I have just read the Autism and Education in England 2017 report that looks at how the education system in England works for children and young people on the autism spectrum.  Possibly one of the saddest statistics in it is that ‘Fewer than half of children and young people on the autism spectrum say they are happy at school.’  It’s a great report and huge merit should go to those who have worked so hard to put it together.  However, having now been personally involved in producing three reports around the themes of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), I found myself feeling a mixture of frustration and excitement as I read.

Let me explain.  When Driver Youth Trust first started, we focused on dyslexia and our first report, Fish in the Tree, looked at ensuring mandatory training for teachers during initial teacher training and beyond.  So, if I’m very honest, whilst part of me thinks ‘good on them’, I feel slightly frustrated and envious that the Autism lobby have succeeded in securing this mandatory training on autism with effect from September 2018.  But what about training in dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, Speech and Language difficulties – the list goes on?  Just on numbers, surely dyslexia deserves a look in? 1% of the population are autistic whereas conservative estimates put 10% as dyslexic, with parts of America using 20% as the norm.

Our next report, Joining the Dots moved away from just focusing on dyslexia and looked at how the Children and Families Act 2014 was doing one year on. We agreed in principle with the statement in the Autism Report that ‘The reforms the Act introduced are the right reforms, based on the right principles, ….’ but found that the system was fragmented.  There needed to be more communication between parents, schools – including mainstream and special schools – local authorities and more accountability, with those who ‘judge’ the system knowing what good looked like. Here’s where I started to get excited.  The themes in this Autism report are almost identical to our report! (see below).

As a backdrop to this, there were those in the dyslexia sector that accused us of having abandoned dyslexia, ‘you’re not interested in it anymore …. You’re just looking at SEND’ and some I’m sure still feel this way.  I thought long and hard about this, especially as we went on to our third report, Through the Looking Glass that examined the way those that shape educational policy – charities, think tanks, policy makers – all ignore those with a SEND, thinking of them as someone else’s problem.

Here’s where I stand.  Yes, Driver Youth Trust focuses on literacy, but I have always believed the most effective way to change and improve the lives of those with a Special Educational Need, lies within the school framework.  After all, 8 out of 10 of these children sit in mainstream schools and as the Autism report notes ‘More than 70% of children on the autism spectrum in England attend mainstream schools’.  Schools are national organisations, they are full of people dedicated to supporting and teaching children and young people, they produce data, they are inspected, they are ‘the world’ on a mini-scale – in short, they are the best places to make a difference in a real way.  That is why we developed our flagship programme, Drive for Literacy which works with the whole school, audits provision, develops school capacity and teacher capability.  Thinking about it, it could just as easily be called Drive for SEND!

If I’m being harsh, I question the SEND sector as a whole for not being ‘inclusive’ enough, for not working in partnerships (as much as they say they do) although I understand that this has probably arisen because they are all after the same pot of funding.  Each in many ways is out to say – my disability matters more than yours. Just look at me comparing the numbers of autistic people to those with dyslexia! (As I write this, I anticipate the outrage this view may have!)  You know what?  No one’s disability matters more.  As Huw Merriman and Maria Caulfield say in the report so eloquently “As with all young people, [children on the autism spectrum] only have one childhood.  For each child, there is one opportunity to get it right, and the impact of getting it wrong can be far-reaching for their later lives.”

I could go through this report and almost exactly insert the word ‘dyslexia’ or ‘struggles with literacy’ wherever ‘autism’ appears.  I could go through all the proposed solutions and, in the main, they would all ‘work’ for those with dyslexia or who struggle with literacy.  People who know more about other disabilities could probably do the same.  The point is, we really do need to collaborate, now more than ever within a world of funding cuts, rising exclusions and a fragmented system.  (In fact, I did this exercise – see below).

We are all calling for virtually identical solutions, so let’s be ambitious for all those children and young people who have a Special Educational Need or Disability.  Let’s work inclusively and create a world where their needs are met, ideally within mainstream schools (teaching by example how society lives side by side) but in good special schools if needed.  Where teachers understand SEND from their ITT days, where they continue to learn through CPD and where some can become specialists in their communities. Where systems are embedded, where expertise collaborates, where leaders lead, where local authorities carry out measured audits of their communities, where people communicate productively and not in combative ways – and let’s start to do so by calling for the Government to take SEND seriously (pay the Minister in charge of it for a start!) and to develop a National Inclusion and Education Strategy.


For those of you interested in the detail, here’s my notes on the specific areas where we are all asking for the same things, in the world of SEND. Writing in red is where I’ve put in other SEND issues alongside autism, italics are my comments.

60% of teachers DYT surveyed did not feel satisfied that their initial teacher training provided them with the skills they need to teach those that struggle to learn to read and write

Observations within Autism Report

 3 years on from the introduction of significant reforms to the SEN system in England, children on the autism spectrum/with literacy difficulties/who have Downs Syndrome/ are still being let down by the education system.

Fewer than 5 in 10 teachers say they are confident about supporting a child on the autism spectrum.

We have heard from parents from across the country about how hard they have to advocate for support for their children … and that schools often do not make the adjustments that children on the autism/dyslexia spectrum need in order to succeed.

It is clear to us that making the system work for children with a SEND /on the autism spectrum, and ensuring that every child has the opportunity to receive a good education and achieve their potential, is less about reforming structures, than creating a clear plan for making sure that changes are embedded, cultures in schools are more welcoming and inclusive, and services work together and with parents to make sure that every child on the autism/dyslexia spectrum /with ADHD can get the support they need to thrive at school.

Autism/dyslexia is a spectrum condition.  All autistic/dyslexic/blind people/wheelchair users will share certain difficulties, but being autistic/dyslexic/blind/wheelchair users will affect them in different ways.

Some autistic/dyslexic/people and those who struggle with literacy/are blind/are in wheelchairs also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support.  All people on the autistic spectrum/who struggle with literacy/who are blind …. learn and develop.  With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.

… we heard that many children with speech and language difficulties/dyslexia/with cerebral palsy/on the autism spectrum are being failed in various ways by the education system. This is demonstrated by the number of requests for statutory assessments that are being refused by local authorities, the long waits for support to be put in place, the difficulty in securing reasonable adjustments in schools, and the high level of exclusions from school of children who struggle with literacy / on the autism spectrum.

Action is needed in the short term to make sure that the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice are fully implemented, and that there is accountability for decisions that are made about the education and support provided to children with a SEND/on the autism spectrum.

Dyslexia/Autism/struggling with literacy is sometimes described as an invisible disability – because, for many dyslexics/who struggle with literacy/people on the autism spectrum, it is not immediately obvious what their needs are. Parents told us that this can make it difficult for them to get schools and local authorities to take their child’s need for additional support seriously.

For many children and young people with SEND/on the autism spectrum, school is a difficult and isolating experience. But we know that this does not have to be the case – it is not an inevitable fact of having a SEND/being autistic. With the right support, school can become a positive environment and a place where children are able to succeed – but children are not supported well enough, and their parents struggle to get the help they need.

“It is crucial to some students with SEND/autism and their families to have specialist support in mainstream schools. This is not always provided to students with a diagnosis and without an EHC plan, who end up having the worst time of their lives without the correct support and understanding.”

We heard from parents and teachers – both in our surveys and in our evidence sessions – that poor understanding of dyslexia/autism/speech and language difficulties means that children are often punished by schools for what is seen as ‘poor behaviour’, when what is often going on is an expression of how anxious a child is in the school environment.

Only one in four teachers who responded to our survey said they had received any autism/dyslexia training while completing their teaching qualification.

60% of teachers DYT surveyed did not feel satisfied that their initial teacher training provided them with the skills they need to teach those that struggle to learn to read and write (Fish in the Tree report, DYT)

In addition to Initial Teacher Training, it is vital to ensure that there is an ongoing programme of professional development for all educational staff. …. “Teacher training providers must think creatively about how to ensure that all trainee teachers gain an understanding of children with autism and other special educational needs and disabilities in a way that is fully built in, not bolted on as an afterthought.”

We heard from various witnesses that the diminishing role of local authorities in mainstream schools, and the increasing fragmentation of the school system has had the effect of reducing the availability of specialist autism/dyslexia/speech and language support teams in some areas.

One of the biggest frustrations witnesses voiced to the inquiry is the apparent lack of accountability in enforcing children’s legal rights to assessment and support. As more than one witness observed to us, “It doesn’t matter what the law says: if there is no accountability, it won’t be enforced.”

Parents told us that an organisation that is independent of the Government should hold both central government and local authorities to account on the implementation of the SEND reforms. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission have an important role to play through the local area SEND inspection process. We believe that these inspections should not be a one-off event for local areas, and should continue beyond the current five-year programme.


  • The Government should develop a national autism/dyslexia/ Inclusion and Education Strategy by the end of 2019 that includes:
  • training for school staff
  • reasonable adjustments for pupils with SEND/on the autism spectrum in schools
  • provision of a specialist curriculum for all pupils who need one
  • measures to reduce bullying and promote inclusion
  • and guidance for local authorities on commissioning the full range of educational provision and support.
  • SEND/Autism understanding should be embedded in the education system, with SEND/autism training for all teachers, including head teachers,
  • Local authorities should collect data on the number of children and young people in their area who have a SEND, including where possible the specific type of SEND/are on the autism spectrum, and on the profile of their needs, and use this data to plan and commission the school places and other services they will need.
  • A clear accountability framework should be put in place that requires local authorities and maintained schools, academies and free schools to be clear and transparent about how they are adhering to the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice.
  • The Department for Education should review the funding that is available to local authorities to support implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014, and allocate additional funding if it is needed to help complete the transition to the new SEND system.

DYT believes SEND funding within schools should be ring-fenced in the same way that Pupil Premium funding is.

Here’s what Driver Youth Trust think should happen

SEND funding within schools should be ring-fenced in the same way that Pupil Premium funding is, and schools should be accountable with impact measured.

Ofsted should be required to monitor implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014 more closely in local areas and should report on it to Parliament annually.

  • Ofsted inspections should always include an Ofsted Inspector with SEND training, who knows what good practice looks like.
  • The local area SEND inspection programme should be made permanent so that every local area is inspected on a regular basis.
  • Local authority staff and school staff should receive training in the requirements of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the SEND Code of Practice.

“The current year-long teacher training should help all new teachers focus on how to embed inclusivity in the classroom while emphasising that there will be a professional expectation for them to deepen their practice through continued learning and developing beyond their Initial Teacher Training year, their newly qualified teacher year and beyond.” (We recently submitted our position to the government’s Strengthening Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and Improving Career Progression for Teachers consultation. Read our response).

A culture of understanding needs to begin at the top of any organisation, including schools. One of the key themes from our witness sessions was the importance of a school culture in which the needs of children and young people on the autism/dyslexia spectrum are understood and respected. Our witnesses were clear that this begins with head teachers. Bob Lowndes, Director of the AET, highlighted how key head teachers are for setting the tone for their school and for the wider school community.

  • Ensure that all school leaders and governors receive training in autism/dyslexia/ADHD/Speech and Language awareness.

I would propose having separate sections for SEND specific issues like this one

  • There should be a presumption by local authorities that a child with an autism diagnosis may need an education, health and care needs assessment, and this should be carried out when it is requested.

We all need to be more ambitious! Let’s push for a government review on Inclusion and Education.