Lee Scott is MP for Ilford North.
Estimates of the proportion of people with autistic spectrum disorders total 587,900 and of these 133,500 are under 18 years of age. In the last few years numbers have risen in my own constituency of Ilford North. According to UK researchers, autism may affect up to one in 100 children. Autism impairs social interaction, communication and imagination and this spectrum also covers Asperger’s Syndrome.
I got involved with autism issue because constituents who have a son with ASD approached me for help. Campaigners are urging the DfES to address the failure of some secondary schools in coming up with educational strategies in dealing with autistic students; they are concerned about bullying of autistic children and the lack of recreational activities and poor further & higher education. On the health front children with autism desperately need osteopathy on the NHS and parents are calling for answers as to what causes autism.
The conclusions of the Warnock report in 1978 argued passionately for the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools and this view has influenced education policy ever since. Recently Baroness Warnock concluded that there was an urgent need to look again at the concept of inclusion. What we need is a level headed and rational assessment of the situation as it is and not as we would like it to be. The dogmatic approach of placing all pupils with special needs into mainstream schools has frequently benefited neither them nor the children they are being taught alongside.
A far more pragmatic approach offering parents and special needs pupils a real choice between mainstream and special education must be adopted. All too often the post code lottery of SEN provision means that the choice is ‘take it or leave it’.
More needs to be done to achieve the early identification of children with autism. There needs to be more detailed information about how to recognise the condition made available to parents, doctors and teachers. Getting this right will bring the educational support that the child needs to progress in structured learning.
Since 1997 more than ninety special schools have closed and those remaining have fewer pupils despite a steep rise in the number of children diagnosed as having special educational needs. Ministers state that "inclusion is not an agenda to close special schools". So what we need to do is ensure that we prevent special schools from closing, recognise the poor level of provision that exists in many areas and recognise the increasing demand for these places.
Baroness Warnock is right to say inclusion "springs from hearts in the right place". Many of us have at some time or other been seduced by the theory of inclusion. It seems so nice and reasonable, so politically correct but the problem is that the clear evidence shows that it does not work for every autistic child. Many parents know that inclusion is not appropriate and that this policy is failing their child. We need to make available to every autistic child the form of education which will give them their most effective learning environment. Yes we should support inclusion but only where it is in the best interests of the child and that it is the choice of the parents.
In May 2006 the National Autistic Society launched its first ever education campaign, ‘make school make sense’. This led the NAS to call for three things, the right school for every child, the right training for every teacher and the right approach for every school
More needs to be done to help secure a better education for children with autism and I hope that we can help a move in that direction.