As the summer draws to a close and a new school year begins, I am dedicating this newsletter to discussing the status of the UK education system, including my SEND Tribunal experience.
The education system is broken, at least in relation to how some schools treat and educate autistic students and students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Schools routinely exclude and “off roll” their SEND students, depriving them of their right to an education, negatively impacting their mental health and jeopardising their future career prospects. What does this prejudice and discrimination say about our educational system and more generally, about the society we live in?
Social media is bursting with SEND stories of autistic students being excluded from school and of the bullying of SEND students. According to the Department of Education, 14.4% of students had special educational needs in 2017. In other words, 1 out of 7 children have a special educational need and the numbers, especially in relation to autistic students, are increasing. It is, therefore, no longer a viable option for schools to continue to discard of their SEND students. There are simply too many of us.
All children deserve an education, irrespective of race, gender, religion or disabilities. The question is how we make this a reality. What can each of us do to bring about change, to create a fairer and more inclusive school environment? I believe we need to share our experiences and demand to be heard. We need to shout from the rooftops! On our own, each of our experiences may seem like an isolated incident. However, each of our SEND experiences are tied together by a common theme. Together, as a united voice, we have the power to use our experiences to change the landscape and bring about positive change. Future generations of SEND students are depending on us.
In the past year, I have become a nationally recognised autism and anti-bullying advocate. As part of this role, I have been sharing my educational experiences. My experience is that the mistreatment of SEND students is common. I have found this to be the case not only in schools, but also the police department and the SEND Tribunal. By sharing the full extent of my experience, I hope to give some insight as to battles I have faced simply because I am a student with SEND.
I have been forced to leave one primary school and two secondary schools due to bullying. Most recently, I was severely bullied at Sevenoaks School. Despite knowing that I was being bullied, the school initially denied it. I was repeatedly told that the school was “certain” that I was not being bullied and that it was simply my “perception.” Later, when showing my school SENCO a text message from a friend informing me that one of the bullies was repeatedly making disparaging comments about my disabilities to our classmates, I was told that I needed to have a sense of humour and that “lads will be lads.” The SENCO even went as far as to tell me that the repeated derogatory comments about my disabilities needed to be put into “context” for me, because my autism causes me to misunderstand social situations.
As the bullying escalated and I developed a fear of going to school, the school began a personal attack against me. I was falsely accused of sending suicidal text messages, which the school claimed to have seen. The Head of Pastoral Care began a campaign of harassment, which included lying and taking what I said out of context, fabricating a mental illness in order to discredit me and depicting me as someone with a severe mental illness who did not belong in mainstream education. I was left with no choice but to leave.
My parents and I decided that this time, we would not go silently. I wanted to help ensure that no other Sevenoaks School student was made to endure such a traumatic experience.
On the day I left, I wrote a blog post about my experience on my website. I was immediately contacted by several former Sevenoaks School students who had also been bullied by the Sevenoaks School senior staff. The stories these students shared were shocking and some even heart breaking. One former student travelled all the way to London and spent several hours sharing her traumatic Sevenoaks School experience. On the one hand, it was comforting to discover that I was not alone, that other students had gone through similar Sevenoaks School experiences. On the other hand, I was sad to discover that the school appears to routinely bully its SEND students.
Armed with the information that other Sevenoaks School students had also been bullied by Sevenoaks School, my parents filed a formal complaint with the board of governors, and I submitted a subject access request (a request for copies of all my information, including emails about me).
I reported the disability hate crime to the police. Despite providing the police with numerous text messages, evidencing the disability-based bullying and providing a list of witnesses who could testify to the abuse, the police dropped the case. The police relied on the Sevenoaks School’s denial of the bullying and Sevenoaks School’s false claim that I had a formal diagnosis of being a “fantasist.” Although the police acknowledged that I had been bullied, they decided not to pursue the case on the basis that I was no longer a student at the school and that it would be unfair to criminalise the bulllies for their behaviour. In other words, they disregarded a law that was designed to stop disability hate crimes and protect people like me, because they had more empathy for the perpetrators. I had my life turned upside down; my education was disrupted, I forfeited a highly prestigious academic scholarship and I developed bullying-related PTSD. Yet, to the police this was irrelevant. (MP Michael Fallon is currently investigating the handling of my case.)
The Information Commissioner’s Office
I also filed a complaint against Sevenoaks School with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to force Sevenoaks to correct a false incident report and for numerous breaches of my personal data.
The ICO required Sevenoaks School to correct the incident report in which the school falsely stated that I had sent suicidal text messages. The ICO also investigated numerous violations.For example, when my parents filed a complaint with the school’s board of governors, the school sent the members of the complaints panel copies of all my private, confidential medical files in breach of the school’s complaints procedures and my rights to privacy. Although my physiotherapy, dyslexia, dyspraxia and other medical reports had nothing to do with my parent’s complaint against the school for failing to follow their bullying procedures, Sevenoaks School sent each person on the complaints panel paper copies of these highly confidential and private medical reports despite my objections.
It appears that the school also attempted to withhold and alter incriminating documents from my subject access request. Sevenoaks School even went as far as to contact my psychiatrist without my permission, months after I had left the school, to ask him to “correct” (cover up) the Deputy Head Pastoral’s notes (which they withheld from the documents they were legally required to provide to me) of a conversation in which the Deputy Head Pastoral falsely claimed my psychiatrist told her I had a diagnosis of being a “fantasist.” My psychiatrist, who specialises in treating anxiety in autistic teenage girls, contacted my parents to vehemently deny using this term and in so doing, alerted them of the existence of the note. For the avoidance of doubt, my psychiatrist has stated that the word “fantasist” is a not a clinical term used by professional psychiatrists, but rather a word used by laypersons to discredit someone by painting them as dishonest. He raised concerns about the school’s motives and agenda in fabricating this false diagnosis.
Due to the disability discrimination I endured at Sevenoaks School, my parents and I filed a disability claim with the SEND Tribunal. We submitted 18 claims of discrimination under the Equality Act, including direct and indirect discrimination, refusal to make reasonable adjustments and harassment (for example, we obtained a copy of an email sent by the Deputy Head Pastoral in which she boasted about terrifying me and included a happy face emoji). In our submission to the SEND Tribunal, the remedial action we requested was that Sevenoaks School apologise, that it update its bullying policies and that its senior staff attend an autism training course.
The school refused.
Instead, Sevenoaks School hired a QC and spent three days at SEND Tribunal at the Royal Courts of Justice. The Sevenoaks School Head, Divisional Head, Deputy Head Pastoral and Head of SENCO preferred to spend thousands of pounds on legal fees, countless hours preparing witness statements and legal defences and hours testifying in person at the SEND Tribunal, rather than simply agreeing to an apology, to updating its bullying policies and sending its senior staff to an autism training course.
Despite overwhelming evidence of discrimination, the tribunal ruled against us. The law is not always blind and justice does not always prevail. We are currently appealing the decision on the basis that the judge overlooked material evidence, failed to apply the law and even misinterepreted the law in order to conclude that I was not discriminated against. For example, the judge concluded that since I was not aware of a discriminatory act at the time it occurred, it did not constitute discrimination! (The law does not require knowledge of the discrimination at the time the discrimination occurred, especially since discrimination is usually not carried out in the open, but rather covertly and secretly.)
The judge also concluded that because Sevenoaks School had made reasonable adjustments in relation to my dyslexia and dyspraxia that the school did not have to make reasonable adjustments in relation to my autism. (The law does not set quotas or limits on the number of reasonable adjustments a school is legally required to make in order to ensure a child with disabilities is not disadvantaged.)
In respect to one particular reasonable adjustment (that I be changed to one of the five other tutor groups that did not include one of my bullies), a request that was made repeatedly over a three-month period by me, my parents, my psychiatrist and eventually, in a detailed letter from our SEND solicitors, the judge ruled that since my psychiatrist had not specifically said it was “necessary”, the school had met its obligation. The law does not require numerous requests, and it certainly does not require that a request for a reasonable adjustment be made by a psychiatrist who must state that it is “necessary.” The judge ignored our SEND solicitor’s letter which set out the school’s legal obligation to move me to a new tutor group, a letter the school also ignored.
These examples I have given above in relation to the judge’s ruling are just a few and intended to convey the nature of the system: a system where the law does not seem to apply to students like me.
Schools count on benefiting from a system that is biased against students like me and rely on a culture of silence to continue to protect their reputation. Sevenoaks School probably did not expect that I would rise from the ashes, stronger and more determined to help children like me. Sevenoaks Schools probably did not expect that I would create a national platform through which to share my SEND experience. Many schools count on students like me to leave quietly and without a trace. This explains why nothing ever changes and why so many of us have been mistreated.
Hope for the Future
Something has to change. A few recent developments give me hope that perhaps, this change has already started. A series of recent SEND developments may be an indication that the tide is turning, that students like me will finally be nurtured and supported at school so that we can fulfil our potential. A Upper Tribunal judge recently ruled that the exclusion of an autistic boy was unlawful. Her landmark ruling held that “aggressive behaviour is not a choice for children with autism.” She concluded that it was repugnant to define the behaviour of autistic students as criminal or anti-social in order to justify excluding them from the protection of the Equality Act. Her ruling closes a loophole that schools have relied on to exclude autistic students. Since almost half of all exclusions in schools involve SEN students, this ruling will have a profound impact on how schools treat their autistic students.
On 18 July 2018, the House of Commons Education Committee published Forgotten Children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions. The report provides a scathing review of the SEND educational landscape and proposes a Bill of Rights for pupils facing exclusion. Also, in July 2018, the London Assembly published Together: Transforming the lives of children and young people with special education needs and disabilities in London. The report calls upon the Mayor of London to lobby for more funding to provide and expand support services for the 14% of students with SEND in London.Finally, in August 2018, a High Court judge quashed Bristol City Council’s decision to reduce SEND spending by £5 million. This decision set a legal precedent that will make it less likely that other city councils will be able to reduce their SEND spending, at a time when SEND support is significantly underfunded.
It appears that the courts and the government are finally recognising that autistic students and SEND students have a right to an education and that schools need to stop discriminating against us and start supporting us. I am hopeful that times are changing and that perhaps schools will finally start supporting alltheir students. However, there is still much work to be done. Let’s break the silence. Let’s share our experiences and use them to demand change. Together, we can create a better future for students with SEND.