Don’t write off pupils

Autistic children are missing out and plans for special education fall short of what is needed, says Jolanta Lasota

Boy making biscuits

Students across the country will soon receive their GCSE or A level results. They may continue their studies, apply for jobs or have a gap year.

However, this will not be the case for many autistic children who are written off before they even leave school. It is well documented that they are at a higher risk of exclusion, less likely to reach their potential and often deeply unhappy in education.

The Written Off campaign, launched by Ambitious about Autism late last year, aims to stop schools giving up on these pupils.

Our charity wants the government to protect funding for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and to uphold families’ legal rights to get support for their children.

Our recent research among 2,000 families and young people shows that nearly two-thirds (65%) of families were unhappy with their child’s mainstream education. More than one in three (36%) autistic pupils reported being out of school against their wishes.

The SEND system affects a significant number of children. Some 1.5 million pupils in England have special educational needs – an increase of 77,000 since 2021.

The government is reviewing how it can improve the SEND system. Earlier this year, it published its long-awaited improvement plan.

Yet many fear its proposals could make things worse. There is no intention to scrap worrying plans, such as giving parents a “tailored” list of education settings to choose from (which could be in another area) and mandatory mediation with the local education authority before parents can appeal against a placement decision.

We welcome plans for autism-specific guidance, and the small steps to improve the SEND workforce. But we need to plug staffing gaps so all autistic pupils are supported, and we need Ofsted to hold schools to account by making SEND support a higher priority during inspections.

We also want a public commitment from the government to fund support; the extra £2 billion in the autumn statement only restores education funding per pupil back to 2010 levels.

Education policy should work for all pupils – not just those who reach narrow attainment targets.

Megan Horan, a 23-year-old from Kent, is a member of our Ambitious Youth Network – an online space for autistic 16-25 year-olds. She says: “I would like to see different qualifications available for those who are unable to do GCSEs and take exams to enable them to show off their skills.”

“I would like the government to take on board what parents and young adults are saying about the broken education system, and I would like it to look at its policies and see what isn’t working and how to make it better.”

The SEND system is broken – the government knows this as do thousands of families at crisis point across the country.

A call to the government to make education work for all

Ambitious about Autism wants to the government to:

  • Uphold existing laws that help children with SEND get the assessments, support, and school places they need
  • Create an expectation that every school is a SEND school, every teacher is a SEND teacher and every policy is a SEND policy
  • Publish a plan to develop a valued, skilled, sufficient SEND workforce, backed by resources and with clear timescales
  • Ask Ofsted to make the quality of SEND support a greater priority in inspections
  • Gather and share evidence on how mainstream and special education can work together to get children the right support.
Boy with floating ball
Photo: Ambitious about Autism

Jolanta Lasota is chief executive of Ambitious about Autism