Young children with autism not able to return to school next week, Scottish council tells parents

Parents with young children in schools for pupils with additional needs in Falkirk have been told they will not be able to return to school full time next week – despite mainstream schools opening for five days for P1 to P3 classes.

People with children under seven in Ladeside, Sacred Heart and Easter Carmuirs schools in Falkirk, which cater for children with severe autism, have been told they will only be able to attend school for four days a week until all pupils are back in class – despite the Scottish Government announcing a return to the classroom for the youngest pupils from Monday.

Pupils will attend school on Monday and Tuesday and Thursday and Friday, with a break on Wednesday.

Parents and autism charities have warned of the impact the disruption will have on young children with the condition, saying that autistic youngsters will be “left behind” their mainstream peers.

Children in P1 to P3 are starting school next week.

Falkirk Council said the move was due to a “risk assessment” and because pupils in ASN schools “cannot maintain” social distancing. Parents at Sacred Heart school were told the Wednesday break would allow for “deep cleaning”.

Under Scottish Government guidelines, children under 12 do not have to social distance due to the reduced risk of transmission of coronavirus in young children.

Nick Ward, director of National Autistic Society Scotland, said: "The strict restrictions and huge change to routine created from the pandemic and lockdown has left many autistic children and families under severe pressure with profound impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

"Many parents have struggled to effectively home school, as through no fault of their own, they do not have the skills to deliver specialist learning and many are worried their children are falling behind.

"The Government has set out the timetable for children returning to school and it is important that autistic children benefit from the same opportunities as everyone else to safely attend school, whether in mainstream or specialist settings. To not do so risks leaving autistic children and young people left behind and their futures put in jeopardy."

A spokesman for Falkirk Council said: “ASN specialist provisions have been operating a blended learning model since January 11, 2021, in line with Scottish Government guidance.

"Two metre distancing cannot be maintained in specialist provisions and to mitigate risk of transmission, numbers in school were reduced in order to reduce number of households. It also reduces occasions when staff cannot socially distance from other staff and adherence to class bubbles.”

The spokesman added: “Most pupils in specialist provision have received a form of face-to-face teaching. The return for P1-P3 pupils is dependent on staff maintaining a 2m distance from other staff.

"Each specialist provision has considered their model and risk assessments and are communicating with parents regarding arrangements for P1-P3 in line with the Scottish Government guidance.”

Jo Bisset, organiser for campaign group UsForThem Scotland, said: “Whenever the government or a council embarks on closures like this, it’s the most vulnerable who lose out. We’re seeing this again with pupils who have additional support needs.

“It’s just not good enough – children are being failed left, right and centre and no politicians seem to want to do anything about it. The fact children with autism are being discriminated against in this way isn’t just disgraceful, it’s arguably a contravention of their human rights too.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "This week we published further guidance to support the phased return of pupils to schools in February/March 2021. This sets out that in addition to those children and young people who are already receiving in person learning, there will be a small increase in provision for children and young people with significant additional support needs where there is a clear and demonstrable necessity.

“Those who work directly with children and young people with complex needs are best placed to determine the best learning environment for them during these exceptional phased return arrangements.

"Education Scotland have prepared and developed resources to support children and young people learning at home, including those with complex additional support needs.”

‘Routine and structure is vital for her’

Claire Smith, from Falkirk, has two daughters who are due to return to school next week. One, aged seven, who attends a mainstream school, will go to school full time, while her six-year-old sister, who attends Ladeside School, will only go for four days a week.

Ms Smith said: “The First Minister said they will be going back full time if they are in P1 to P3. Then I got an email from Falkirk Council telling me that they are not going ahead with that and that my daughter with additional needs would only go to school for four days.

“One of the schools has said it is because of deep cleaning on a Wednesday, which makes no sense. If they need to deep clean for children with autism, why do they not need to deep clean for mainstream children? There are only six children in the class and it is getting to be better weather, so they could have the windows open or do outdoor learning.

"My daughter thrives on routine. Routine and structure is vital for her.

"When the first lockdown happened, she regressed significantly, so we had to get help put in place, but when she got back to school in August it was amazing.

"She loves school and she loves being there. When routine changes, it is incredibly devastating. She loses her ability to speak and gets angry and she reduces her food intake and stops sleeping.

"When you see your happy child and they’ve got their support and it’s all stripped away from them, it’s incredibly upsetting. The remote learning was all online and she can’t do that.

"Having one child go back full time and then to have to tell her that she will have to be at home on Wednesday is going to be difficult. How do you explain that to her? It’s all meant to be about inclusion and an equal footing and breaking down barriers and then they put up more and more walls.”

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