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Education system ‘not working’ for autistic children

The education system in England is “simply not working for autistic children,” the National Autistic Society has warned.

Parents are facing years-long battles to get support for their autistic children and the government needs to address this it its upcoming review of the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system, due in the Spring.

Caroline Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, said: “The education system simply isn’t working for autistic children and their families, and things have been made even harder by coronavirus. 

“Families told us they had to spend months, even years, without the right support, often because there’s no school to meet their needs. And two in five of those who were refused an assessment of their child's needs said they took legal action. I know from my experience with my own autistic son how gruelling this can be, especially on top of the often-unbearable pressures families already face.”

There are over 160,000 children with autism in schools in England and more than 70% are in mainstream school. The rest are either in in specialist education, home educated or out of education altogether.

The NAS report, based on surveys of over 4,000 parents, carers, autistic children and young people carried out in the summer, revealed:

  • A quarter of parents waited over three years to receive support for their child
  • Three quarters said their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs – this has almost doubled since 2017
  • Only one in four parents are satisfied with the special educational needs support their child is receiving
  • Less than half of autistic children are happy in school
  • More than 40% feel their child’s special educational needs are not being met in general
  • Seven in 10 autistic children and young people said school would be better if more teachers understood autism.

Three quarters of the parents said that their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs. Fifty seven per cent of parents had to wait more than a year for support while 26% had to wait three years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the learning and mental health of autistic children. More than 40% said their child had fallen behind with school work while 59% said their child was even more socially isolated than before.

Too many families are driven to expensive and stressful legal action to seek support for their child, sometimes having to wait months or years for anything to happen. Government figures show that 47% of appeals to the SEND tribunal were for an autistic child and of those heard, 95% are resolved in favour of the parents. The NSAS survey reinforces this picture as it showed that two in five parents who were refused an Education Health and Care assessment said they’d appealed to the SEND Tribunal, with the local authority conceding before the hearing in most cases.

Without support, many autistic children are struggling or shut out of education altogether.  Government figures show that autistic children are twice as likely to be excluded from school either for a fixed period or permanently as pupils with no special educational needs. Exclusions can have a devastating, lifelong impact on an autistic child and should only ever happen as a last resort. 

One in five parents responding to our survey said that their child had been informally excluded at least once in the past two years. Informal exclusions include children being sent home and asked not to come in, but the NAS warns that they are illegal and should not be happening.

 The National Autistic Society is calling for the government to intervene with its upcoming SEND Review and create a system that works for autistic children and young people. Without government action, autistic children will continue to fall behind, with some even being kicked out of school or forced into home-schooling.

The NAS is calling on Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, to use the SEND review as an opportunity to fix the system once and for all.

Caroline Stevens concluded: “We won’t accept a world where so many autistic children are falling behind and so many families are being left exhausted and on the edge of crisis. The Government’s upcoming SEND review is an opportunity to change things, to live up to the promise of the 2014 reforms which were never implemented properly. The system is broken, the government must act.” 

The National Autistic Society petition

School Report 2021

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