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How can the Government improve educational opportunities for those with ASD? Robert Buckland MP outlines the recommendations of an important new report

As a parent of a child with autism, I have experienced firsthand the challenges that often face families of children and young people with this lifelong condition. For far too many families, securing the right support at school can be a very difficult task, and for some families it becomes an all-consuming battle. This is not right and on entering Parliament, I resolved to do everything within my power to address this sad situation.  

I am delighted that the Coalition Government has taken on the challenge of reforming the SEN system so that more children and young people with conditions such as autism have access to the education they need in order to prepare them for a full and independent life. As the Children and Families Bill goes through Parliament I think that it is important for MPs across the House to remember that this is not about politics but about giving young people with autism the help and support that they deserve. I will be hugely disappointed if such important reforms become a sideshow to political wrangling.

I know that parents, teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff work tirelessly with children and young people with autism and SEN at home and in the classroom. However, there are too many instances where parents are left feeling that their child’s needs are not being met, and far too many instances where teachers are left without the necessary specialist training or resources.

Ensuring that children and young people with autism thrive at school is no easy task, but it is one that we must tackle. Only one in four young people with autism accesses any form of education or training after they finish school1. Just 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time employment2 and 26 per cent of all graduates with autism are unemployed, the highest rate among any disability group3. A transformation of the SEN system is vital if we are to ensure that people with autism have the same life opportunities as everyone else, namely the ability to contribute to society, to enter the workplace and to realise their aspirations. We cannot afford to shirk the challenge.

I am very excited about the recently launched report, The Right Start: Reforming the System for Children with Autism, which has been produced following an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA), of which I am the Chair. As part of our inquiry, we carried out a public survey, gathering 957 responses from parents, carers, teachers and autism professionals. The APPGA also took verbal evidence from a range of young people with autism, teachers, parents and ministers to compile a comprehensive report. I think that the report contains some important recommendations about how to improve the provision of education for young people with autism and how best to focus support.

The report makes five key recommendations for a new system in which everyone with autism is supported to gain the skills they need to realise their aspirations and live full and independent adult lives. I will expand a little on each recommendation and how the Government can help improve the provision of education for young people with autism. I hope that ministers will read the report and use it to formulate thinking and incorporate the ideas into the Children and Families Bill, which is due in early 2013.

Children with autism need specialist support to thrive at school.Training and best practice

It was clear from the evidence gathered that few people believe that teachers are given enough training to teach and support children with autism effectively, despite knowing that training is essential to understand this complex disability. The report therefore suggests that the Government should continue to fund the development of successful training programmes, and extend these to provide training to staff in post-school settings, in line with plans for a holistic SEN system covering people from birth to 25 years. Initial teacher training providers must emphasise the relevance of core teaching competencies, such as effective communication, for teaching children with autism and SEN.

Where specialist knowledge exists, it is important that it is shared, and the report calls for a system to ensure that all state-funded schools are able to draw on the expert knowledge of autism that is present in other schools within their area. As part of the local offer, local authorities also have a role to play in identifying where such specialist autism knowledge exists, and in supporting schools to share this knowledge. 

Specialist support at school

Children with autism can have a range of complex difficulties and often need specialist support in order to thrive at school. It is therefore likely that a range of professionals may be needed to help teachers properly support a child with autism. We heard that unfortunately this expertise is frequently not available. The Government must ensure that all children with autism have access to the support they need, including those without a statement or an education, health and care plan (EHCP).  

Having the correct professionals, who have the relevant training and experience of working with children with autism, is essential in making sure that the needs of these children are met. As recommended for dyslexia in the Rose review, the APPGA also calls for a lead teacher for autism in every school to focus the attention of schools and local authorities on just how much support is needed. 

Involving parents and young people

Fewer than half of the parents and children with autism who responded to the survey thought that they were involved in shaping the support the child receives at school, with 94 per cent of parents thinking that they needed to be more involved. We heard from parents who were hugely frustrated by schools that failed to communicate with parents to decide on how best to manage behaviour.  

The forthcoming reforms must encourage schools and local authorities to work more closely with parents, to share information and to ensure that a consistent approach is taken at school and at home. I warmly welcome the decision to extend the SEN system to cover people up to 25 years old, but believe that as young people grow up they must also be increasingly involved in any decisions.  The Government must send a clear message to local authorities that young people should be supported to take ownership of their EHCP as they progress into adulthood.

Transition

For too many families living with autism, the struggle for services intensifies as young people reach adulthood. We heard moving testimony about how, as statements of SEN come to an end, it feels like “falling off a cliff”. In addition to extending the system to include those up to 25 years old, I think that every young person with autism, including those without a statement or EHCP, must have an individual transition plan to address the difficulties associated with moving on from school. As EHCPs are introduced, it is important that they have statutory protections at least as strong as the current statement of SEN, for all children and young people up to the age of 25.

Along with the raising of the education participation age, the Government must provide sufficient additional funding to local authorities to create educational opportunities for young people with SEN aged 16 to 18 who are not currently in education. By joining up post-16 education funding streams more personalised programmes can be created, and with cross-departmental working at a national level, Lord Freud’s commitment to double the number of people with autism in full-time employment to 30 per cent can be realised. The Government must also ensure that many more young people with autism can access the support and opportunities they need to live independent adult lives and enter apprenticeships and employment, for those who are able. 

Accountability

A vital aspect of the reforms must be greater accountability for parents and ensuring that schools serve the needs of local young people and their families. Currently, far too many parents have to fight to access the support that their children need; our survey indicates that over a quarter of parents of children with autism had to wait more than two years to get the support their child needs at school, and that one in five parents had to go to tribunal to achieve this. New legislation must introduce an effective complaints system encompassing all state-funded schools, and it must be a priority to ensure that parents have confidence in this system.  

However, accountability procedures must not solely rely on parents to ensure schools are meeting their children’s needs. There is a role for Ofsted and school governors to play in ensuring that there is effective provision for children with SEN. The Northern Ireland Assembly has proposed introducing duties on governors to give them increased responsibility for overseeing children’s progress and I think that this is something that could be usefully looked into in England. The introduction of personal action plans, which are regularly updated and set appropriate objectives against which progress can be measured, would also help make accountability a reality for families of children with autism without statements or EHCPs.

Making change happen

I hope that The Right Start report will be a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate as to how we best transform the SEN system in England and the educational experience of children with autism in particular. The Government’s ambition for change in this area is to be applauded and I hope that true change can be brought about.  

As things stand, many parents face a constant battle, teachers and schools need more training and help in the classroom, and children and young people are missing out on the support they need.  Crucially, it is imperative that there is a spectrum of support to reflect the different needs of young people with autism and the challenges they face. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make sure that all children with autism have access to the same opportunities as their peers: to continue their education, to acquire everyday skills, and to live as independent a life as possible.

Further information

Robert Buckland is the Conservative Member of Parliament for South Swindon, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Autism (APPGA).

For further information about the APPGA report, The Right Start: Reforming the System for Children with Autism, go to:
www.appga.org.uk

Images courtesy of the National Autistic Society:
www.autism.org.uk

Footnotes

1. Ambitious About Autism Finished at School report (2011).
2. Rosenblatt, M. (2008). I Exist: the message from adults with autism in England. London, The National Autistic Society.
3. AGCAS Disability Task Group (2010; 2011). What happens next? A report on the first destinations of 2009/2010 disabled graduates. Sheffield, AGCAS.

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