In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism and consequently an increase in those educated in mainstream settings. In response to this, local authorities have commissioned specialist provisions within mainstream schools in a bid to meet the needs of those children with autism who struggle to access mainstream classes, yet do not meet the criteria for special school placements. However, there is little research or guidance regarding how these resources bases could best meet the needs of those with autism.
Last year I had the privilege of opening a resource base for pupils with autism within the mainstream primary school in which I work. We already had a number of pupils on the spectrum and were keen to welcome more to our school community. This coincided with my masters research, giving the perfect opportunity to find out what different stakeholders valued in this type of provision. It appears that pupils, parents, professionals and the Local Authority value different things and no single model will meet all desired criteria for all parties. It is also evident that there is not one size fits all and individuals will have differing needs and require differing provision. The important question is how can resource bases combine the priorities of all stakeholders, cater for individual needs and ensure positive outcomes for all pupils?
Research in the area of resource bases is limited. There is much debate as to the benefits of inclusion for pupils with autism with a mixture of negative and positive views. Studies had identified factors believed to equate to effective provision and suggested these were more likely to be found in schools with resource bases. My research was limited in terms of numbers and geographical regions and can only be taken as indication of the views of the individuals and groups involved, however it did serve to raise both questions and recommendations.
Firstly, it was clear that resource bases provided a level of inclusion that everyone valued. Both parents and professionals believed academic and social progress to be central to effective provision. Parents valued individually focused strategies, staff collaboration, home-school collaboration, attempts to identify triggers, awareness raising, visual cues, levels of training and autism specific knowledge. Professionals felt that there were no clear criteria and that there is a need for more clarification as to where bases fit in the continuum of educational provision. There was also a concern that equality of access to expert agencies was not comparable to special schools. Both parents and professionals felt individualisation was key and that pupils should be supported on a needs basis. Professionals highlighted strong leadership driving inclusion as important.
A focus on communication and interaction, individual strengths and interests and a whole school inclusive ethos, flexibility of approach and environment were vital in providing ‘good’ education according to professionals. Communication and dissemination of skills were considered imperative in meeting all children’s needs. It was felt that staff should not only a have high quality of training and experience but attributes such as flexibility, patience, in depth knowledge of individuals, calm responses and a sense of humour were also considered key. This raises the question of how we foster the wellbeing of those professionals supporting the children which is an under researched and even neglected aspect of effective support.
Professionals and pupils raised the issue of accessibility of provisions. Community and inclusion were considered important yet there were concerns that some pupils were travelling outside of their communities. It would be useful to evaluate the consequences of placing pupils outside of their local community and due consideration needs to be given as to how settings ensure families are included within the school community.
Pupils valued peer awareness, small classes, a calm environment and opportunities to develop friendships. They identified environmental aspects and resources such as space, sensory rooms and access to ICT; staff aspects such as training and support with anxiety and frustration; peer relationships and issues relating to unstructured times such as lunchtime. Pupils valued space, fun, happy staff with good knowledge and understanding and enthusiasm. They also wanted staff to be flexible and compromising. Issues such as space, overcrowding and designated areas could make the difference between a highly anxious and unhappy pupil and one who feels comfortable, supported and ready to learn. Pupils also expressed a wish for inclusion both in terms of their peers but also in terms of the school and community as a whole. Pupils mentioned anxiety and support with managing this to be an important need, yet anxiety was not an immediate consideration for the professionals.
The findings of this study, however small scale reveal a number of areas that require further research in addition to some key points for both policy and practice. I would recommend that guidance be produced to support new resource bases in establishing quality provision, including a minimum level of training for specialist resource base staff and continual professional development for whole school staff.
LAs and settings need to consider the distance pupils are travelling and take steps to ensure families of those travelling further are included within the school community. Consideration of the environment and available resources is necessary when identifying settings conducive to resources bases. We need to listen to pupils when they tell us how important the environment is for their wellbeing and ensure the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of those with autism is a priority.
The commissioning or allocation of additional resources so that bases have an equal level of specialist outside agency support as those in special school would help ensure equal opportunities. There is a need for greater collaboration between parents, pupils, local authorities and settings regarding the allocation of placements, clearer criteria and increased fluidity between provisions to ensure pupils are able to access the right provision at the right time. Parents need accessible information regarding the different provisions available, admissions procedures and greater opportunity to visit and express preference before decisions regarding placements are made. Is the purpose of bases to support pupils struggling to access mainstream education with the ultimate aim of moving to mainstream, are they mini special schools, or is each one different? Until a comprehensive piece of research is undertaken on a wide scale we will not know how effective resources bases are, what best practice might be or what the outcomes are for pupils in comparison to mainstream and special schools.
Beth Barnsley is an Assistant Head Teacher and SENCO