Alcohol abuse leaves toxic school legacy

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Overlooked syndrome affects thousands, but teachers lack official advice

The school system has failed to recognise and deal with a learning disability that is jeopardising tens of thousands of pupils' educational chances, The TES can reveal.

Teachers currently have no official advice or guidance on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), caused by drinking during pregnancy, despite estimates that one in 100 UK-born children is affected. This figure is expected to rise following increases in binge drinking among women.

The condition - the most common non-genetic learning disability - affects numeracy, behaviour, and cognitive and social skills, but often goes unnoticed or misdiagnosed in schools in England.

Campaigners say education ministers have fobbed them off when they have asked for guidance for teachers, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families was not interested. Labour politicians in Westminster are backing their calls for change.

Some countries, such as Canada, have been developing ways of helping pupils for more than 20 years. But Oxford University professor Barry Carpenter, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust's director of special educational needs, said: "Currently, there is no direct guidance from any government agency in the UK to teachers on how to educate children with FASD."

The DCSF website contains numerous pages of guidance on conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but nothing on FASD, which affects 10 pupils in every average-sized secondary.

Asked to respond, the DCSF said it was a matter for the Department of Health, which said it was not responsible for guidance to teachers.

Susan Fleisher, director of the National Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, said she had tried to set up two meetings on the subject with DCSF ministers, but had been "fobbed off" with department officials on both occasions.

"They really were not interested," she said. "I think it is because they don't realise it is such a big problem. This condition is far more common than anyone realises.

"If teachers are trained about it, it will make a huge difference."

This month Professor Carpenter was selected to head a study on how learning is affected by the disorder, supported by Pounds 50,000 from the Training and Development Agency for Schools. The agency said it wanted its research to focus on the "most prevalent types of special educational needs". Approaches to teaching pupils with FASD were not well established, unlike those with sensory impairments and other severe difficulties, it said.

Ms Fleisher welcomed the funding but said it was just "a drop in the ocean".

Lord Mitchell, a Labour peer, said: "The problem is that if you speak to the education ministers, they will say everybody is bombarding them with calls for changes all the time and that what the teaching profession needs is consistency.

"But pupils with this syndrome are frequently put into the `awkward squad' category, and it would help if teachers were able to know about the cause of their behaviour."

Professor Carpenter argues that improving these pupils' education is essential for them and for society as a whole. He points to US studies that show 60 per cent of people with the syndrome will enter the criminal justice system and 23 per cent will attempt suicide as adults.

"There is a multiple educational jeopardy around these children, which means that the current style and structure of many classrooms is not conducive to engaging them as effective learners," he said.

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