The vast majority of school staff and leaders believe that autistic pupils’ education is being affected by a lack of teacher training in how to support them, a Tes poll suggests.
Of nearly 300 survey respondents, nearly half (45 per cent) strongly agreed that this was the case, with a further 35 per cent agreeing.
Just 6 per cent disagree or strongly disagreed.
More than a fifth – 22 per cent of respondents – said there was no, or not a lot of, provision in their school for autistic children.
And more than a quarter (27 per cent) said they had not had any autism training, despite 96 per cent saying that teachers need it, according to the survey, carried out for the ITV breakfast program Good Morning Britain.
Lisa Suter, executive head teacher at Heatherwood and North Ridge special schools in Doncaster, said there seemed to be an “unfortunate absence of specialist training” in the curriculum for many new teachers coming into their roles as Early Career Teachers (ECTs).
She said that, while she understood there was a lot to cover in the curriculum, “more could be done to prepare new teachers for the personalization agenda and how to deliver the SEND Code of Practice in a classroom”.
“How to do this in an already packed teacher-training curriculum is hard, so getting this sort of CPD explicitly built into the ECT development program would be a helpful and sensible first step and we would welcome the DfE pursuing this change,” she said. .
The government’s autism strategy (2021-2026) committed £ 600,000 to staff autism training and professional development in schools and colleges “but this is not funding on a scale to enable widespread training or make a difference in classrooms”, according to Rosamund McNeil, Assistant Secretary General at the National Education Union (NEU).
She said: “We need more understanding of SEND included throughout initial teacher training. The current half-a-day focus is neither sufficient nor comprehensive.”
Several teachers in the survey said they felt awareness of autism in the profession relied on “stereotypes”.
One said: “The support is rarely more than ‘no sarcasm’ and ‘no sudden changes’.
“As an autistic teacher, I know full well this is not enough and students are not getting the recognition and support they need to do as well as their peers.”
Asked who should be responsible for supplying training, the largest proportion of respondents (35 per cent) said the government, followed by 29 per cent who said local government, 19 per cent who said schools, and 10 per cent who said autism charities.
‘No extra money’
However, many respondents pointed to limited resources, as opposed to a lack of training or awareness.
One primary teacher said: “The issue is that children with autism are regularly thrown into classes with 33 pupils, all of whom have their own individual social and academic needs, with little to no extra support.
“I currently teach a little girl with an autism diagnosis who would benefit enormously from some one-to-one support time, as well as sensory provisions, but there is literally no extra money or support provided for her and so I am trying my hardest to meet her needs, as well as the rest of the pupils in the classes needs … quite frankly it is not possible for one person to achieve this, however much they try / care. “
According to researchers at the University of Exeter, the number of autism diagnoses has increased 787 per cent in the past 20 years.
Statistics from the Department of Education (DfE) – covering the whole of the school system – show that the number of pupils with autism as their primary special educational need rose from 50,000 in 2009 to around 163,000 in 2020-21.
Rob Williams, a senior policy advisor at the NAHT heads’ union, said that, given the prevalence of autism among children and young people, it was “clearly crucial that all school staff feel well equipped to fully meet the needs of those pupils”.
Support needed to be available throughout teachers’ careers, not just during ITT, he added.
‘Incredibly hard’ for leaders to get support
Mr Williams added: “It is also vital that specialists with relevant expertise are on hand to support schools and teachers; to give them timely advice and to answer questions that emerge.
“Currently, too many school leaders tell us that they find it incredibly hard to access that support when they need it.”
He highlighted “a real issue in some parts of the country” with waiting times following referrals, which “can lead to delays in children receiving an autism diagnosis” and “cause real challenges from a schools’ perspective”.
The DfE’s SEND Review, published earlier this year, set out a focus on Improving workforce training through the introduction of a new Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo) NPQ for school SENCos and increasing the number of staff with an accredited level 3 qualification in early years settings.