‘I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall’, says mum of Norfolk autistic teenager left without school place
- Credit: PA
A family today reveals its heartbreaking six-year battle to get an education for its autistic teenage daughter.
The 14-year-old girl has failed to find a permanent place at school since she was 12 after her mainstream school placement broke down - but her problems began in primary school.
She has self-harmed, run away from schools, been admitted to hospital and referred to social services – but despite years of emails and phone calls between her mum and Norfolk County Council no suitable school place has been found.
Her case highlights the struggles many parents with autistic children face in getting their child an education.
It comes after the Local Government Ombudsman ordered the County Council to pay one Norwich family £5,000 for failings which left a boy without an education for months.
The girl, who we are not identifying, has spent the last several months shutting herself away in a curtained room.
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And in the latest blow, her home tutor is being removed because of demand on the school which provides it.
'There has been a gradual deterioration of my daughter over the past few years since she has not been in full-time education and this has had a detrimental impact on her health, well-being and behaviour,' her mother said.
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Her grandmother added: 'As a family we have been to hell and back with little or no help until she started self-harming and running away.
'Health services cannot provide help as they are not funded to help young people on the autistic spectrum.
'My granddaughter spends the majority of each day shutting herself up in a curtained room with little or no normal communication.'
Her last school place was boarding at New Eccles Hall School at Quidenham, but she ran away, prompting her mum to raise safeguarding concerns.
'They assured us that they could meet her needs,' her mother said. 'They clearly could not, she ran away several times.'
On one occasion the mother said her daughter rang her up from the woods in the early hours of the morning. She called the school to report her missing.
After leaving the school for good she trashed the family home, self-harmed and was admitted to hospital.
Norfolk County Council continued to pay the school £8,000 for a term's place after she left.
The council said this was because they are contracted to pay one term's fees if the placement ends.
A spokesman for New Eccles Hall School said it had been under new ownership since March 2017 and that they were investing in the school, recruiting staff to help children with autism and there were strong safeguarding measures in place.
The girl now gets a home tutor from the Locksley School three mornings a week but because of demand at the Locksley School, which looks after children who have been excluded from mainstream education, that tutor is being replaced for a different tutor. 'She is devastated as this was one area which was finally working for her,' the mother said.
The family said her problems began in primary school where she struggled. They asked the primary school to give her a statement of special needs but because those statements were being phased out in favour of something called an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan that did not happen.
She eventually got an EHC plan when she moved to secondary school, but the family said it is not up-to-date or accurate.
Her case has gone before special education need panels at Norfolk County Council which is meant to find her a school place. She has so far been refused places or places have not been suitable for her at 10 schools as far away as Derbyshire and Kent.
'I feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall,' her mother said.
In January 2017, her mother complained to the council's managing director Wendy Thomson about a lack of progress. She apologised and assured the mother they were doing all they could to find a suitable placement.
A spokesman for the council said they could not comment on individual cases but said: 'Each placement is based on a large amount of professional reports and wide ranging advice and guidance to our placements team.
'If a parent withdraws their child from a school, we will work hard to find an alternative place as quickly as we can. We will also look at any possible schools identified by the family, to see if they are appropriate and can meet the child's needs.'
•'They said they could cope with her'
Sophie Smith enjoyed her time at Churchill Park Complex Needs School in King's Lynn.
But she hasn't been getting an education since autumn last year after moving to the College of West Anglia.
The 16-year old, who is autistic, was suspended twice and hasn't returned to the College since her second suspension.
'They said they could cope with her, but there just didn't seem to be the right support,' her mother, Jenny from Hunstanton, said. 'It is not good for her to be out of education for so long and we get no respite at all and are very rarely able to go out as a family.'
Sophie had a statement of special needs but is waiting for that to be updated to a new assessment called an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, to identify what help she needs.
The College said they had a dedicated staff member for students with autism to help them transfer to the college. They also have a 'safe haven' on the campus for students with autism.
In Suffolk, the council and NHS were criticised by inspectors in February for failing to meet the needs of children with special educational needs following reforms in 2014.
The national reforms were meant to make it easier for children and young people with special education needs to get the support they needed by bringing teams from across the education, health and social care systems together.
But they appear to have left many families waiting for far too long to get help.
In Suffolk, families highlighted long waits in getting education, health and care (EHC) plans for their child – a cornerstone of the reforms.
Children who previously had statements of special needs are getting EHC plans instead.
Norfolk County Council has brought in an extra 12 staff, on top of its existing 10 SEN casework staff, since the reforms to deal with the caseloads.
•Read more here from our Fighting For Their Futures campaign
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