Reopening FE: ‘We must not forget autistic learners'

As colleges prepare to reopen, the needs of autistic learners must be central to their plans, writes this principal

Viv Berkeley

Coronavirus: We cannot overlook the needs of autistic students when we reopen colleges and schools, writes Viv Berkeley

It’s well documented that autistic children and young people face many barriers in education.

Autistic pupils are disproportionately excluded from school compared with their peers and only one in four goes on to further study or training after finishing compulsory education. In addition, four in five autistic young people struggle with mental health issues, often as a result of isolation and their needs not being met. 

In these unprecedented times, autistic young people are facing even greater challenges. Of course, this crisis has disrupted education for all pupils, but we know autistic young people are at even greater risk of falling behind their peers in the fallout. 


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Autistic students thrive on certainty, routine and structure – all of which has been lost in recent months as schools and colleges have been forced to close, reduce student numbers or move learning online. Adapting to these changes has been a huge challenge for these young people and their families, and success has depended on the support structures they have available to them at home. 

As education settings begin to open their doors to more children and young people, getting back to "normal" will be an uphill battle for autistic young people. There is a need to ensure that transition plans are carefully developed in partnership with young people and their families, and flexible arrangements are put in place, if further school exclusion and refusal, and resulting mental health difficulties, are to be avoided.   

Additional support needs to be put in place to support young people to catch up, and flexible and accessible packages of support must be provided for those remaining at home, either due to shielding or school rotations. Settings and local authorities will need to consider the possibility of allowing young people to repeat a year, particularly the most vulnerable. Investment now will prevent a lifelong scar on young people’s futures. 

Colleges supporting autistic students

Adding to the uncertainty are the recent rule changes around Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans for pupils with special educational needs. The government has temporarily relaxed legal duties on local authorities to provide provision set out in these plans and also the time limit on EHC plans assessments – if local authorities have made "reasonable endeavours" to meet targets. While it is important to have flexibility in prioritising the needs of young people during this time of crisis, it is crucial that decision-makers continue to act in the best interests of each young person, and not use this relaxation as an opportunity to make blanket changes or save money.    

A recent survey by Natspec revealed that the transition from school to college for students with special educational needs is seriously delayed this year, with a third of colleges having no students confirmed for next year. From our own experience running Ambitious College, a specialist day college for autistic young people in London, we know that our learners’ transition into or out of college has been affected by the coronavirus. There is real concern that this inability to plan for transition could leave young people at risk of falling off a cliff edge and out of education. 

As the situation continues to change, it’s crucial that the views and experiences of autistic young people and their parents and carers are listened to and understood. This needs to happen on an individual basis in educational settings, but also at a national level. The government must collect data and feedback from those directly affected by these changes to assess their impact.  

Students, parents and teaching and support staff must have time to plan, coordinate and manage successful transitions – or else a generation will be unfairly denied their right to a full education and this will impact on their life chances. 

Viv Berkeley is executive principal at Ambitious about Autism, the national charity for children and young people with autism. The charity runs TreeHouse School, The Rise School and Ambitious College in London, offering specialist education and support to hundreds of autistic children and young people

 

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