In the UK, if an autistic child is failing to thrive in a mainstream school then the school (or their family) can apply for an assessment of need to establish whether a more specialist provision is necessary.
This assessment can become complex and the search for a more appropriate school can be lengthy. Specialist autism provision (particularly local authority provision) is chronically underfunded and there are too few school places to match demand.
Local authority “specialist” schools tend to be so generalised or tailored towards the support of physical and / or learning disabilities that they become unsuitable for an autistic student. Particularly a student who requires a quiet and stable environment, an academic curriculum and staff who can understand and reciprocate neurodivergent communication.
This is when specific independent schools and colleges designed exclusively for autistic students become appropriate considerations for schooling. There may be just one or two of these provisions within an area. Many children who attend these placements travel in from a different city or county. Because the support given within these placements is specific and tailored to need, there are fewer places on offer.
So what affects the success of obtaining a sought-after specialist, autism placement for a child?
On first consideration it would appear that access is truly egalitarian – each admission is overseen and funded by the relevant local authority. The process by which this occurs is based entirely upon the needs of the child, which in turn is assessed by a plethora of differing professionals, including consultations with potential schools. This all appears fair and just.
However, local authorities operate with a preference for keeping children within area and within local authority provisions – keeping the money “in house”. Closed professional meetings (meaning that parents are not invited to attend) during assessments often lead to plans being tweaked to fit available, local school placements. My child for example, does not have a learning disability and is academically capable should his anxiety and communication needs be fully supported. But, the school he is on roll at does not offer GCSE qualifications and so his academic potential is minimised and dismissed (in many varied ways) by our local authority in order to ensure he fits the criteria of the school.
How are such outrageous manoeuvres counteracted? By parents having the knowledge, tenacity and available funds to do so. Based on my personal observations over the last five years, autistic children who have educated parents with at least some minimal access to private funds, gain the highly sought after independent provisions.
Local authorities do not hand out independent placements as a first choice. They will always seek to place a child in one of their own maintained schools – however (un)suitable this may be. A detailed knowledge of procedural guidelines and law is key to challenging such decisions but parents must know where to seek this out. They must be able to understand often complex information and be able to proactively seek out support for themselves. It comes as no surprise that availability of preliminary free legal education advice is also highly sought after. Waiting lists for advocacy support services are lengthy and thus often no use when having to adhere to the mandatory timescales of challenging a local authority decision.
Local authorities know this and they use it to their advantage.
To successfully counter an inappropriate school placement a parent must acquire second opinions – independent experts, to reassess their child. There is an industry of independent therapists and psychologists who collectively profit well from the chronically underfunded “SEND” system and who would experience a dramatic loss in earnings should proper funding be allocated in order to expand specialist, autism provision.
As parents we love our children and want to see them thrive and receive an accessible education that they so rightly deserve. So we pay anything and everything we can afford to try and make this possible. I am a lone parent with very little disposable income, yet I have spent approximately £5,500 in obtaining additional reports and legal advice just to ensure that my child’s needs are accurately reflected in local authority documentation. And we are still a long way from finding a suitable school for my child.
I feel that I am an easy target for my local authority. I am not wealthy. I am not supported by my child’s father; financially, emotionally or practically. And these weaknesses have been exploited in order to withhold accurate assessments of my child’s needs.
The allocation of specialist autism school placements is not just affected by the political choice to restrict funding in this area, but by local authority strategic gatekeeping which favours the richer and educated families.
There are children who are being dually discriminated against because their neuro-type is not catered for within the mainstream educational system, and their parents do not have access to the resources necessary to challenge this discrimination effectively.