Our education system (in the UK) rarely accommodates the needs of children with autism well. There are not enough specialist schools and not enough support within the mainstream system for children to succeed.
At primary age (4 – 11), parents may be able to choose whether to send their children to mainstream schools ideally with properly trained support in the form of LSAs (learning support assistants) or ABA (applied behaviour analysis) one to one tutors (which all my four boys had throughout the duration of mainstream primary school) or to special needs schools.
But what to choose at secondary level? We decided against mainstream. The academic system is mostly based around the acquisition of GCSEs. Our older boys would not be able to pass GCSEs, mainly because of their severe language disorder so what would they get out of mainstream secondary? Their needs would not be differentiated enough to provide them with any acknowledgement of the abilities they did possess which are not always about academic prowess.
Their very small special needs school offered foundation level Maths and English for those who would never attain a GCSE in those subjects. Starting at Level 1 and progressing to level 2 which is equivalent to a C grade at GCSE. The questions are much more practical for our children. Why try to read Dickens when you have never read a book? Writing applications letters for jobs and interpreting articles about current affairs are so much more useful to boys like ours.
They also studied BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) practical based, vocational qualifications. Again, so much more relevant to everyday life and teaching skills for possible future work.
I found it difficult to grasp what the levels meant at first. They range from 1 – 7. The most well known and taught are levels 2 and 3.
Level 2 BTECs are the basis of qualifications taken at age 16. The diploma is a full time course and equivalent to 4 GCSEs. The extended certificate is equivalent to 3 GCSEs. A certificate is 2 and an award is 1. So there is a good range of level within Level 2 to choose from and an equally good range of subjects to select from too.
Many are vocational based eg hairdressing or childcare. They equip a young person with the skills to find meaningful work. They are certainly not a qualification just for special needs young people but for anyone who is not very academically inclined. They are mostly course based so they are constantly assessed without the need for a final big exam at the end although there is usually a final major project to complete which can take many months. This eliminates exam stress and trying to remember a year or even two years’ worth of information in one go. It also provides a portfolio to showcase what has been achieved.
Level 3 is equivalent to A levels. Again, there are different levels to choose from, ranging from a course which is equivalent to 3 full A levels or to a single one. The gradings are a pass which is equal to an E grade at A level, merit equal to a C grade and distinction which is equal to an A grade.
In 2015. 26% of students accepted onto a university course held at least one BTEC at level 3 according to UCAS.
To illustrate my point about BTECs. Thomas has one GCSE in Art. But, he is now completing Level 2 in Art and Design this summer and heading towards Level 3 in September which will take two full years.
Benjamin is just finishing his first year of Level 3 Music Performance and Technology . By this time next year, he will have a qualification equivalent to 3 A levels yet has just one GCSE in Maths.
Hector is studying two different BTECS in sixth form. Art and Media. He is also studying A level photography so there is a mix and match approach depending on skills and ability.
There is still a written component to these courses which all my boys struggle with. The twins at college have one to one support from the Ambitious about Autism college which they jointly attend alongside mainstream college. They require help with research and essay writing but not with the practical elements. They accept they need that level of support but how great for their self esteem that they can do courses at a high level and manage all the practical skills unaided.
Because of the availability of BTECs, all our boys have a very real hope of maybe one day being able to work in the fields in which they excel. If they had been through a mainstream system with only GCSEs to choose from, they would have finished their education as ‘failers’ in many ways, having ‘failed’ to achieve any qualifications or attain any vocational skills.
We need more children to leave school with actual, real life skills which can lead to meaningful work.
The biggest bonus for all our boys is that they enjoy learning and are loving the courses they are doing. They try so hard in everything they do and really want to prove to themselves that they can succeed. They are engaged in courses which stretch them and make use of their innate abilities. Having autism with a language disorder should not exclude them from attainment and BTECs ensure this for them.