This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, an initiative started by Siena Castellon to change experiences for neurodiverse students. I have previously written about celebrating neurodiversity and regularly advocate for greater inclusion in the workplace, however recently I have spent a lot of time reflecting on neurodiversity inclusion within educational settings.
Employment and educational outcomes
The Office for National Statistics recently released a report on outcomes for disabled people across all areas of life. The statistics showed that people with disabilities are less likely to be employed (52.1% vs. 81,3%) and autistic people are least likely to be employed (22%). The report also highlighted that these inequalities start with education - people with disabilities are two and a half times more likely to have no qualifications (15.1% vs. 5.4%).
The differences in attainment are significant, even where people are only "limited a little" by their impairments. In 2017 the statistics showed that the GCSE attainment level for students with SEN was 22.4 percentage points lower than students without SEN.
To me this highlights the impact of the SEND crises, and the failing of children with special educational needs and disabilities.
12% of students receive SEN support, and 3% have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). The majority of students with an EHCP having autism recorded as a primary need.
Six years ago, almost to the date, I learnt about what an EHCP is for the first time. My son was five years old, and at threat of being excluded from the school he had joined just five months earlier. A month after he had been diagnosed as autistic the school SENCO announced in a meeting that they "chose not to get involved with autism at it was too complex". They were not prepared to support him and pushed back on many of the requested adjustments which we knew would have made a big difference in the classroom. Our key request was that teachers and key workers received autism education training.
We didn't know what was involved or what to expect. We just knew that our son's educational future was at stake, and we needed an EHCP to ensure that he would be able to get the support he needed. It was also needed for him to access an education. We quickly found ourselves in the midst of assessments from numerous professionals, a flurry of reports, and a growing knowledge of the Equality Act and SEND Code of Practice. At first we were refused an assessment, however faced with the evidence of multiple professional reports we managed to get an agreement to assess without the need for a tribunal. By the time we were granted an EHCP, I was emotionally spent and my son had been asked to leave his school.
It took another failed school placement, an emergency EHCP review and 8 months before my son found the support that he needed in a special school. I worried about the Ofsted report that noted that the schools expectations of more academically able were not enough, and i worried that taking him out of mainstream schools would limit his options later on in life. Eventually I realised whist it wasn't ideal, some school was better than no school and that was the only option that we had available to us. We are luckier than many parents, as the school provided an environment where my son was understood and supported however his academic progress is below expectations based on his potential. Many children don't even get this, as they struggle in classroom environments where they struggle to fit it. This has a devastating effect on their academic achievements and their self-esteem. Some struggle to such an extent that they end up without a school, struggling with the mental health impact of being in an unsuitable setting.
Six years later we find ourselves in the same situation as my son is due to transfer to secondary school in September, and my fear of having limited his options has become a reality. My search for schools left me asking myself whether there was any option that would allow my son to fulfil his academic placement without risking his mental health as a result in an unsuitable schooling environment.
What I was wasn't ready for was how few schools in our area are setup to support children with SEN needs and provide the ability to study GCSEs. After spending so many years in a special school, the jump to a mainstream school would be too big a change for my son at this stage and most special schools only offer limited GCSEs with additional vocational skills training. So far we have consulted more than 14 schools directly and eliminated many more from web-based searches, and the majority of schools ruled themselves out either because they couldn't support my son's needs or they were restricted in the academic options that they are able to provide.
Our battle to find a school means that we have had to increase the areas that we are considering, and have found some options which are more than an hours drive away which means that we would need to consider the option of a residential placement. This brings with it the challenge of getting agreement from the local authority due to the additional costs that this will entail. It would seem that there are no easy answers, especially when everyone around us is acknowledging that unfortunately children like my son are falling between the gaps due to a lack of suitable placements.
What hope do young people with SEN needs have when they are forced out of mainstream due to a lack of support, and then have no where else to go because of a lack of suitable placements?
Neurodiversity and SEN inclusion in schools
With all of the struggles that we are currently facing in trying to find a suitable placement for my son, I often find myself wondering how things might have turned out if things had been different when he first started school.
What if the teachers had received autism training as part of their wider teacher training? What if the school had options in place to support autistic students and strategies for helping to address student anxiety? What if the SENCO and school had worked with us when we first started to suspect that my son might be autistic? What if they had tried giving him ear defenders when the noise of the classroom became too much instead of pushing him to his limits, and only reacting when he was howling on the floor when everything got too much for him.
What would have happened if they had tried to understand the cause of the behaviours they were seeing, instead of labelling him as wilfully trying to cause as much disruption as possible.
What if all schools embraced neurodiversity and were provided the training and resources to support children with SEN needs in the classroom. Without needing to pit parents against schools and local authorities, or removing them from mainstream school because of a lack of resources to provide the necessary support.
I realise that this is a BIG WHAT IF, however we will always struggle to close the attainment gap in education, work and life if things stay as they are.