An autistic boy's fight against exclusion

William Speed's school has excluded him for his difficult behaviour. But his parents say the autistic teenager needs to stay put. It's a case that tests the rights of Britain's special needs children
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The Independent Online

William Speed is a large, 15-year-old, severely autistic boy who lashes out when troubled. Both his school and his parents agree that his behaviour is difficult and needs careful handling, but that is all they agree on. After years of dispute, the school has turfed William out, and his parents are taking it to court.

The school says William now needs to go to a residential special school. As a day special school it does not have the resources to cope with him. But his parents believe that moving him from home will make his behaviour deteriorate further. They want him to return to the school he has attended since he was four, and to be given the resources and support to which he is entitled - but which, they say, have not been forthcoming for years.

"For example," says his father, Mark Speed, a solicitor, "he's never had the intensive speech and language therapy he should have had. He needs as much as he can possibly get. There are 12 weeks in a term, but he has only had about five weeks of it in a typical term. Of course, there are problems with resources, but either a child has a legal right to provision or not."

He is now pursuing a judicial review of the school's action, seeking an order that his son be reinstated immediately, and is also pursuing a negligence claim against the head and the governing body which includes claims under the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is a complicated, lengthy, acrimonious and individual saga, but many parents of children with special needs will recognise its basic elements because, while the current system of special-needs provision gives strong legal rights to children who have a statement of special educational need (the "passport" to getting tailored help and resources), these very often don't translate into practical support.

Thousands of parents struggle either to get their child such a statement, to get that statement amended when necessary, or to get local authorities to cough up the help that the statement entitles their child to. And for disadvantaged parents especially, the maze of forms, assessments and tribunal hearings that they have to fight through to secure their children's rights can be overwhelming.

Roger Inman, chief executive of the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, a charity that provides advice and advocacy to up to 4,000 families a year, says that there are a number of aspects of the Speed case that will ring bells with other parents.

Research shows that exclusions from special schools, for example, are as frequent as from mainstream schools, and there are widespread concerns about local authorities that "frustrate the system" by not delivering special education resources.

In William's case, life at Whitefield Schools and Centre in Waltham Forest, east London, which is the country's largest special school, went more or less smoothly through the primary school years, but then went downhill as he transferred to secondary.

In autumn 2001 he was permanently excluded from school because of his disruptive behaviour but reinstated when his parents lodged an appeal. After that, he was educated in isolation and - so his parents allege - without such things as the swimming sessions and music therapy to which he was entitled and which, they say, he needs to calm him and improve his behaviour.

In 2002 they fought successfully to get his statement amended by appealing to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal, and then continued to protest about what they saw as continuing problems with his education. By 2004 the school was recommending residential education for William, saying that it did not have the resources to cope with him. Then, last summer, it wrote to the Speeds saying it was no longer able to meet William's educational needs.

Since then, his mother, Ann, has had him at home full-time - not easy when she has two other children with medical problems, has had cancer, and is recently separated - but resists the pressure to send him to a school far away.

"It would devastate him, me and the rest of the family. Here he lives on a normal street, he lives with people who love him and whom he can trust.

"He's not being treated like a human being. People want to shove him away in a dark corner in the country and forget him. I believe they're behaving in an illegal and immoral way to suit their own purposes."

Mark Speed believes that their relentless fight for William's rights, along with the legal help he has given to other parents at Whitefield, has served to entrench the situation. "They just want us off their backs. I know the school has had children at least as bad as William, if not worse.

"When they excluded him, he was clashing with another lad, but it was that other lad who broke a teacher's nose, not William."

Both he and his wife also feel the school seems keen to get rid of disruptive pupils as they get older and more difficult to handle. "I believe that the school isn't acting in the best interests of its pupils," says Mark Speed. "I believe it's let William down badly, and let the family down, too. So many kids like him get passed from pillar to post."

Neither the education authority nor the school was willing to comment on the case because of legal proceedings. Neils Chapman, head of the school, said: "The school has always acted in the child's best interest and in accordance with all the relevant regulations and guidance."

Meanwhile, Roger Inman points out that proposed changes to the education system set out in the Government's White Paper are likely to make life even more difficult for special-needs pupils. The changes will encourage the privatisation of schools and give them greater powers to set their own admissions policies.

"At present, the local education authority determines provision as well as pays for it. Now the White Paper says that they are no longer going to be the purseholders. But they will still be tasked with the special education needs role," says Inman. So how effectively, he wonders, are authorities going to be able to place children in schools, when schools, in turn, will be free to turn away any children they don't want?

"It is quite unclear what will happen to children like that. There are the most enormous concerns."

Special needs: facts and figures

Fifteen per cent of children in England, about 1.25 million, have special educational needs (SEN), which means they have a "significantly greater degree of difficulty in learning than the majority of their age in local mainstream schools" and need "additional or different" help. Just under 3 per cent of those, about 243,000, have "statements" of severe special needs.

About 93,000 pupils are educated in special schools, and about one in 10 of these children is autistic. Two thirds of special-school pupils are boys, and a third come from the kind of disadvantaged background that means they are eligible for free school meals - twice as many as in mainstream schools.

About 300 pupils a year are permanently excluded from special schools, roughly the same proportion as are expelled from mainstream schools, although pupils with special needs are about nine times more likely to be excluded from school.

Government policy is to include as many SEN pupils as possible in mainstream schools and 66 per cent of pupils now being given statements stay in such schools. But schools say they lack money and resources to deal with them, and pressure on exam results means many are reluctant to take statemented pupils.

Parents are finding it harder to get children statemented, especially in some areas - provision for special needs varies widely. The Government aims to improve SEN services by encouraging mainstream and special schools to work more closely together, and by fostering partnerships between education, health, social services and voluntary organisations.

What is autism?

It is a developmental disability affecting people's ability to communicate, understand language, play and interact with others. A neurological disorder, it is present at birth, and usually apparent by the age of three. People with autism can often be confused, anxious and frustrated and tend to function best in an environment where there is structure, routine and stability.

About half a million people in the UK are thought to have either autism, or to fall within the autistic spectrum, which includes less severe conditions such as Asperger syndrome, where autistic tendencies may go hand-in-hand with good language and high intellectual abilities.

People with autism or autistic tendencies vary widely. They may be sociable or withdrawn; slow or active; intellectually gifted or mentally handicapped. A few are so-called "idiot savants", able to perform amazing feats of memory or calculation.

The cause of autism is unknown, and many researchers believe there are multiple causes. There is no proven link with the MMR vaccine, but some experts believe that high levels of testosterone might be a factor in autism, which affects three times as many boys as girls. Numbers are going up steeply, but this may be more to do with better diagnosis than with an increase in the prevalence of the disorder.