Scotland's education system 'is failing hundreds of autistic children'|
EDINBURGH, Scotland: Scotland's education system is failing hundreds of the country's most vulnerable youngsters, bringing misery to families, an investigation by The Scotsman has revealed.
With autism cases soaring, increasing numbers of children are being let down by mainstream schools, which fail to cope with their specific needs and leave parents angry and frustrated by failing to keep them informed.
Our investigation uncovered disturbing evidence of how schools often refuse to accept that a child's behaviour could be linked to autism, despite the large rise in diagnosed cases. Even when a child is diagnosed, staff are often simply unable to cope with the challenges their autism presents - a lost opportunity. Instead, the pupils can be labelled disruptive, meaning the school looks to punish children rather than help them cope with the effects of their condition. The system often leaves the child terrified to return to a place where they are at loggerheads with their teachers and where they are likely to be bullied by fellow pupils.
Our findings highlight failures in the system revealed last year in a damning report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIe), which found school services for youngsters with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) were "frequently deficient in either the attention given to addressing the underlying ASD needs, or conversely in addressing achievement across the curriculum."
The study, based on inspections of schools across the country, also found teachers were not tracking the academic progress of autistic pupils, with the result that "schools and authorities did not have sufficiently detailed information about the achievement of pupils with ASD."
Staff training was also inadequate, the report said, meaning pupils' specific needs were not being properly addressed.
Perhaps the most worrying section of the report dealt with how the parents of autistic children felt they were treated by the system. "Individual parents contacted inspectors to indicate that they were very unhappy about provision for their children and particularly the ways in which the education authority had dealt with decisions affecting their child," it said.
Scottish Executive statistics showed that the need to address the problems highlighted by HMIe were becoming more urgent with every passing year. In 2005, state secondaries had 825 pupils with ASD, compared with 114 in 1999 - an increase of 623 per cent. Over the same period, the number of autistic youngsters in primary schools more than quadrupled, from 415 to 1,736.
Overall, there are an estimated 8,000 school-age children with ASD in Scotland. Roughly one in 100, or 50,000, Scots are on the autistic spectrum.
On the day HMIe released its report in November, Britain's National Autistic Society (NAS) published the findings of its own survey. It revealed that two out of three parents were unhappy with services for their autistic children, nearly half of autistic pupils had been bullied at school and more than a third of families waited more than a year before their children received support at school.
The results of their survey prompted the NAS to launch its three-pronged Make School Make Sense campaign. It wants every autistic child to be sent to the right school; every teacher to get the right level of training so they are better equipped to help autistic children reach their full potential; and every school to introduce the correct teaching methods for autistic youngsters.
With 50,000 families in Scotland affected - and the numbers apparently rising exponentially - it is a campaign in which parents all over the country have a vested interest.
Carol Evans, the national director of the NAS in Scotland, last night welcomed The Scotsman's support for its campaign and urged families and politicians across the country to give it their backing.
Robert Brown, Scotland's Deputy Education Minister, said: "Children with autistic spectrum disorder require special support in class; that's why we asked HMIe to look at the provision for these pupils. We have carefully studied the HMIe report and, while we are pleased they have found a great deal of good practice, we recognise more needs to be done."
It is for precisely that reason that The Scotsman is seeking to raise awareness of the problem by highlighting the experiences of the families of autistic children and the struggles they have had in the school system.
Within days of starting secondary school, Jonathan McFarlane, who was diagnosed with autism at three years old, was getting into trouble with teachers.
"Initially, the school was supportive, but as Jonathan started to challenge them, instead of looking at why some of the behaviour was happening, they were looking at how they would deal with the effects," said his mother, Jan, from Galston, East Ayrshire. "They just hadn't come across anyone like him before."
After several attempts to address his problems, McFarlane reluctantly decided the only way to deal with the situation was to keep him off school. "He'd gone from being confident to being scared of other children," she said.
It had been very different when Jonathan was younger. He got a place at a local nursery school and enjoyed it. When he reached school age, Jonathan went to a communication unit for autistic youngsters and again did well, moving to a local state primary when he was eight.
In August, Jonathan moved to Louden Academy, a state secondary in Ayrshire. Although he was given a place in the school's communication unit, which gives one-to-one teaching to pupils with special needs, Jonathan insisted on being placed in a mainstream class. He was given an auxiliary support worker to help him, but his behaviour was soon giving cause for concern.
Eventually, McFarlane was called to discuss her son's behaviour. She was shocked by what she faced.
"There were two deputy heads, a principal teacher, a guidance teacher and a classroom assistant," she said. "It lasted for two hours and was very intimidating. They were saying they were doing all these things for Jonathan and he wasn't behaving, so they would have to go down the discipline route."
After seeing an educational psychologist, Jonathan returned to the school's communication unit, where he is starting to show signs of progress.
However, McFarlane remains angry at the experience, which she blames on a lack of training for his teachers.
East Ayrshire Council said Louden Academy offered a range of support for young people with special needs.
For Lou McGill, it was a day of mixed emotions. Her son, Laurie, finally had an appointment to see an educational psychologist, which she was sure would confirm her suspicions that he had Asperger's Syndrome.
But it was also the day that Laurie was excluded from the mainstream primary school in Glasgow he had been attending.
"Things started to go wrong last January and Laurie's self-esteem levels dropped dramatically," said McGill. "He got so scared about going to school that I began keeping him off. It might appear that these children are badly behaved and deliberately disruptive, but that's not the case."
McGill said the school had refused to offer her son any support or help, so rather than send him back after his exclusion was over, she and her partner decided to educate him at home.
Once Laurie's condition had been diagnosed, a place was found for him at Hill's Trust Primary School in Govan. Since then, the transformation has been proof of the great strides autistic youngsters can make, and Laurie excels in mathematics.
McGill said: "They've made an enormous difference. For example, they don't make him go outside every playtime, so he can sit in the peace and quie