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(UK) England failing autistic students; 25% "persistently absent"

Mar 5, 2024, Guardian: Autistic pupils in England denied right to education as absenteeism surges, says charity

Autistic pupils are being denied their basic right to education, a leading charity has warned, as figures reveal the number persistently off school has increased by 166% in four years.
 The research shows that more than a quarter of autistic children in England – 51,000 out of about 200,000 children – are persistently absent, meaning they have missed 10% or more of the school term.

 And of the nearly 20,000 autistic children persistently absent from state secondary schools, four out of five experienced mental health issues, according to government data analysed by Ambitious about Autism.


“These numbers prove that England has a broken educational system,” said Jolanta Lasota, the charity’s chief executive. “These children are being forced into absenteeism, which is the start of exclusion. It’s not a choice they’re making: they want to be in school but are being forced to stay away because their mental health needs are not being met.”


Based on their own research, the most recent government figures and academic research, the charity has also found that:


• More than one-third of autistic children have been out of education when they would have liked to have been at school, with some children out of school for years.


• Autistic pupils are more than twice as likely to be excluded from school than their peers.


• One in four autistic children wait more than three years to receive the support they need at school. Almost 60% wait more than a year.


• In 74% of cases, parents said their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs: more than half of autistic pupils do not have a quiet place to go to at school or someone to turn to if they need support.


Persistent absenteeism among autistic pupils leads to them missing key educational milestones, which damages their life chances: only 29% of autistic adults are in employment and about 80% have mental health issues.


Lasota said the perception that children were being excluded because they were violent or aggressive was wrong. “Many are excluded from school simply because they can’t conform to the high behaviour expectations of schools who don’t have sufficient funding or staff to provide autistic children with the policy adjustments required from them by law,” she added.


Many pupils, the research found, are forced to stay out of school while their families battle local council decisions on school placements or support entitlement. This is often driven by the perilous state of councils’ finances: many face bankruptcy, with others signed up to complicated agreements with the Department for Education to reduce their spending on special educational needs and disabilities (Send), which is spent largely on autistic children.


The struggle for families of autistic children to get support – to which they have a legal right – is revealed in data from the independent Send Tribunal. The tribunal oversees disputes about Send decisions between local authorities and families, with autism continuing to be the most common type of need identified in appeals and accounting for 45% (6,200) of all appeals.


The latest data shows that last year, 13,658 families appealed against local authority decisions about Send, a 25% increase on the previous year and the highest number ever recorded. Only 1.7% of the appeals heard upheld the decision of the local authority.


Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the charity Autism Centre of Excellence, is so concerned that he plans to conduct research into the educational experiences of autistic children and young people.


“There is strong existing evidence that autistic children are commonly failed by the education system,” he said. “The fact that autistic children and young people commonly underachieve in school is an area of extreme concern.”


A significant reason why more autistic pupils are struggling or going absent is funding, which in real terms is significantly less than it was 10 to 15 years ago. For this reason, schools have been getting rid of teaching assistants (TAs), many of whom make life bearable for autistic students. Even when they do have the budget for TAs, however, schools can find it hard to recruit them because of poor pay.


Funding to councils for high-needs provision has increased by more than 60% since 2019 to 2020. But at the same time, the number of autistic children in school has doubled. . . .


“Our research shows that in sharp contrast to the 87% of teachers who feel confident supporting autistic pupils, 70% of those autistic pupils say teachers don’t understand enough about their condition. Almost 55% say that having teachers who don’t understand them is the worst thing about school,” said Mel Merritt, the head of policy and campaigns at the National Autistic Society, which is calling for systemic change in education in England. . . .


A Department for Education spokesperson said the government was aware that “pupils with Send need more specific considerations, which is why we are making changes to our attendance guidance so all services must work together to ensure tailored support.


“More widely, we will have boosted our high-needs budget by 60% to £10.5bn [$13.4B] next year compared with 2019-20,” they added. “We are reforming the system for pupils with Send and in alternative provision to ensure earlier intervention and consistent high standards.”


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