Thousands of children on the autistic spectrum are being temporarily excluded from the classroom illegally because schools don’t know how to support them
While most children went back to school this week after the half-term holiday, Josh Moore wasn’t among them.
Four years ago, he was a happy nine-year-old thriving in a mainstream primary school.
As with most boisterous young boys, his behaviour occasionally gave teachers cause for concern, but Josh was settled and doing well in lessons.
But then he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome – a form of autism – and his happy schooldays were suddenly over.
He was sent home from class nearly every day with little or no warning and mum Clare was constantly being phoned by the school and asked to fetch her son.
Now, aged 13, he has dropped out of the school system altogether.
Clare has since learnt that these ‘temporary exclusions’ are actually illegal, but the catastrophic effect on Josh’s schooling will never be undone.
She is just one of tens of thousands of parents in the UK struggling to educate a child who is on the autistic spectrum of behavioural problems.
Four in 10 parents surveyed by the charity Ambitious about Autism for its ‘Ruled Out’ campaign reported that their autistic child had been illegally barred from attending school during the previous year.
One in 10 of them said it happened every day.
And many had been barred from going on school trips or taking part in social activities.
With more than 70,000 school-age children with autism in England, that means 28,000 children are potentially being robbed of the education they are entitled to.
One in five families surveyed by the charity said their autistic child had been formally excluded in the last year.
And that’s just autism.
In general, children with special educational needs are up to 11 times more likely to be permanently excluded, despite schools having a legal obligation to do all they can to meet their needs.
While schools have the right to formally exclude a child, it should only be treated as a last resort, in consultation with parents and the local authority.
Instead, Ambitious about Autism’s research suggests many schools are barring children simply as a way of managing their behaviour.
Clare, 34, from Birmingham, feels the system has failed Josh completely.
The impromptu exclusions hit after his Asperger’s diagnosis.
Within a few months, Clare was called in to take Josh home on an almost daily basis.
“I tried to negotiate a part-time timetable to help the school, but in reality they’d just phone me the day before and tell me if Josh was ‘allowed’ to go to school,” she says.
“Sometimes they would say things like, ‘We have a special assembly tomorrow and don’t think Josh will cope, so don’t bring him in’.”
Clare, a former midwife who is also mum to Jordan, 15, and Oscar, five, said: “He wasn’t hurting anyone.
“I’d typically get a phone call to collect him because he wouldn’t come out of the classroom at playtime or because he was tapping with his ruler in class.
“After his diagnosis, we thought the school would look after him and help us find our way with autism, but it was the opposite.
“He was in his last year of primary school and the staff just washed their hands of him.
“Within a year, his schooling had totally fallen apart.”
Clare and her husband Richard pinned their hopes on a new start at secondary school.
But after a promising first term, Josh experienced 13 fixed-term exclusions – documented, legal suspensions – and Clare pulled him out of school in June last year before he was expelled.
“My only option was to home educate,” she says.
“The education system failed him. As a mum you just want your child to enjoy childhood, but Josh became so unhappy.
“In my view, that was because he was not supported at school.
“What makes it even sadder is that we are far from alone.
“Autism is so well recognised nowadays, it is hard to believe there is such ignorance among those who should be helping the most.”
Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism, said tackling the problem should be a national priority.
“The education system is failing a very large number of children on the autism spectrum,’’ she says.
“For the last 70 years it has been the right of every child to attend school, and that right is no different for children with autism.
“There are over 70,000 children in England of school age with autism and 70% of them are attending mainstream schools.
“Some schools are doing a brilliant job and, with the right support, children do very well.
“Yet four in 10 have been subjected to illegal exclusion in the last 12 months and 20% have been formally excluded.
“The long-term implications are huge because we know that most of those children will end up unemployed and dependent on others for the rest of their lives.”
Her charity is demanding action to ensure every school has access to a specialist autism teacher – 60% of teachers in England have reported not having adequate training to teach children with autism – and every parent to know their rights.
For Helen Leask, 37, from Farnborough, Hampshire, the actions by her son Daniel’s infant school came close to having catastrophic consequences.
“From the start I told them that something wasn’t right with Daniel, but they said ‘no, there’s nothing wrong’.
“They wouldn’t acknowledge that there was a real issue, when I knew as a mother that there was.”
Even in his last year of infant school, when Helen and her husband were called to collect Daniel on at least four occasions because of his behaviour, the school would not admit there was a problem.
The unofficial exclusions were not documented, which meant there was no record of his problematic behaviour.
Moving to junior school proved a crunch point for Daniel.
“Within two weeks, I was having to collect him from school early, coaxing him out from under tables or trying to get him to climb down from a tree,” Helen says.
“They tried their hardest, but because of the lack of information from the infant school, help could not be put in place in time to keep Daniel in school and he was permanently excluded.”
For Helen, who also has a daughter, Ella, 12, the temporary exclusions proved not only frustrating, but also a huge practical obstacle to getting help.
Having not been officially excluded, Daniel wasn’t on the local education authority’s radar.
“The school was begging for help but because the LEA had not heard of him, we had to wait for it to catch up.
“We were on our knees, begging for them to give him a statement of special needs.
“I was in the horrible position of wanting someone to tell me there was something wrong with my child.”
Eventually, when he was seven, it was confirmed that Daniel was on the autism spectrum.
“The experience set Daniel’s education back by at least two years and it ruined his self-esteem,” says Helen.
“It was heartbreaking to see him regress, knowing in his own way he was crying out for help.”
Helen says that parents need to know that these exclusions are wrong and illegal, and schools need to be more aware of the implications of their actions.
Eventually, the LEA agreed that Daniel, who is now 10, needed to be in a special needs school, where he is thriving.
“They’ve given me back my child,” says Helen.
Another mother, Kasthuri, who does not wish to give her surname or son’s name, was called by his primary school to collect him 18 days in a row.
“They treated him like a piece of furniture, not a human,” she says.
Her son’s first 18 months of schooling, after he was diagnosed with autism aged three, was in India, where Kasthuri says he received care tailored to his needs, so much so that he was exceeding expectations.
His teaching assistant from India then spent six months in the UK settling him into Year One at primary school.
But just three days after she left, in October last year, Kasthuri was called for the first time to collect her son – the first illegal exclusion of many. Kasthuri is angry that the LEA did not step in and tell the school they were acting illegally .
Her son was eventually issued with a fixed-term exclusion from school.
He has now been given a place at a school for children with severe needs, despite Kasthuri’s ongoing belief that a setting for children with mild learning disabilities would be better for him.
“The LEA won’t listen,” she says.
“Instead of looking at the individual child, their attitude is ‘You should be happy with what you’ve got’.”
In the proper environment there would be no limits for her son, she says. “Instead, he has been written off at the age of seven.”
The Department for Education said: “All councils must ensure children are educated in a setting which meets their needs, and schools must follow strict rules when excluding pupils.
“‘Informal’ or ‘unofficial’ exclusions, such as sending pupils home ‘to cool off’ are unlawful, regardless of whether they occur with the agreement of parents or carers.
“Any exclusion of a pupil, even for short periods of time, must be formally recorded.
“If parents of children with disabilities believe their school has unlawfully excluded their child, they should first make a complaint to the school.
“If they are not satisfied with the response, they can make a disability discrimination claim to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability).”
It added that the Government is tackling the causes of exclusion by funding training on autism and with its Children and Families Bill which will give parents a greater role in decisions.