The parents’ voices break as painful experiences are relived. They talk about how their autistic children – for whom routine and predictability are so important – started self-harming or were close to “catatonic” from being pulled in and out of school because staff could not cope with their behaviour.
They also talk about how the instability of their children’s schooling has come close to tearing their families apart.
One father recalls being summoned into school on his son’s first day at primary because the child had fled the building by midday and was hiding under a car. The boy’s family had argued against his going to the mainstream school but had been overruled; ultimately, he lasted less than six months in the setting.
The group of parents – gathered for the launch of new research into unlawful exclusions – also talk about their children being shut away at school on their own to calm down, in spaces with euphemistic names like “the soft room” or “the blue room”.
Teachers do not go into education to drag children away into box rooms, but it is happening, according to Charlene Tait, acting chief executive of charity Scottish Autism. And unlawful exclusions are happening, too, with parents called to pick their children up from school, usually because of their behaviour. Sometimes these children are out of school for just an afternoon; at other times, families and schools hit an impasse and the pupils are out of education for much longer.
Unrecorded and unlawful
Scottish government statistics show that secondary pupils with additional support needs (ASN) are four times more likely to be excluded than those without ASN, while primary pupils with ASN are seven times more likely to be excluded than their peers.
However, exclusions often go unrecorded. Research published in September by Scottish Autism, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Children in Scotland suggests that they are even more widespread.
The charities also warn that the full extent of the problem has not been captured by their figures. The focus was on autistic children, but those with other complex needs – from mental health problems to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – are also likely to be falling victim to unlawful exclusions, the organisations say.
In their survey of more than 1,400 parents and carers of autistic children, over a third of respondents, representing every local authority in Scotland, said their child had been unlawfully excluded at least once in the past two years. Of those, 22 per cent reported being called into school multiple times each week.
Two questions focused on the impact on children and their families, and the responses amount to “800 different ways to break your heart”, Tait says.
Already Bruce Adamson, commissioner for children and young people in Scotland, is carrying out a formal investigation into the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, after “a number of enquiries” about this issue. His office defines seclusion as “shutting a child somewhere alone and not allowing them to leave”.
Now Conservative MSP Oliver Mundell – who sits on the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee – is calling for the commissioner’s office to also investigate why autistic children are being sent home from school so frequently.
Both issues point to schools not coping with the range of needs pupils are presenting with. The education system is “creaking”, according to Jenny Kemp, the EIS teaching union’s national officer for education and equality. While on the one side you might have a child who is deeply unhappy and lashing out, on the other you might have a member of staff who has been assaulted, she says, adding that teachers are being kicked, bitten and punched, and are being left “traumatised” and “desperately miserable”.
“[Teachers] want to have positive experiences and good educational experiences, but they are being attacked and assaulted at work, and they are often told it ‘goes with the territory’ – what other profession would be told that?”
For Kemp, resources are the critical issue. She finds fault with the money being spent on Scottish National Standardised Assessments in literacy and numeracy, which “nobody wanted”, when there has been a failure to invest enough in supporting children with ASN. Kemp points out that Scottish teachers spend more time in front of classes than their counterparts in any other European country, that specialist teacher numbers are falling and that, when ASN teachers are available in schools, they are often being used to cover classes because of teacher shortages, rather than focusing their specialist skills on the children who most need help.
EIS assistant secretary Andrea Bradley says the union shares parents’ concerns about the difficulties in meeting the varied and often complex needs of children with ASN. She identifies class sizes as another issue, as well as a lack of nurturing spaces in schools, which could offer sanctuary when pupils found the classroom environment overwhelming.
More need, less expertise
After a decade as an ASN teacher, this summer Julia Stevenson* decided to return to teaching her subject. She warns that cuts to staff and training budgets have come at the same time as local authorities are saving money by bringing children who might once have been educated out of authority in specialist schools back into local provision.
The upshot, she says, is a wider range of need than ever before in mainstream schools while those schools have neither the staff nor the expertise to cope.
Until June, Stevenson worked in an ASN unit attached to a secondary, catering for about a dozen pupils, where she says punching, scratching and spitting were all common. She recalls being struck “powerfully” across the face by an autistic pupil, who became agitated when a stranger entered the room. She was tying the pupil’s shoelaces at the time.
In that instance – although she reported what happened so that it could be recorded – she just carried on and the child remained in school for the rest of the day.
If a child had to be sent home early because staff could not cope with their behaviour, she would not record it as an exclusion. Not because of pressure from above to fiddle the statistics but simply because that is not the way she views it. “It’s basically time needed to cool off so people can pull themselves back together,” she explains.
Tait accepts that informal exclusions can sometimes be “an attempt to give everyone a breathing space”, but emphasises that they put huge pressure on families and they are “unlawful and should not occur”.
While a parent attending the research launch in Edinburgh says that “one of the main barriers in all of this is money”, not everyone accepts that funding is the central issue. Teacher attitudes and school culture matter as much as resources, many parents believe. They talk of children who had miserable experiences in highly resourced special schools but blossomed in mainstream settings, and children who flourished or floundered depending on who their class teacher was. Success or failure depends on staff, attitudes and training, they say.
Susan Mcleod’s son Callum has just gone into his second year at secondary school, in an on-site ASN unit. “A good education and a not-so-good education are definitely related to the teaching staff,” she says. “All teachers – especially those within these units – need a better understanding of autism and that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work here.”
The changes do not have to be costly, she argues. Callum was excluded from school last year but this year his new teacher has helped him to settle, getting him to note down and post his concerns into a “worry box” made from a shoebox. The teacher has also put pictures of things that he likes around the classroom and erected a screen that he can go behind if he needs to be alone.
“These are all tiny changes that made a huge difference,” Mcleod says. “I feel he is now included, I feel he is now engaged and I feel he is now involved. But my fear is this will only continue depending on the skills of his future teachers.”
A ‘beautiful tapestry’
Sanderson’s Wynd Primary in the East Lothian town of Tranent has a hub for children with severe and complex ASN, which includes a sensory room and a soft-play area. And in addition to a mainstream nursery, it has one for children with ASN.
Being inclusive is something this school “lives and breathes”, according to headteacher Lynsey Blair and Clare Palmer-Fairbairn, the depute responsible for the ASN hub. They don’t want just to say they are inclusive – people should “hear it, feel it and see it”.
At assembly, for example, while mainstream pupils are singing, pupils with ASN vocalise in their own way, says Palmer-Fairbairn. “That’s just part of the varied and beautiful tapestry of needs in our school,” she adds. “Sometimes children are getting up if they need to move around. It’s about being responsive and flexible and relaxed.”
If teachers in mainstream schools are struggling to cope, “it comes down to understanding and training”, says Blair. “It’s really important that if we are asking an ASN auxiliary or a class teacher to have a child with any difficulty in their class, then we provide the training that supports that.”
According to Bernadette Casey, the head of the National Autistic Society’s Daldorch House School, in East Ayrshire, the attitude of “I didn’t get into teaching for this” still exists among some education professionals. But she recoils at references to “good teachers” and “bad teachers” to describe staff who have coped with pupils’ complex needs and those who have not.
Casey was funded by a local authority to gain a postgraduate support for learning qualification, and the authority also paid for a supply teacher to cover her classes while she was studying. That would not happen today because the money is not there, she says.
“We know pupils [with ASN] have gone up by a huge percentage but resources and specialist teachers have not kept pace,” Casey explains. “It saddens me to hear what is being said about teachers and schools, because I know they are not setting out to be difficult. It is because they can’t manage or the resources are not there.”
The cost of inaction
Professor Lani Florian, a special education expert at the University of Edinburgh, says that, while there is a lot of focus in Scotland on the attainment gap between poorer and more affluent pupils, there needs to be an increased focus on another divide – “the practice gap”; in other words, the variability in the quality of teaching between classrooms. Florian believes the answer lies in looking at the teachers who succeed in catering for the needs of every pupil in their class and spreading that good practice.
We need to “shift our gaze from where a child is placed to what happens in that place”, says Florian, who questions whether provision will necessarily be better elsewhere. “Special schools have problems, too,” she says.
Certainly, while the charities’ research shows that unlawful exclusions are most likely to happen in mainstream schools, it also finds that they happen in special schools.
Better data is needed so that the problem can be properly quantified and tackled, the charities say. Hence their call for all types of absence to be recorded accurately.
Professor Sally Power, co-director of the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods, argued in Tes Scotland in March that, although official school exclusion figures in Scotland showed an improving picture, the problem of internal exclusions was “likely to be pervasive”.
Many will say it’s high time we found out just how widespread such practices are, and put in place the training and resources that schools need to find other ways to cope. Inevitably there will be cost implications – but parents and teachers will tell you that the human cost associated with inaction is higher.
As one father of an autistic child puts it, there needs to be an acceptance that “sometimes education costs a bit more for some people”.
*Name has been changed
Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith