Young people with autism are being failed by Scottish schools, with children and young people with additional needs unlawfully excluded from education and not offered adequate support, according to a new report.
Research published by leading autism advocates shows that more than a third (34 per cent) of parents claim their autistic child has been unlawfully excluded in the last two years. Almost a quarter (22 per cent) say this has happened multiple times a week.
‘Unlawful’ exclusion – when a school sends a child home without using the formal exclusion process – not only stigmatises and upsets children with additional support needs (ASN), it is claimed, but means they miss out on their education, making it harder for them to achieve meet their academic potential.
The research – Not Included, Not Engaged, Not Involved – by Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism includes a survey of 1,417 parents and carers of autistic children, and highlights that schools need a better understanding of how to support ASN pupils.
The survey found that 13 per cent of autistic children had been formally excluded from school in the last two years and 85 per cent had not been given adequate support to catch up on their work.
Parents told researchers their children – one as young as six – had been separated from peers and left alone all day because the school said he could not cope in the class.
Now the three charities are calling for Scottish Government to work with local education authorities and education professionals to address the barriers to autistic children accessing their education.
In an open letter to Education Minister John Swinney they have called for unlawful exclusions to stop and for more specialist teachers to be put in place.
Amy Woodhouse, head of policy at Children in Scotland, said: “Parents of autistic children in every local authority in Scotland shared the impact on their children of missing out on their education.
This is not an isolated problem as it is occurring across the country, to children of all ages, in both special and mainstream provision. Autistic children are not receiving the education they deserve and are entitled to.”
Carla Manini Rowden, education rights manager at the National Autistic Society Scotland, added: “Sending a child home without formally excluding them is against the law, yet it keeps happening to the families we support and it is having a devastating impact on the education and well-being of children.”
Earlier this week, parents and young people from volunteer-run charity Differabled said they felt “mentally broken” by an education system which put barriers in place for those with additional support needs (ASN) and disabilities, particularly older children aiming to get qualifications needed for Higher Education.
In Scotland there is a “presumption” that all children will go to mainstream schools. However under the 2010 Equality Act all local authorities have a duty to put in place “reasonable adjustments” for ASN pupils.
Parents from Differabled said they’d had to fight for support that their children were legally entitled to, such as support plans, additional time in exams and equal access to work experience.
Autistic children are not receiving the education they deserve and are entitled to. Amy Woodhouse, Children in Scotland
Though many commended supportive teachers, they claimed there was too often a systemic attitude that university would be out with the reach of those with additional needs, meaning schools discouraged applications and did not adequately support those aiming for the grades required.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition said there had been continued cuts to ASN teachers in recent years, despite a 55 percent increase in the number of Scottish children identified with ASN since 2012. Only 1.2 percent have a co-ordinated support plan in place.
“If we are to close the attainment gap for children in Scotland, that means addressing the needs of those with additional support needs (ASN), including autism,” she added. “Urgent changes need to be made on all fronts to give these children the care and support they are entitled to.”
Lynn Welsh, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s head of legal in Scotland, said she was concerned by the testimony of parents and young people, and suggested their stories were “the tip of the iceberg”.
“We know that disabled pupils are less likely to leave school with qualifications than their non-disabled peers,” she added. “We are concerned that one of the reasons why this is happening is to do with the lack of support for their leaning.”
Education lawyer Iain Nisbet, of Cairn Legal, said though the best schools made sure support was in place, he was aware of cases across Scotland where it was lacking.
“I think it’s an over simplification to say it is just resources,” he added. “There is also work to be done in terms of attitude, which the best of schools get right. Unfortunately some see the disability before seeing the potential.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential.
“The law is clear that education authorities have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments as well as identifying, providing and reviewing the additional support needs of their pupils, including those with disabilities and autism.”
When support is a fight
Debbie Best’s 18-year-old son Robbie, who has autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), started studying History and Philosophy at Glasgow University this month.
But he claims that he is “mentally broken” by a school system that forced his family had to fight for support.
Best lists off a catalogue of failures – at just six his parents had to take legal action to re-instate him into mainstream school. He was regularly, and unlawfully, excluded from both primary school and from school trips.
When he moved to secondary he wanted to remain in mainstream but staff advised he wouldn’t cope and he was placed in a Learning and Communication Room (LCR) at Bishopbriggs Academy, rated as one of Scotland’s best schools.
“We trusted their judgement but it was actually the worst thing for our son,” says Best. “He didn’t want to be treated differently because of his disability. It really impacted on him mentally.”
One day his mother received a call to say Robbie was feeling suicidal. When he returned to school, she claims management didn’t follow up with child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) or social work to see what special measures were needed.
"We trusted their judgement but it was actually the worst thing for our son." Debbie Best, mother
The family took their case to tribunal and gradually Robbie joined the mainstream classes with the support of the school’s deputy headteachers and a trusted and supportive guidance teacher.
There were still challenges. Unable to take end of year tests in Maths and English due to stress, Robbie was moved down to lower sets than his ability and struggled to cope. Best fought for one-to-one support and he started to make great progress.
Yet she claims adjustments that should have been made were not. “He had to run out of time in all of his prelims so we could evidence the need for extra time for the SQA,” she explains.
He was finally awarded extra time, but the scribe couldn’t type, which would have allowed him to read on screen. Throughout the process the severe anxiety made him ill.
“We put on Robbie’s statement for university that he had been in and out of mainstream education,” she says. “But he wanted it changed to say he was forced into special education at several points against his will. That’s how he sees his journey.”
When it goes wrong
Ronan, now 20, was just five when his need for support was recognised.
At primary, that support was largely there and by the time he was ten he had a diagnosis of autism, and later of dyspraxia and dyscalculia.
Then came secondary. He went to Boclair Academy in Bearden, East Dunbartonshire, where his mother Dania Cacace says he was bullied every day and classroom support not put in place.
Notes and recommendations from his previous assessment didn’t seem to be passed on and though a special needs teacher visited again in third year – recommending urgently that he get typed, broken down instructions to help him retain information – little changed.
There was no classroom support assistant, no scribe, no laptop.
"I tried to keep it all bottled up at school. Looking back it was quite scary." Ronan, former pupil with autism.
“My son’s handwriting is illegible,” Cacace says. “He would take these crumbled bits of paper out of his schoolbag and he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing.” In school he sat quietly and bit his nails until he bled. Back home he dealt with frustration by lashing out and having meltdowns.
“I tried to keep it all bottled up at school,” Ronan says. At night he couldn’t sleep because he was so nervous about school the next day. “Looking back it was quite scary,” he adds.
Yet he wanted to succeed. His mother pushed for him to be allowed to sit National 5s in History, English and PE and hired a tutor – at great personal expense – to get him through.
He did get extra time in exams but his sensory processing disorder – making lights, noises and smells overwhelming – made sitting them extremely stressful. Despite passing both English and History he was told he could only do his PE Higher.
She feels teachers did not support her son to meet his potential. “It’s horrific for him,” she says. “Now he’s just sitting in the house. It’s had a long lasting impact on both of us.”
When support is there
Mary-Jane McNally, now 18, was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was 12.
She went to Lourdes Secondary for one year, where her mother says she got no support and “just wandered the corridors” before moving to Notre Dame High school, Glasgow‘s only state-run all girls school, where things were better.
There were still frustrations – despite sensory issues she wasn’t allowed to wear trousers until her last term at school following a complaint to Glasgow’s head of education.
And when it came to exams all girls with additional needs were put in the National 3 English class. McNally was only moved up to National 5 – appropriate to her abilities – when her mother complained.
In exams she got extra time, a reader and a scribe. “But in my Maths Higher they kept switching the invigilators,” she says, claiming it happened “about five times” in the room where she was. “It really distracted me.”
"The college kept putting up hurdles," she says. "It was like they wanted me to fail." Mary-Jane McNally, student with Asperger’s Syndrome.
She later failed the exam, though she got an A in computer studies, and Cs in English and Human Biology and went to a Glasgow college with the intention of doing an HND in software development.
Here she claims support for students with additional needs was almost non-existent. Tutors made her feel providing a scribe was a favour, and she was told off for taking photos of the notes on the board – she struggles with handwriting and listening while taking notes.
“The college kept putting up hurdles,” she says. “It was like they wanted me to fail.”
She withdrew after the HNC and got a place on a software development degree course at Caledonian University through clearing. So far it’s been night and day.
There was a transition programme over the holidays, “in recognition of the additional anxieties and worries of autistic students”, a mentoring programme, and staff have autism training. “I have definitely felt really supported,” says McNally.
Ann Davie, of East Dunbartonshire Council, said: “We are committed to helping all our young people realise their full potential – providing appropriate support at all stages of their educational journey.
“Supporting children with additional support needs is a priority and we work closely with parents, teachers and specialist colleagues to plan and evaluate support on an individual and collective basis – using a multi-agency approach.
“Our recent strategic review committed our continued investment in providing first-class educational services and facilities for children and young people who have additional support needs.”
A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: “Glasgow has for many years committed a large number of resources to our widening access agenda helping to encourage our young people – regardless of their circumstances or additional support needs – to raise destinations to further and higher education when they leave school.”