SEND: Families can wait years for special needs help, says National Autistic Society report

A mother says her daughter faces a four-year wait to get the special school place she desperately needs - as a new report described education for autistic children as "deeply troubling".

Jennifer Gover said her daughter Ava first showed signs of autism at the age of two when her nursery raised some concerns about her development.

The mother of three, from Hertfordshire, has since spent more than two years battling to get a diagnosis followed by an education, health and care plan (EHCP) - which outlines the support she needs.

Now aged four, Ava is on the waiting list for a place at a special school - meaning she could be eight before she gets into full-time education.

Ava Gover at the nursery where she spends 15 hours each week. But she should be in primary school. Credit: ITV News Anglia

"It has been a really frustrating process so far, due to lack of funding mainly," said Jennifer Gover.

"Ava has access at the moment to just 15 hours a week [at a local nursery]. She's four and a half so she should be in a reception class doing 30 hours a week. That's something that, at the moment, nobody can help me change."

Hertfordshire County Council said it had been working hard to improve its provision for special educational needs and a new secondary school - specifically for children with communication and autism needs - is due to open in Welwyn Garden City in 2023.

But from September, Ava will have no access to education at all.

It's a similar story for 10-year-old James from Lowestoft.

He hasn't stepped foot inside a classroom since July, and now spends his days playing Xbox or building Lego.

James' mum Kerry-Ann has applied to eight specialist schools in the area, but all of them have rejected him because they say can't meet his complex needs.

"There is no light at the end of the tunnel, there's not even a glistening that we can hold on to," Kerry-Ann told ITV News Anglia.

"It's heartbreaking when you've got a child that says: 'When can I go to school?' And he wants to be in school and I haven't got those answers for him. There's been times where, as a family, we've sat in tears - we just feel helpless."

"I'm so angry about it, because I manage him, so why can a school not manage him?"

The National Autistic Society says both Ava and James' stories are far too common. It carried out surveys with more than 4,000 parents, carers, autistic children and young people during the summer and today published its School Report 2021.It found more than a quarter (26%) of parents waited more than three years to receive support for their child, with 57% waiting at least a year. Three quarters of parents did not believe their child's school place fully met their needs.

There are more than 160,000 autistic pupils in English schools, with more than 70% in mainstream settings. The remainder are educated in special schools, at home or are out of education altogether.

More SEN Stories from ITV News Anglia:

BEDFORDSHIRE: Families' warning over lack of support for children with special needs

SUFFOLK: County council admits SEND children have been let down

HERTFORDSHIRE: Mother of SEN teen makes heartbreaking plea for help

The National Autistic Society said its report had found a "deeply troubling picture" and called on Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to use its upcoming special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) review to fix a "broken" system which is failing autistic children and their families.

The charity's report also found:

  • 44% of parents said their child had fallen behind with school work during lockdown.

  • 59% of parents believe their child is more socially isolated following lockdown.

  • Less than half of autistic children are happy in school.

  • 44% of parents feel their child’s special educational needs are not being met in general.

  • Seven in ten autistic children and young people said school would be better if more teachers understood autism.

The government says it wants every autistic young person to succeed. Teachers are being given extra training to improve their knowledge of autism and £2.6bn of funding for special educational needs was announced in the budget in October.

The money will be used to fund new school places in both special and mainstream settings and improve the suitability of existing buildings for children with special needs.

In Cambridgeshire, The Cavendish School is specifically for autistic children. It has already welcomed its first cohort of students and is preparing to move into a brand new building in the new year.

It took five years for the school to open, during which time the number of autistic children in Cambridgeshire doubled.

"We have had a huge number of applications for places," said Ryan Kelsall, deputy CEO of the Eastern Alliance Trust, which runs the school.

"This provision is only able to provide 120 places when full. We are going to see a large number of people who have diagnoses who could be placed here not able to access their education here."

Mr Kelsall said the trust was hoping to work with the Department for Education and county council to open more schools in the future.