Thursday, 13 February 2014

Ambitious about autism? It's time law-breaking was #ruledout

The Educational Rights Alliance welcomes the launch this week of Ambitious about Autism’s #ruledout campaign. Their report shines a much needed spotlight on the unacceptable problem of ‘informal’ and formal exclusions for children with autism. This term is taken to include the failure to educate children who are so-called ‘school refusers’.

The facts in the report are alarming:

  • 4 in 10 children with autism have been excluded informally and therefore illegally during their time at school.
  • 20% of children with autism have been formally excluded in the past 12 months.
  • Over half of parents of children with autism say they have kept their child out of school for fear that the school is unable to provide appropriate support.  

It is hugely commendable that Ambitious About Autism has chosen to tackle this problem and that it has given a voice to some of the parents and children/young people affected.

The failure to educate pupils appropriately and in accordance with the law causes substantial damage to children and their families – emotionally and financially. The problem extends beyond autism to children with other disabilities and it is not new (indeed it has been highlighted before) so why has nothing been done to stop this law-breaking?

Tough on exclusion, tough on the causes of exclusion

In 2011, the Local Government Ombudsman issued very clear guidance on Local Authorities’ duties to educate children who are ‘out of school’ in its report ‘Out of school, out of mind’.

Last November, Ofsted issued a report confirming that too many children (it suggested 10,000), often the most vulnerable, are either missing out on full-time education or not getting the part-time education they are entitled to.

In addition to the obligations of the Education Act 1996 and the Equality Act 2010, the Government has also issued statutory guidance (guidance which must, legally, be followed unless there is a good reason to depart from it) on: exclusion, educating children who are out of school because of health needs, and alternative provision.

Yet despite the law, the guidance and the reports from oversight bodies, this problem still remains.
We believe any campaign must start by looking at the reasons for the problem. The common threads which run through all these reports are that local authorities and schools do not have the necessary expertise to educate children with disabilities (including autism), and they break the law.  

Ambitious About Autism’s recommendations are as follows:

  • Every family of a child with autism knows their rights, and has the resources to help their child get the support they are entitled to at school
  • Every school has access to an autism specialist teacher, to build capacity among schools staff and to support children with autism to learn and achieve
  • Every local authority sets out in its local offer the support available in its area to ensure children with autism have access to quality full-time education.

We applaud the campaign but we think its demands should go much further. If the campaign is to focus solely on children with autism rather than work more inclusively across disability groups, we would like Ambitious About Autism to explore why children with autism are excluded. Why do schools not have enough expertise? What prevents them from accessing the support they need? Why do they not have enough expertise to manage challenging behaviour? Is that due to the types of approach used? Are approaches evidence-based? We also believe that parents and children and young people should be at the heart of the campaign.

Increasing Autism Expertise in Schools

The campaign is focused exclusively on children with autism so it requests access to 'specialist' autism teachers.

However, the Autism Education Trust (Outcomes, 2011) called for an autism expert teacher to be employed in every mainstream school. Ambitious About Autism is calling for schools to have access to specialist teachers. Why does the report call for less? We believe most schools already have access to specialist ASC services through LA ‘outreach’ programmes. Whether they access this support, and whether it is effective, is unclear.

Local Offer

The Children and Families Bill will oblige LAs to set out their services in their Local Offer. We are not sure what this adds. The Local Offer does not guarantee access to services for any child and it is something of a postcode lottery (national standards having been rejected by the Government). Further, there is no guarantee that a LA’s Local Offer will set out a comprehensive list of all services available, e.g. will it include independent or private providers, or providers who are geographically close but outside the local authority?

#Ruling out law-breaking

But we are most concerned that the key pledge, to inform parents of their rights, and to have the resources to help their child get appropriate support will only result, at best, in law-enforcement being left to parents. Parents and children need to be made aware of their rights but they must not continually be forced into a ‘policing’ role. Ambitious About Autism do not seem to be asking for any new resources to be made available to parents to change this situation.

The ERA asks Ambitious About Autism and those supporting its campaign to go further and ask for real and lasting change. This should include:

1.    Law-breaking must stop. The Government must ask that LA's and schools demonstrate that they follow the law in relation to their treatment of all children with SEN and disabilities. There should be sanctions for non-compliance.

2.     Alongside this, we need better enforcement of the law: we already have enough rules and laws. We don't need more, we just need them enforced. We need better oversight and accountability mechanisms. It cannot be left to parents to police. The campaign should make direct contact with Ofsted and ask them how they intend to police the law in this area. We believe Ofsted should oversee LA SEN teams. 

3.      The role of the Local Government Ombudsman in investigating complaints against local authorities should be highlighted. This is currently missing from the report’s companion “A Parent’s Guide.” 

4.      We should ask the Government to consider giving back to the Local Government Ombudsman jurisdiction to look at complaints about schools by parents. This jurisdiction should be extended on a national basis following the recent trial. Currently the only avenue of complaint is through a school’s governors and Secretary of State for Education.

5.     The LGO should update its guidance on all children out of school and bring it up to date with reference to the Equality Act 2010.

6.      We should improve democratic accountability. Let’s request that MPs and councillors ask questions of their LAs about the number of children out of school in their own area (this is not just a problem for children with autism but who have complex SEN).You can contact your MP directly via this link to make this demand.

7.      We should also ask the directors of all children's services to publicly commit to publishing details of how they will reduce the numbers of children missing out of education. This could be an objective of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) under the Equality Act. They should also be asked to demonstrate how their staff have been trained on the law.

8.      Finally, we must campaign to ensure children's voices are truly respected in accordance with Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child

Above all, we need to say loud and clear: depriving any child of their education is unacceptable and the law-breaking must be #ruledout now.

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