Too often when I talk to families or young autistic people, they tell me about the struggles they face to get the right support, about being misunderstood by their teachers and how the education system doesn’t meet their needs.
As I write this today, I know there are thousands of parents across the country, battling to get their autistic child the education appropriate to their needs. At the National Autistic Society, we know that parents are frustrated that currently 50% of teachers say they don’t have the correct understanding of autism. We know that there isn’t enough provision locally for parents to make a good choice for their autistic child. We know the impact this has on families, the stresses it puts on siblings and marriages, and we know that this is because the education system is currently not fit for purpose.
Yesterday, I attended a reception in Parliament to personally hand in a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds MP, urging the Government to take action to make sure the 120,000 school-aged children on the autism spectrum in England are no longer held back.
This letter, which had over 20,000 signatures behind it, was in response to an autism and education report which was launched in November 2017 by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism (APPGA) alongside the National Autistic Society.
The APPGA report was published following an inquiry, which included a survey of over 3,000 parents, carers, young people and teachers, as well as expert witness evidence sessions in Parliament. The findings, which came three years after the Government introduced a new special educational needs and disability (SEND) system in England, showed that the education system was still failing to meet the needs of autistic children and young people. This is why we launched our #HeldBack campaign, in partnership with Ambitious About Autism, to make sure no child is held back because they are autistic.
I was pleased to see nearly 60 MPs and peers attend the reception and show their support by signing our open letter before it was handed in to the Secretary of State. Attendees were able to hear first-hand accounts from two of our young ambassadors, Lauren and Sam, who had given evidence in Parliament and shared their own experience of the education system. After Damian Hinds heard about the challenges they’d faced during their school years, he promised to build a better education system that works for all children, including those on the spectrum.
I hope the Secretary of State for Education acknowledges the importance of this letter and understands that amongst those 20,000 signatures are parents, children, teachers and MPs who passionately believe autistic children deserve an education, just like everyone else.
Dear Secretary of State,
The education system in England is letting down children and young people on the autism spectrum. Too many children are not getting the support they need to succeed at school, and are held back from achieving their potential because they’re autistic.
Autism is one of the most common types of special educational need, affecting children in every school in the country. More than 1 in 100 children are on the autism spectrum, with 70 per cent educated in mainstream schools. While autism can present some serious difficulties, we know that a child who is understood and supported appropriately can make excellent progress.
The Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice make clear that children with special educational needs such as autism should have their needs identified early and support put in place quickly.
But many parents have to fight to get the support their child is entitled to. 50 per cent of children on the autism spectrum have to wait more than a year for the help they need at school. 42 per cent of children are refused an assessment by their local authority of their education, health and care needs the first time this is requested. 40 per cent of parents say their child’s school place does not fully meet their needs.
The consequence of this is that children too often have to fail at school before support is provided. This has a negative impact on their educational outcomes, their self-esteem and their long-term prospects.
In their recent inquiry into how well the education system works for children on the autism spectrum, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism concluded that a national autism and education strategy is needed. This would make sure that local authorities plan and commission the services and support that are needed in every area. It would also help schools to develop a better understanding of the needs of autistic pupils and make the necessary adjustments to meet those needs.
Every child has only one childhood. There is one opportunity to get it right for them. We urge you to put in place a national autism and education strategy without delay so that every child has the opportunity to thrive, and no child is held back.
Mark Lever, Chief Executive, The National Autistic Society
Jolanta Lasota, Chief Executive, Ambitious About Autism
And over 20,000 signatures from supporters across the country