Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by TreeHouse—The national charity for autism education


  TreeHouse is the national charity for autism education. Our vision is to transform through education the lives of children with autism and the lives of their families. Established in 1997 by a group of parents, TreeHouse runs a school for children and young people with autism and campaigns for better autism education nationally.

  Through our direct educational provision and through our projects which support parents to campaign and participate we have been able to build extensive knowledge and expertise around best practice in the education of children with autism.

  TreeHouse School has 67 pupils and we represent them and their families. Our Parent Support Project and Parent Participation Project work with many parents around the UK. Through networks the coverage of these groups reaches up to 1,000 parents.


  At TreeHouse, we know that education can be the most effective intervention to improve outcomes for children and young people with autism. It is our core business to ensure all children with autism across the country can access the right education to unlock their potential. It is therefore imperative that children and young people with autism do not experience discrimination in schools, so that all children with autism can achieve the best possible outcomes.

  This submission of evidence will look at:

    — Indirect discrimination.

    — Discrimination through exclusions.

    — Discrimination through bullying.

    — Discrimination through segregation.

    — Discriminations in the school complaints process.

    — Child poverty and autism.

    — The youth justice system and autism.

1.   Indirect discrimination and education

  The Lewisham v Malcolm (2008) ruling has already led to changes in the guidance to schools on improving behaviour and attendance[551] so that in cases of exclusion of a child with autism considered to be behaving badly will be compared to a pupil who has behaved in the same way but who is not disabled. This is a significant weakening of the guidance and the protection for pupils with autism from exclusion because of their disability. It is incredibly important that this is dealt with.

  We understand that it is likely that the Government will have to introduce indirect discrimination due to forthcoming European legislation, However, we are concerned that indirect discrimination will not be secure enough to strengthen the position of children with autism facing exclusion as a consequence of their disability.

  Indirect discrimination is already a feature of other equality legislation, such as race and sex legislation. In practice it means that a disproportionate impact needs to be demonstrated mathematically. So, rather than just showing that some people within a protected group would be disadvantaged, you need to show that most people are disadvantaged. This will not necessarily protect more disabled people against discrimination.

  In the case of exclusion from school there are often very unique sets of circumstances which may have led to the exclusion so it could prove difficult for families to prove indirect discrimination. Furthermore, indirect discrimination still relies on a like-for-like comparison between disabled people and others. Without removing this comparison requirement, the consequences of the Malcolm judgement will remain.

2.   Exclusions and autism

  The third report[552] by the TreeHouse Constructive Campaigning Parent Support Project looked at the disproportionate exclusion rate of children with autism from school. 43% of parents reported their child with autism had been officially excluded within the previous 12 months; only a quarter of these exclusions were one-off occurrences.

  Exclusions almost invariably deprive children with autism of the education that is so vital to meeting their needs. Parents reported that exclusions led to their children displaying signs of extreme distress, anxiety and low self-esteem. In the majority of cases, the distress experienced by children with autism resulting from extremely difficult experiences in school has caused pervasive and long lasting damage. Sir Alan Steer stated that "School exclusion of any child should only take place if there is no reasonable alternative action available."[553]

  Illegal exclusions are a particular concern for parents; a concern shared in the Steer review. An illegal exclusion is when parents are asked to remove their child from school before the end of the school day without any formal procedure being followed. 55% of parents surveyed reported that their child with autism had experienced illegal exclusion over the years.

  The main concerns of parents regarding illegal exclusions were:

    — the frequency of cases of illegal exclusion;

    — parents were not provided with sufficient information about how the schools were addressing illegal exclusion situations;

    — parents were not informed about what reasonable adjustments were being made following these cases of illegal exclusions; and

    — parents were not informed how schools recorded these illegal exclusions.

  71% of parents said there were specific events, times of day or school year that were linked to occasions of illegal exclusion. Events that parents reported are linked with exclusion were:

    — the run up to Christmas (74%);

    — the beginning of a new term (68%);

    — the end of term (64%);

    — school sports day (58%);

    — school trips (58%); and

    — school inspections (26%).

  Parents also reported that internal exclusion was a significant concern. Internal exclusion is the removal of a child from school activities, ranging from a particular subject class to a school performance.

  Poor communication between schools and parents on internal exclusion left parents anxious and frustrated. As they were not routinely informed of instances of internal exclusion, parents believed that neither they nor the schools had full details of the circumstances leading up to the internal exclusion. If they were informed of an internal exclusion, parents found it difficult to establish if the reason for the exclusion was disciplinary or preventative for example to remove the child from the classroom to defuse an escalating situation.

  Exclusions also have a far-reaching impact on parents of children with autism; 44% of parents who responded to the survey reported that their child's exclusion regularly required them to leave work and this has a detrimental effect on their employment; 85% of these parents have children who have been illegally excluded.

3.   Bullying and autism

  It is well known that children with autism, along with children with other disabilities, are more likely to be victims of bullying. A report by the National Autistic Society[554] found that 40% of children with autism have been bullied. The TreeHouse Constructive Campaigning Parent Support's "Emerging Issues" report[555] found bullying to be one of the most concerning issues for parents.

  The impact of bullying on children with autism can be devastating. Bullying affects the ability of children with autism to participate in education and their peer groups. It can have serious repercussions for their emotional and physical well-being as well as their academic performance. Some children are severely traumatised by this experience and many may never recover. Parents often feel that schools do not take appropriate measures to prevent children with autism from being bullied.

  Parents have told us about how their children's school experiences are overshadowed by bullying:

    "I ask him how his day has been at school and he gives me a run down of who's bullied him that day and what they said or did to him. It would be nice to hear of a friendship he's made, or feeling proud of some work he has done instead."

  Social interaction difficulties encountered by children on the autistic spectrum make them particularly vulnerable in educational settings. For instance a child may respond well during lessons but find that they struggle most during break times when their social communication needs are not supported. This may mean that children on the autistic spectrum become withdrawn or appear aloof and indifferent; they may also be insensitive to the feelings of others. This can lead to problems at break times and puts children at risk of becoming isolated and victims of bullying.

  Many parents believe that schools' poor handling of bullying is a result of a general lack of understanding of school staff about autism. When school staff are well trained in autism, it makes a real difference to their propensity to respond appropriately to bullying situations and, indeed, prevent bullying in the first place.

4.   Segregation

  We believe that every child with autism should be able to access an inclusive education that meets each child's unique needs. At TreeHouse, we know that all educational settings for children with autism, mainstream or special schools, can facilitate an inclusive education. Successful inclusion depends on the ability of staff to understand each child's needs and work with the child and their family to ensure that they are able to participate with their peers, their family and in the wider community.

  It is the long term vision of TreeHouse that all children with autism will be able to access a high quality, inclusive education that is appropriate to their needs and abilities, provided by a skilled workforce at a local school.

  Our research on inclusive education,[556] which sought the views of parents of children with autism across the country, clearly demonstrated that inclusion was important to them and that inclusion can work and is happening. But there are still too many cases where inclusion is not working and could be improved.

  Parents told us what an inclusive education means to them:

    "Providing children with an educational environment that meets their needs in a holistic way, not just academic"

    — "Letting a child be themselves, while teaching them to cope in a wider world"

    — "Education which is tailored to the needs and abilities of each child"

    — "Working with mainstream peer group whilst still having special needs met individually"

  These quotes give clear messages about how education providers can be working to ensure that children and young people with autism are not segregated.

  Staff training is critical. If education providers do not fully understand autism and how it can affect each individual child it is unlikely that they will be able to enable children with autism, through understanding the social and emotional challenges that each child might face, to be valued and part of their peers and their community. In his report on pupil behaviour, Sir Alan Steer said "Whatever the cause of the individual behaviour problem, successful intervention requires intelligent, caring action on behalf of the school and the external support agencies and which relates to individual need."


  Difficulties experienced by children with autism in schools can have a massive effect on families and their capacity to work. Parents are frequently called on to fill gaps in provision due to exclusion. This can place stress on family life, with families of children with autism being much more likely to be lone parent families.

  For these reasons families of children with autism are at high risk of poverty. The high risk of poverty could also affect the social mobility of siblings of children with autism.

  TreeHouse produced a report[557] that looked at the extra difficulties faced by parents of disabled children who wish to work. The impact of disability on the poverty is clear:

    — 3% of mothers of a disabled child being in full-time employment as compared to 22% of mothers of a non-disabled child.[558]

    — 84% of mothers of disabled children do not work, as compared to 39% of mothers with a non-disabled child.[559]

    — It costs, on average, three times as much to raise a child with a complex impairment than a non-disabled child.[560]

    — Over a quarter of parents with a disabled child are lone parents.[561]

  Families affected by autism are likely to spend more time at home due to the disproportionately high rate of exclusion in schools and difficulties accessing in wider services. This can result in a greater consumption of fuel in the winter. Coupled with the higher incidence of poverty among families affected by autism, fuel poverty is a serious issue for families affected by autism.

  TreeHouse believes the following changes would improve the financial situations of families affected by autism:

    Better autism training for the school workforce—entire school staff to receive comprehensive training in meeting the needs of children with autism to prevent exclusions and bullying, and ensure each unique child's needs are met.

    Greater flexibility in the workplace—needs of parents with disabled children to be recognised by employers, opportunities for parents seeking employment to discuss flexible working at the outset, paid time for parents needing time for their child's appointments, amendment to discrimination laws to provide protection against discrimination in work.

    Better access to services—ensure traditionally deprived and hard-to-reach groups are well informed of available services, able to access services and aware of their rights as parents of disabled children.

    Greater entitlement to winter fuel allowance for families with children with autism.


  There is evidence that indicates that a disproportionate number of young people with autism are in the youth justice system. The clear relationship between the educational experiences of young people and their likelihood to offend is of great concern to us, in particular the worrying percentages of young offenders having a statement of SEN or previous permanent exclusions.

  We know that autism affects one in 100 school-aged children[562] and that children with autism represent 14.6% of children with a statement of SEN.[563] Furthermore, pupils with statements of SEN are over three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school than the rest of the school population, and pupils with SEN (both with and without statements) are more likely to be excluded than those pupils with no SEN.[564]

  Unfortunately more specific figures about the type of SEN that are represented in the youth justice system are not available, making it hard to ascertain the full picture. We believe that more detailed collection of statistics will help to better define the type of support that is required for each young person in the youth justice system.

February 2009

551   Department for Children, Schools and Families (2008) "Improving behaviour and attendance: guidance on exclusion from schools and Pupil Referral Units" Back

552   The TreeHouse "Exclusion Report" is available to download at Back

553   "Review of Pupil Behaviour", Sir Alan Steer, February 2009  Back

554   National Autistic Society, "B is for Bullying", 2006  Back

555   "Emerging issues and emerging solutions", TreeHouse, 2007  Back

556   "Improving inclusion: getting inclusive education right for children with autism", written by Robbie de Santos and Sasha Daly, TreeHouse, September 2008  Back

557   Scope, TreeHouse and Working Families (2007) "Making Work WORK for parents of disabled children" Back

558   Child Poverty Review,(2004) HM Treasury Back

559   Langerman, C. and Worrall, E. (2005) "Ordinary Lives-Disabled children and their families" London: New Philanthropy Capital Back

560   Dobson, B. and Middleton, S. (1998) "Paying to care: the costs of childhood disability" Back

561   Barnes, M. et al (2004) "Families and Children in Britain: Findings from the 2002 Families and Children Study (FACS)" Department for Work and Pensions, Research Report 206 Back

562   The Office of National Statistics recently reported a rate of autism of 1% in the population of school-age children. Back

563   Department for Education and Skills, January 2007, National Statistic SFR 20/2007 Special Educational Needs in England Back

564   Department for Education and Skills, January 2007, National Statistics SFR 21/2007 Permanent and fixed period exclusions from schools and exclusion appeals in England Back

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Prepared 20 November 2009