Written evidence submitted by the National Autistic Society


Submission to the House of Commons Education Committee from the National Autistic Society


Inquiry: Home education


November 2020





1. Autism is a lifelong disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while there are certain difficulties that everyone on the autism spectrum shares, the condition affects them in different ways. Some autistic people are able to live relatively independent lives, while others will need a lifetime of specialist support. It affects more than one in 100 people in the UK.[1]


2. The National Autistic Society is the UK’s leading autism charity. Since we began more than 50 years ago, we have been pioneering new ways to support people and understand autism. We continue to learn every day from the children and adults we support in our schools and care services. Based on our experience, and with support from our members, donors and volunteers, we provide life-changing information and advice to millions of autistic people, their families and friends. We also support professionals, politicians and the public to understand autism better, so that more autistic people of all ages can be understood, supported and appreciated for who they are.


3. We run a network of autism-specific schools, which provide specialist support to children with complex needs. We support three special resource bases for autistic children in mainstream secondary schools. We also provide education support, training and outreach to mainstream and special schools. In addition, our charity’s Education Rights Service provides specialist advice about rights and entitlements in education for children on the autism spectrum, helps families through the SEND Tribunal process and incorporates a dedicated School Exclusions Service for children and young people on the autism spectrum.


4. We have noted the Committee’s terms of reference. This submission focuses specifically on the particular needs of children and young people on the autism spectrum, whose families may opt for home education as a last resort because their children are not receiving the support they need at school or they are at risk of exclusion. We urge the Committee to consider why the number of children and young people with SEND who are being removed from school and educated at home is on the increase, and the extent to which this is in children’s best interests.


The National Autistic Society is happy to provide any further information that the Committee would find useful, or to provide oral evidence if required.


The choice to home educate


5. The exact number of children on the autism spectrum who are home educated in England is not known for certain. However, the overall number of children who are home educated has risen, and this includes many autistic children. We hear from families that, while home education can be beneficial for some autistic children, many parents say that it was not a choice they wanted to make. Some parents of children with SEND end up home educating them because they conclude it is their only option if the school system is not meeting their child’s needs.


6. A study by the BBC in 2018 found that the total number of children being home-schooled in the UK rose by around 40 per cent over three years, from 34,000 in 2014-15 to 48,000 in 2016-17.[2] According to the BBC study, two of the main reasons parents gave for removing their child from school were concerns for the child’s mental health, or fears that the child was about to be excluded from school. Both of these factors are highly relevant to autistic children:




7. Home education can be very beneficial for some autistic children and young people. But there is a substantial difference between parents choosing it because they believe it is the best option for their child and family, and parents ending up home-schooling as a last resort because their child is having such a miserable experience at school.


8. This is corroborated by research published in 2019 by Ofsted, showing that home education is often a last resort for families rather than a positive choice because their child’s needs are not being met at school.[5] Ofsted’s report describes some of the difficult circumstances children face at school, and emphasises that parents’ overriding concern is for the wellbeing of their child:


“Growing evidence suggests that, overall, a disproportionate number of children who are removed from the school roll of a secondary school and do not move to another setting have special educational needs, are from disadvantaged backgrounds or are known to social care services, or have a combination of these characteristics… It was clear that children in this research had all moved due to difficulties they had experienced in school, although the perspectives of those difficulties generally differed.”


9. Ofsted also identified pressure on families to remove their child from school, in order to avoid exclusion. It concludes: “In these circumstances, the move to home education is not, and cannot be described as, truly ‘elective’.”


10. If home education is what parents choose and is in the best interests of an individual autistic child, parents should receive the support they need to educate and support their child at home. The choice should be a fully informed one, with access to ‘education other than at school’ (EOTAS) packages of support if needed, rather than parents left to cope alone.


Children with unmet special educational needs


11. We hear from parents that unmet special educational needs are one of the reasons for the rise in home education among autistic children.


12. The National Autistic Society carried out a survey of nearly 2,500 parents in 2017 and found that 40 per cent of parents say their autistic child does not have a school place that meets their needs. This survey was part of a detailed inquiry we carried out with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism into how the education system works for children on the autism spectrum.[6]


13. The All-Party Group heard that the school places children need are not always available, that children often have to fail before support is provided, and schools too often do not make the adjustments that autistic children need in order to succeed.


14. One way we can see that children on the autism spectrum are not getting the educational provision they need is the sharp rise since 2015 in the number of legal appeals to the SEND Tribunal in England on behalf of autistic children. SEND Tribunal statistics are an important indication of how the SEND system is working and whether good decisions are being made for children.[7]


15. Autism is the single most common type of special educational need in appeals to the SEND Tribunal. More than 40 per cent of all appeals last year were on behalf of a child on the autism spectrum. More than 90 per cent of these were won, or partially won, by parents.


16. The overall picture is that a growing number of families have to resort to legal action to get the support their children need. But not all families have the resources – the finances, the knowledge or the emotional energy – to take their local council to the SEND Tribunal. As a result, their children may end up in a school where their needs are not understood or met, or they may be excluded from school (or from a succession of schools)or they may be taken out of school to be educated at home.


Making schools work better for autistic children


17. Education is vital for all young people to build a future, but for autistic children, schooling must meet many needs. Although academic attainment is important, they also gain the skills they need to transition to adulthood, build relationships and cope with future challenges.


18. We regularly hear from autistic young people that being at school can be a miserable experience for them, if school staff do not understand autism and are not prepared to make the adjustments that children on the autism spectrum need. Their sensory needs can make the school environment unbearably noisy, distracting or even painful. Fewer than half of children and young people on the autism spectrum say they are happy at school, with seven in 10 saying that their peers do not understand them and five in 10 saying that teachers do not know how to support them.[8]


19. Children are often singled out by their classmates for being different: they may not be able to cope with the social aspects of school life and are at higher risk of being bullied.[9] All of this means that autistic children may struggle to learn in school and to achieve their potential.


20. If school isn’t working, home education may be of great benefit to an autistic child.[10] They can learn in the way that suits them best, away from the sensory overload and bullying that too many children experience at school. However, there is a great deal that schools can do to work better for autistic children.


21. The Equality Act 2010 is clear on the duty of schools to make reasonable adjustments for pupils with disabilities, including autism. The purpose of these is to create an environment that enables autistic children to learn.[11] Reasonable adjustments should be tailored to the specific needs of individual pupils. Many are inexpensive and will involve a change in the way a school does things. A school’s duty to make reasonable adjustments is an anticipatory one owed to disabled pupils. Schools need to think in advance about what pupils on the autism spectrum may require, and what adjustments may need to be made for them. This entails a good understanding both of autism and of an individual child’s needs, so that strategies can be put in place to support the child, promote their wellbeing and reduce the likelihood of exclusion or off-rolling.


Impact of Covid-19 pandemic


22. Since the pandemic began, we have heard anecdotally that some autistic children who were not previously home educated have not returned to school. Figures from the Department for Education show a jump since 1 September 2020 in new requests for elective home education for children and young people who have EHC plans.[12]


23. Without the routine of going to school, life for many autistic children during lockdown was severely disrupted. They and their families have often felt abandoned.[13] Coronavirus has made completing school tasks more challenging, robbed autistic young people of essential social contact, and exposed the lack of autism understanding in education professionals. According to our survey, 68 per cent of family members said their autistic child was anxious at the loss of routine and 65 per cent were unable to do online work.


24. It has fallen to parents to home school or support their child’s education, often while juggling work and other commitments. Two in five parents or carers did not feel they could adequately support their child in their education needs. Seven in 10 parents said their child had difficulty understanding or completing school work and around half said that their child’s academic progress was suffering


25. While some parents reported their child’s anxiety levels were lower due to not having to attend school, this reinforces the need to improve reasonable adjustments and autism understanding in schools. The evidence above strongly suggests that elective home education is not an alternative to in-school education for the majority of autistic children.


26. The pandemic has laid bare the lack of understanding of autism within our education system.




27. No parent should ever be put in a position of having to home educate because their child is not being properly supported in school. Children are legally entitled to an education, and to the additional support they need. The Government is producing a new national autism strategy this year that will include children and young people for the first time. It’s an important opportunity to set out clearly the support both inside and outside school to which autistic children and their families are entitled.


28. The new strategy should cover training for school staff, reasonable adjustments in schools for children who are on the autism spectrum, and measures to reduce bullying and promote inclusion.


November 2020






[1] The NHS Information Centre, Community and Mental Health Team, Brugha T et al (2012), Estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in adults: extending the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, Leeds: NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care.

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-42624220

[3] Wistow R and Barnes D (2009), A profile of child and adolescent mental health services in England 2007/08: findings from children’s services mapping, Durham University, Department of Health, Department of Children Schools and Families.

[4] Department for Education (July 2020), Permanent and fixed period exclusions in England: 2018 to 2019.

[5] Ofsted (October 2019), Exploring moving to home education in secondary schools.


[6] All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism / National Autistic Society (2017), Autism and education in England 2017.

[7] Ministry of Justice (December 2019), SEND Tribunal tables 2018 to 2019.

[8] All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism / National Autistic Society (2017), Autism and education in England 2017.

[9] https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/bullying/bullying/parents

[10] Critchley S (March 2018), Home education for autistic children: first choice or last resort? Network Autism.

[11] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2014), Technical guidance for schools in England.

[12] Department for Education (October 2020), Taking stock: the return to school and college for young people with SEND.

[13] National Autistic Society (September 2020), Left stranded: The impact of coronavirus on autistic people and their families in the UK.