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Autistic pupils are twice as likely to be regularly, and unlawfully, excluded from school for a fixed term than those who do not have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), a new study reveals.

Over the last five years every region in England has seen an increase in the number of school exclusions for pupils on the autism spectrum of between 45% and 100%. This is due, among other things, to the failure of staff to make reasonable adjustments for students, inadequate systems and policies, and budget cuts.

Research by the University of Birmingham’s Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) into the causes and implications of exclusions for autistic children and young people found that at least 25% of parents reported unofficial or illegal exclusions of their children.

“The impact of exclusions on autistic pupils and their families is profound and can be lifelong - juggling financial pressure with taking time off work and coping with the family’s mental health. We have spoken to many people who are often left feeling very isolated, unable to interact with friends and let down by the education system. “These are unusual times in terms of restricted budgets and the impact of Covid-19, which has exacerbated this issue. However, we need a co-ordinated and concerted effort by school leadership, staff, specialist services and families to help children stay in school and progress.”

ACER Director Professor Karen Guldberg

The report highlights that many autistic adults were still emotionally affected by exclusion, even in their 40s and 50s. Many feel a sense of injustice and anger. Some found that being excluded had a negative impacted on their later successes or they had to work even harder to catch up.

The researchers make a number of recommendations to policymakers, local authorities and educators including:

  • Provide national and individual school guidance on exclusion policy related to autism and more broadly on SEN and SEMH.
  • Create good practice guidelines on how and what to communicate to families and pupils at each stage of the exclusion process, to ensure essential information is passed on at appropriate times.
  • Make it a legal requirement for schools to use a specific code for recording absence due to pupils being on part-time timetables.
  • Provide clearer guidance to schools as to the decision process they should be undertaking when making exclusions (i.e. justifying their reasons).
  • Provide guidance on how senior leadership should be including statements on SEND and autism within school behaviour policies and how to train their staff on the matter.
  • Introduce greater independent monitoring of schools’ exclusion processes and interventions when illegal exclusions occur.

The findings of this investigation were presented to Huw Merriman MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, who commented: “This is a deeply concerning report, which strongly echoes the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism's own research with the National Autistic Society.

"Exclusions can have a devastating and lifelong impact on autistic children and their futures and should only ever be an absolute last resort. We must do all we can to stop this negative trend, especially improving support for autistic children and young people and making sure that all school staff have a good understanding of autism."

For more information, please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0)782 783 2312 or t.moran@bham.ac.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries, please call +44 (0) 7789 921 165.