As BBC drama The A word shows, mainstream schools can make special needs pupils feel isolated

The six-part drama revisits the funny, messy, mixed-up lives of the Hughes and Scott families as they struggle to do their best as parents. BBC Images

As many parents who have children with autism will know, school can be a tough place. Maybe it’s not surprising then that 34% of children on the autism spectrum say that the worst thing about being at school is being picked on.

The same study also found that 63% of children on the autism spectrum are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them – with a high percentage of these children ending up expelled or excluded.

The latest series of the BBC’s drama The A Word, tells the story of Joe Hughes and his family as they adapt and come to terms with Joe’s autism diagnosis.

Set in the Lake District, the recent series has seen Joe and his wider family trying to navigate the education system. Viewers have seen Joe’s mum, Alison, and dad, Paul, doing their utmost to try and ensure Joe stays in mainstream education – believing it to be the best thing for Joe’s future. But they decide to uproot Joe and send him to a specialist school a number of miles away, after other parents complained about Joe’s behaviour in class.

The realities of the system

Previous research has shown that too many teachers and support staff are unfamiliar with the needs of autistic children and struggle to teach them effectively.

This is in part why, six years ago, the then coalition government started the process of radical reform to the way children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities were supported.

Max Vento as Joe and, behind, his sister Becky in The A Word. BBC Images

The aim was to give these children a better life, through fundamentally changing the way they got the help they need and deserve. Families were promised more openness and understanding, and more say in decision making.

But our research, which forms part of the SEN Policy Research Forum, shows that while the aspirations of the reforms are commendable, there is still a long way to go to achieve the desired outcomes.

The same needs

In essence, the reforms meant large changes to the systems of assessment and planning. So “statements” – which are individual records of a pupil’s identified special educational needs and the provision required to meet these – have been replaced with “education, health and care plans”.

Local authorities are also now required to give written information about their “local offer”. This is a summary of what provision and services are available for children and young people with SEN and disabilities in the local area.

The A Word tackles parts of life that aren’t always easy. BBC Images

The government expected that through these changes, parents would have greater influence on provision and services – both for their own children and for their area. It was also believed that they would have greater confidence in the system, because local authorities, schools and services would be more responsive to individual children’s needs – and to parental wishes and perspectives.

But as our research shows, this has not always been the case. So while most parents actually prefer the new “educational, health and care plans”, the extent of their involvement may well have been overestimated by local authorities and the government.

Changes to schools

A big part of the problem is that these developments are being introduced at a time of significant broader changes in mainstream educational policy and practice. This is a time of significant budgetary constraint, that has seen many schools restructuring and making reductions in staffing capacity.

And our research saw that while many local authorities have welcomed the cultural changes created by the new legislation, the implementation of the reforms has been a major challenge. There is anecdotal evidence of considerable variation in schools’ responses to the reforms, as well as differences in the degree of priority being given to special educational needs and disability issues.

What all this shows, is that while our findings are helpful, better evidence is still needed to assess the reality and extent of the changes – to help children, like Joe, who are struggling in school.

So while The A word might just be a TV programme, it captures very well the stresses and strains that can be created for parents by an education system that doesn’t fully grasp their child’s needs. Needs that when met, can make an enormous difference to a child’s life.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.