For university students and their families, graduation day is always special. But for Robbie and his parents it was a day they were told would never come.
Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was six, over the years Robbie was told he would not cope with mainstream primary, or secondary, and should not even think about applying to university, due to his additional support needs.
Now 22-years-old he has proved the naysayers wrong and exceeded all academic expectations. After fighting for 17 years to get the support he needed to stay in mainstream education and sit exams – Robbie has been awarded a 2/1 in Philosophy from Glasgow University.
Autism is a neurological and developmental disability which can affect how people communicate and interact with the world. It is estimated one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum – the severity of which can vary dramatically.
Yet like many children and young people, Robbie found his ASD was misunderstood and unsupported at school leading to behaviour that saw him restrained, placed in seclusion, and repeatedly excluded.
The traumatic behaviour management techniques still affect those with additional support needs (ASN) disproportionately – 70 percent of those excluded from Scottish schools in 2020/21 had ASN. In 2018, a report by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland found restraint was happening inappropriately in schools, and too often to disabled children.
The treatment left Robbie feeling like an outsider and had a devastating impact on both his education and mental well-being. But his mother – Debbie Best – was determined that her academically able son should have the same opportunities as his peers, despite his disability.
Though Robbie has achieved his academic ambitions, he has been left feeling “numb” by the struggles to get here.
To his mother, it’s a bittersweet victory. “He would not have had the same choices should I not have fought for them,” she says. “There is a sense that we should just be grateful but it feels sad that Robbie can’t feel pride or joy. He deserved the same as his peers.”
He and his family are speaking out because they want to stop other young people suffering the same experience. They are calling for educational reform and better awareness to help every young person with a disability to meet their “limitless potential”.
That reform, they claim, must include closer partnership working with families to make sure school is accessible for children whose disabilities mean they learn differently.
“We need a more flexible approach,” said Best. “That could include virtual or hybrid schooling for school refusers, more adaptable timetabling to reduce demands placed on those who are easily overwhelmed, or reduced hours or quiet spaces for pupils who need more time out.”
Despite changes, including Scotland’s incorporation of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child last year, which should offer children with ASN protection, the pandemic has made the situation worse than ever campaigners claim.
And though they acknowledge the lack of resourcing and large classes make things far from easy, they are calling for local authorities to meet their statutory obligations to put in place “reasonable adjustments” to support the learning of all children.
Best was first alerted to her son’s additional needs when he was at nursery, with staff resorting to restraining her five-year-old in a high chair because they could not cope.
Like many children and young people with autism he frequently became overwhelmed and overstimulated by situations outwith his control in the classroom. “That’s when the fight or flight response kicks in,” explained Best.
Teachers tried to physically prevent Robbie leaving the room when he felt he needed to escape, so he would sometimes lash out unintentionally in the process. Staff suggested an autism assessment but diagnosis at the end of P1 didn’t get him the right support.
Best received a call after her then six-year-old had became distressed and disruptive in class. By the time she was allowed to pick him he was being “restrained like an animal on the floor by the headteacher in front of all of the children, with another standing with a clipboard taking notes,” she said. “I will never forget that sight.”
Robbie was excluded and assessed at a special unit with the expectation that he would no longer attend mainstream school, despite a Scottish policy which gives all children and young people with additional support the right to learn in mainstream schools if they want.
“I suddenly realised this was sink or swim,” said Best, who found her feet at this point and started advocating for her son. Working with psychologists and the local authority she secured a place at mainstream Meadowburn Primary in Bishopbriggs where, she says, he was far better supported by the “nurturing” headteacher and staff.
But she was persuaded her son would not cope with mainstream secondary.
Lost potential: calls for ‘root and branch’ reform
By Karin Goodwin
Young people with additional support needs – including those on the autism spectrum – are being held back because they are unable to access the same educational opportunities as their peers, Scotland’s children’s commissioner has warned.
With almost a third of school aged children and young people now assessed to have additional support needs (ASN) experts spoke out as The Ferret and the Sunday Post revealed the harrowing story of a young man’s fight to stay mainstream education and achieve his ambition to go to University.
Over the years Robbie — who asked to use his first name only — faced restraint, seclusion and exclusions from school. His mother, Debbie Best – co-founder of parent peer support group Differabled – claims his mental health was almost “destroyed” in the process. But this year he graduated from Glasgow University with a 2/1.Campaigners claim that despite a 2019 review of additional support for learning, which found young people needed more help to “flourish and fulfil their potential”, too many ASN children are still being failed by the Scottish education system.
Though they acknowledge challenges such as the lack of resourcing and large classes, they called for local authorities to meet their statutory obligations to put in place “reasonable adjustments” required under equality legislation.
Bruce Adamson, Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, said: “Schools and local authorities are under an obligation to assess and meet a child’s needs and include the child’s views about what they need in order to develop to their fullest potential.
“However, too many local authorities are not complying with their legal duties.“We are deeply concerned that the pandemic has negatively impacted many children with disabilities or other additional support needs. The human rights of disabled children must be prioritised as quickly as possible.”
Jan Savage, director of learning disability charity Enable Scotland, agreed Robbie’s school experience was still “all too common”.
“There needs to be root and branch reform,” she said. “Fundamentally we need more resources in schools. We need more classroom assistants and training in positive support strategies. “There also needs to be far greater partnership working with parents, who know what works with their child. There’s a need to approach aspiration without limits.”
Wendy Clark, who set-up Differabled with Best in 2014, said too many families are forced out of the education system altogether.
“It is an extremely sad situation for any family to be placed in but we hear from those in that situation on a daily basis,” she said.
Yet she claimed it was essential not to pit parents against teachers but instead focus on system change and learn from schools who were already adopting a more inclusive approach.
“There are some wonderful schools who are providing the best that they can,” she said. “Quite often these schools are not leading the league tables but they have understanding, empathy, nurture and choices for an alternative individualised approach to what our children can manage are there.”
He given a place at Bishopbriggs Academy – but not, as he wanted, as part of the mainstream school. Instead he was placed in the Language and Communication Resource (LCR), which offers specialist education for young people with additional needs.
The school is regularly in the top ten in Scotland-wide league tables and last year was awarded Scottish State Secondary School of the Decade by the Sunday Times.
But Robbie’s experience there was far removed from such glowing reports.
“It was a total isolation from everyone else,” he said of the LCR. “I got treated horribly. When I was crying or in states I got locked in rooms. It made me feel abandoned, completely misunderstood.”
His experience of the school, he says, is like that of being a “round peg being pushed through a square hole”. “Eventually it goes through, but there’s damage done.”
Best recalls the “discriminatory” behaviour contract he was forced to sign, but was impossible to stick to because the right support for his disability was not on offer. There were de-merit marks for “behaviour issues that Best says were her son’s way of communicating distress and exclusions.
Robbie’s mental health deteriorated and support from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), who were working with him claimed school was “extremely detrimental to Robbie’s emotional and physical health”.
One day she received a call asking for him to be collected after he had threatened to jump from a balcony. In one class he overturned a desk, accidentally hitting the teacher on the leg. She pressed charges and on the first day of third year police arrived at the 13-year-old’s door.
“I cried, his dad cried,” said Best. “It was one of the most horrific days of my life.”
The relationship with the school broke down – Robbie stopped attending for several months and his family consulted a lawyer and went to a tribunal where the school admitted “policy failures”.
Under pressure they agreed to staff training and Robbie’s new head of year started to work with the family, developing a new plan that allowed Robbie to leave the classroom unhindered to calm down when he felt overwhelmed.
The partnership approach started to work. Though Robbie’s anxiety was “off the scale” during National 5s he achieved them, and with the help of a scribe got good results.
He wanted to study Highers. “But he was told he would never be able to make the progression to University due to the level of support he needed at school,” explained Best.
Robbie remembers it with resignation. “In every institution I was in I was always told the next stage would be too much – nursery, primary school, high school. You start to believe in a way.”
His prelims went well and he got mostly As and Bs. But Higher exams brought severe anxiety. During the English paper he broke down. He remains hazy on the details, but a few weeks later was diagnosed with epilepsy. His mother believes he had a fit brought on by stress.
He needed the English grade if he were to meet the requirements for conditional offers at Glasgow and Stirling University’s – his predicted grade had been an A.
“But I got called into the office a week or so later and they told me they had lost my prelim for English,’ he said. “It was utterly devastating.”
The grade was a fail. University offers fell through. The school refused to appeal. “I felt like a totally lost person,” said Robbie. “I don’t think I took anything in for about a month and a half. I was so invested in something mentally and for it to fall apart like that felt unfathomable. It took a long time to get my bearings back.”
His mother finds it hard to accept the school’s lack of support at this time. “I can’t understand why such a high performing school would accept a pupil on target for a grade A in higher English to be issued with a fail,” she said. “It makes no sense.”
She didn’t give up, involving local politicians, council and Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) representatives. Eventually evidence was found, he was awarded a B and admitted to Glasgow University, where he got through challenges with the help of its additional needs team.
“But my son’s physical health and mental health, and his self confidence, was destroyed,” Best said of his school experience. “It destroyed so much in our family. Robbie was robbed of his childhood.
“Education needs to be totally reformed. If schools are judged by league tables it’s leaving some of our young people behind. If even one young person has a less traumatic experience as a result of us speaking out then it’s worth it.”
Ann Davie, depute chief executive of East Dunbartonshire Council, said she could not comment on individual cases but said the council’s education service “takes all concerns and complaints seriously and works with families to resolve any issues as they arise”.
She added: “We are very proud of our reputation as one of the best education authorities in Scotland. Supporting all young people through their school journey to achieve their full potential is at the very heart of what we do.”
Cover Photo: Angela Catlin
This story was published in partnership with the Sunday Post.