University students criticise school senior leadership teams and academy trusts following recent comments by Labour minister

woman reading a book to the children
Photo by Yan Krukau on

By Sophie Mundy and Juniper Rose

woman reading a book to the children
Photo by Yan Krukau on

A university student with autism has criticised school senior leadership teams and academy trusts in support of Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson’s recent comment that “Children with SEND locked out of education are being consigned to a bleak future”

Ms Phillipson’s statement came after figures showed there has been an increase of 29 per cent in the number of SEND children who have been excluded from mainstream school or are waiting for a place at a specialist school. 

This increase of 29 per cent is a large jump from that which was recorded back in 2020, when about 2,400 children who had an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan in place had either been excluded from their school or were on a waiting list. This year the number has risen to about 3,000 children. 

Just under 1.3 million children in the British school system have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in 2021/22, an increase of 77,000 from 2021, which is a continuing trend from 2016. About 4 per cent of students have education, health and care plans. 

Alex Burt, a politics and sociology student at the University of Leicester, was diagnosed with autism at the age of seven, and was initially seen as dyspraxic.

They said:  “I was  already being accommodated at home and no-one really thought it was necessary to make any major accommodations for me at school.

“Beyond ableist bullying from peers and social exclusion, I’ve always struggled to get any accommodations for my autism in school beyond extra time for my 11+.”

These ableist attitudes are something that Grace Liu, DMU Journalism graduate and author, has also felt, experiencing people making her feel that “[she is] more likely to be stereotyped, pitied and patronised.”

Grace and Alex share experiences of staff being inexperienced and under-resourced in areas of SEND, Grace saying she had experienced being “patronised and fussed over” by support staff.

Alex said: “It always felt like I was fighting schools and teachers for things that weren’t a huge difference for them but were vital for me.”

Alex was supportive of Ms Phillipson’s comments. In their experience, senior leadership teams in schools and academy trusts, which were products of previous governments, meant schools “don’t even try. Either you have mild Special Educational Needs and they ignore you or they’re more severe and they demonise and expel you.

“SEN children are treated as nothing more than a drain on a school’s balance sheet, limited time, and resources while SEN departments are left chronically underfunded.” 

Grace, however, was more critical of Ms Phillipson’s comments. She pointed out the “systemic ableism in society” leads to “implicit and explicit discrimination” that people with autism face, with difficulties accessing accommodation and support.

She added: “It feels a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – people make education, work and even social environments inaccessible to autistic people, then judge us and pity us when we fall behind our peers.”

According to research by Jonathan Vincent and Helen Rowe, there is some support for students with autism in higher education institutes, but this is often in short supply, or not advertised enough. 

Their research suggests that transition to university support and ‘specialist tutoring’ is offered by less than half of the 120 institutes asked. 

They found it is also apparent that post-1992 universities have fewer provisions for autism, despite potentially larger numbers of students with autism, which in turn makes it seem that these institutions are less supportive of students with special educational needs.

In another report, published by the National Autistic Society, in 2021, 74 per cent of parents felt that their autistic child’s school did not fully meet their needs, which is a level that has doubled since 2017. Also, 44 per cent of parents felt that their autistic child’s needs were not being met in general. 

This story of unmet needs is nothing new. Another autistic and dyslexic student, Taylor, said they have faced discrimination within the education system as a result of their disabilities. 

Systems that were put in place to aid them getting to school were unmet and non-functioning, such as a taxi system, which often presented a myriad of problems – turning up at the wrong times and to the wrong places, and sometimes not turning up at all. This problem was further exacerbated after Taylor’s 16th birthday as the council changed its criteria. 

However, when they were able to get to school, Taylor praised their mainstream school which was well-provisioned in terms of disability support. This seems to be a rarity, with many schools who are short-staffed in terms of support staff and a shortage of new support staff.

Many thanks to Alex Burt, Taylor, and Grace Liu for their contributions of their experiences to this article. You can find more of Grace’s work at

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