriers to education are removed.  The Technical Guidance sets out the role of the Board of Governors as the responsible body for ensuring compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and sets out in detail what the Equality Act expects of HEPs.

Inclusive teaching 

Inclusive teaching is important to all stages of education and should be considered by all schools, colleges and HEPs. Inclusive teaching should be incorporated when considering new teaching methods and building the curriculum and assessments so that all aspects of teaching are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all.

The Act and best practice dictates that schools and HEPs must be proactive, not reactive, to the needs of individuals with SEN or disabilities. This means putting procedures in place that will reduce any disadvantage a child or young adult with SEN or a disability will face in education.

Short term, practical changes that HEPs can implement:

  1. Housing all teaching materials on the virtual learning environment
  2. Ensure reading lists are focused and up to date
  3. Allow or facilitate the recording of teaching
  4. Use of plain English in lecture slides
  5. Regarding students as learning partners and
  6. Embedding inclusive practice in recruitment, promotion, performance development review and other staff focused projects

It is also important to remember that schools and HEPs must provide reasonable adjustments to meet individual’s needs. At school these needs are identified in their EHCP and schools should implement changes to the child’s curriculum or environment to help the child meet their objectives. At HE there are no EHCPs, so the HEPs must be aware of the needs of their students and have policies in place that allow students with disabilities to meet their potential.


[1] Disabled Students and Higher Education; Higher Educational Analysis. Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills; DIUS research report May 2009

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