Last month we were contacted by Deborah (not her real name), whose autistic teenage son is currently serving a long prison sentence for murder. Deborah wanted to share their experiences of the school and SEND system, and she tells their story here, in her own words.
I guess I should start my story by telling you that my son, who is in his teens, is a convicted murderer and that he is currently serving a very long sentence.
Writing those words is not as hard as it may seem. The journey that has brought us to this point has toughened me up. It started when my son was diagnosed with his autism at the age of 5.
In Junior School we were supported by the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator to seek a diagnosis as my son really was struggling to settle, unlike his peers. So we had the diagnosis, but still had issues with my son not fitting in with the expectations required at school. When he did not achieve them, he was given fixed term exclusions - so many I have actually lost count. We carried on like this for 5 years, though during this time we did manage to get him an Educational Health Care Plan, which gave me hope that we would get the support and input that he needed. My daughter was also diagnosed with autism at this time and she also received an EHCP.
I reduced my working hours so I could be around for the start of the school day and we had the most amazing childminder who my two children adored. To me, my children are funny, clever, caring, kind and loving. But this isn't necessarily what others were seeing at school because they were struggling at their mainstream school.
Year 7 began and really this is where it became apparent that mainstream schooling was not for my son. He was constantly reminded that he wasn't fitting in with the daily tally of "behaviour points" and was receiving detentions for various reasons. Then things escalated with the fixed term exclusions, and finally being permanently excluded.
Year 8 started at a Pupil Referral Unit, where they identified my son as having low level behavioural problems when he had been in the mainstream school, which they seemed to think could have been better supported and the PRU potentially avoided. Now he also had high levels of anxiety. He initially enjoyed the calm one to one with teachers, but soon it was time to get him back to mainstream school. It was agreed that he could attend another mainstream with better SEN provision.
Commencing the new mainstream on a reduced timetable to help ease him back into school routine, he made new friends which I was warned by the school were not the most suitable.
I reinforced my own rules of where, when and who for socialising, along with tracking on his phone, limiting access to certain websites, timed access on his phone, and agreed times to be home. For me these were security measures. I encouraged his friends to come round so that I knew where he was and what they were doing. I was also happy to be mum taxi service.
He remained at school on a modified timetable, and this was where it became a challenge. While I was at work, I tracked his movements and spoke to him throughout the day and agreed time to be home, but I was concerned about who he was with and what was he doing during the time I wasn't there. I felt I had no control.
The first Covid lockdown came and I was worried. I rang children's services saying I was struggling with knowing where and what he was doing. I am a key worker, and I had to be at work. I explained what I was doing to check on my son, and they said I was doing all I should be. During this time we had an annual review for his EHCP and we had an agreement that mainstream was not the right school for him. I was delighted, but my son was angry. We got through the first lockdown and he went to spend the summer with his Dad and other relatives.
Lockdown lifted and the new school year started, but my son had no school to attend as the mainstream said they could not meet his needs. No other provision was being offered. So now a new challenge - trying to get him into school and to stay out of trouble. I was concerned about the influence his friends were having on him. Again I linked in with children services, raising my concerns that he was not in school and he had an EHCP stating his vulnerabilities to criminal exploitation. I was frank with him about the risks of drugs, knives and coercion, such as county lines. I was well informed due to my job and friends and I needed him to know the risks, although unsure if he would understand fully due to his autism.
We had good news after having a social worker assessment, and a taster for a non-mainstream school that could be the right place for my son. It went well and we were lucky that a place was offered after the October half term. He started at the new school and it really was the best place for him. He was settling in well and he was receiving amazing understanding, insight and support.
Christmas came and then one day our lives changed forever.
I have had to come to terms with what has happened. But I still struggle with how the school system let down my son.
Our story is not one of the "red flags" of social concerns of deprivation or substance misuse, but of a system that failed a vulnerable child with autism and an EHCP.
I am awaiting a safeguarding report about my son to see where the learning can be made for the various agencies involved, although that won't change anything for him. Ironically my son is now in a place where the staff know how to support his needs, his EHCP is fulfilled meaningfully and he is sitting his GCSEs a year early, even with the limited amount of time in school he has had.
Had he received this kind of support back in Year 7, another boy may still be alive today.