Although cleverly named, this was in fact a big discussion around schooling options for children with Special Educational Needs (Autism and Downs were the focus but no-one was excluded). It was a resounding success; 90 parents and professionals attended and I know of several others who would have liked to have been there. The County Council needs to be aware..... Schooling for children with special educational needs is a top priority in Hertfordshire.
I've heard talk of mainstream schools with autism bases before now, and specialist schools for autism, but I assumed they must just be a well kept secret in our county until you are classed as 'needing to know'. It would seem however, that our county does not actually have any of these. Bedfordshire has several, apparently.
There are supposedly autism units within a couple of the special schools, but these special schools are all MLD or SLD schools - for moderate or severe learning disabilities. I'd wondered why I just 'had a feeling' that Sasha isn't going to fit in anywhere... it could just be that there is nowhere for her to fit into. I visited one of the MLD schools, and knew instantly that it would not be the right environment for Sasha. The school itself seemed fine, but it was not a place where I felt Sasha would be able to develop her potential. As I've said before, we don't really believe she has a learning disability; we just believe her autism can be a barrier to her learning sometimes.
So, back to the conference. First up to talk was Mark Lever, the Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society (NAS - we love acronyms in the world of Special Needs you know). It was a thought-provoking and very interesting speech.
He gave us a few statistics, and there's a handful I'd like to share with you:
- there are 88,000 children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in education
- in a recent NUT survey, 44% of teachers said they do not feel comfortable teaching children with ASD
- 43% of children in autism specific education are sent out of their county for schooling
- 32% of parents of children with ASD are called to take their child home early
Mark (we're on first name tweets) also answered the question 'What is a Free School?':
'Free Schools are all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community.'
The NAS has its first free school due to open in Reading (Thames Valley Free School) this September, followed by a second in Lambeth (Vanguard Free School) the following year, and a couple more in talks. They are schools specifically welcoming children with high functioning autism, although from what I understand, the Reading school will also have an autism base for children with more complex needs, with the aim of integrating them when possible.
Mark was very honest about how difficult it is to set up a free school though. Money is the first obvious big issue. There's a reason why special schools are more expensive than mainstream; there are less pupils to bring in the money, coupled with a higher staff to child ratio. Site and staff are the next challenges. He explained that skilled resource is a necessity, with the Head Teacher needing to be an entrepreneur and good at building relationships - a new free school is in fact a new business, not just an education establishment. He also stated that evidence of a longer term need is required in order to sustain a new school.
A question was then asked which I'm not sure anybody knows the answer to - 'does the LA (Local Authority) really know all about the young people with autism in their area and what their needs are?'. More research need to be done, and quickly - but surely someone should have this data already? I do sometimes wonder what is actually achieved by all the people working on these issues; it often seems as if there are more of 'them' than 'us' but I doubt that's true.
We are told that placing a child with special needs in a specialist school out of county costs an excessive amount of money. For the council, it would seem that money in the short term (as in saving and cost-cutting), and not the children, is the priority. I can of course understand that there is a limited budget, but a) is it being spent effectively and b) it seems ridiculously short-sighted to not have plans in place to avoid the continuing need for these expensive out of county placements for SEN children in the future.
Jane Vaughan, Director of Education for the NAS, led a very interesting afternoon session about Free Schools. We were given more detail on how the NAS new free schools have been set up, and were then set the task of discussing where we felt gaps in educational provision in Hertfordshire were. Some of the gaps identified included lack of autism specialist resource bases in mainstream schools, post 16/further education provision for those with autism, and specialist autism nursery/pre-school provision*. By far and away the biggest gap of provision agreed upon though, was for those children with ASD or additional needs, who would not be able to sustain or even begin a mainstream placement, but for who special school was not an option due to the fact they have no learning disability.
A separate discussion group held that afternoon was looking into the possibility of developing more provision for special needs within mainstream schools. I do see this as an urgent need and high priority also; however, as mentioned before, I know this is an area other parents have been campaigning in for many years now and nothing much ever seems to come to fruition. If anyone has any concrete ideas on how to push this forward, I'm all ears of course!
It was an extremely interesting conference, and the best use of my time I've felt in ages. It has given me hope that these issues may be addressed in enough time for a positive outcome for Sasha, and I'm definitely looking forward to the follow-up.
*I discovered this week that there are in fact only 2 specialist autism pre-schools in the whole of England. The one which Sasha attended in Stevenage, TRACKS, is one of those. It was quite frankly a lifeline for us in the early days, and a place which helped develop Sasha immensely. They always need funding! Early Intervention is a term bandied around a lot by the Government, but there seems to be no follow-through on that promise.