More training and support is needed to accommodate autism in mainstream schools, according to  the NfER’s new report, Autism and Educational Assessment: UK Policy and Practice

In 2006, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) said ‘autism is no longer thought of as a rare disorder’ and it is assumed that this is due to an increased recognition of the needs of individuals on the autistic spectrum. New research has investigated UK assessment policy and practice for mainstream-educated pupils who are diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

It reveals:

  • higher school exclusion rates and greater gaps in attainment for ASD pupils compared with their typically developing peers, demonstrating a need for improvements in educational provision
  • a need for clearer evidence-based guidance and increased teacher training to enable teachers to make confident and consistent accommodation judgements for summative assessments, specific to pupils on the autistic spectrum
  • a lack of specific guidance and little research investigating the impact and effect of assessment for learning strategies on the assessment and inclusion of pupils on the autistic spectrum. Teachers need to know how best to practically implement these strategies with autistic pupils in their classrooms if inclusive educational practice is to be achieved.

Further research and more specific guidance are needed to ensure that education assessment policy supports a system that is inclusive of all learners.

Assessment in relation to inclusion
The report considers the role of assessment in relation to inclusive education in mainstream settings, with a specific focus on the assessment of pupils diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Research and reports of practice in the UK are also examined and discussed in the light of the changing assessment environment.

During 2008, the National Strategies introduced the Inclusion Development Programme, which included a four-year programme of continuing professional development to increase the confidence and expertise of mainstream practitioners in meeting the needs of pupils with SEN in schools. In 2009, the focus of the IDP was on educating pupils on the autistic spectrum. The success of this programme is yet to be evaluated.

In addition, the report notes that the advent of assessment for learning (AfL), whereby teachers carry out assessments of pupils within the classroom, should, in theory, enable greater variety and individuality of assessment, thus benefiting those with SEN. However, it argues, there is currently no specific guidance and little research investigating the impact and effect of AfL strategies on the inclusion and assessment of pupils on the autistic spectrum. (For further discussion of AfL for SEN, see the report referred to in the box, below.)

Useful links from the report: tools for teachers and an examination of AfL for SEN
The report Autism and Educational Assessment: UK Policy and Practice contains links to a number of useful resources, including:

  • Tools for Teachers: The Autism Education Trust has worked closely with a number of schools to create a collection of tools for use in the classroom. The materials suggest strategies that might support the difficulties faced by children with ASD (impairment of imagination, impairment of communication and impairment of social understanding, sensory difficulties and behavioural problems), how to use the tools and why they work.
  • Assessment for Learning and Pupils with Special Educational Needs is a summary of the key issues that emerged from a European project examining the application of AfL for pupils with special educational needs..

Autism and teaching styles in mainstream schools

From its review of previous research studies the report concurs with the view that placing a child on the autistic spectrum in a school is locational integration but not necessarily inclusion. It claims that many methods of teaching rely on an understanding of language and social behaviours within the classroom, leaving autistic pupils at a significant disadvantage.

Teachers and parents sometimes assume that when ASD pupils are academically able, they should be able to cope with mainstream. Thus it is suggested that due to the uneven profile of strengths and weaknesses displayed by many pupils on the autistic spectrum, they are often labelled as lazy, difficult or defiant when they fail to complete a task.

An understanding and flexible teaching style is therefore necessary when formulating and maintaining an individualised education plan for each pupil with ASD. Insufficient time and funding allocated to specialised teacher training in educating pupils on the autistic spectrum has been highlighted by some as a significant contributor towards the present shortcomings in educational provision.

Teaching strategies
Because individuals with autism differ in terms of learning style and profile, no single intervention is appropriate for all. According to the report, teaching strategies which have often been recommended for use with pupils on the autistic spectrum in inclusive settings have included:

  • a clearly defined teaching structure and daily routine with the use of visual cues where appropriate
  • the use of unambiguous classroom language
  • clear explanation of rules and regulations in class and in the playground (including social rules)
  • sharing the purpose of activities and assessments as well as their intended outcomes.

The report concludes that despite best endeavours, efforts towards achieving mainstream educational inclusion of pupils identified with ASD still have some way to go. It finds that while there have been a number of government initiatives to improve educational provision for pupils with ASD there is little practical evidence that teaching and assessment have become more inclusive as a result. Parents and schools still report dissatisfaction with educational provision for pupils on the autistic spectrum and exclusion rates and gaps in progress and achievement remain greater for these pupils when compared to their typically developing peers.

There is an obvious need for clearer evidence-based guidance and increased teacher training to enable confident and consistent assessment accommodation judgements. While, in theory, the underlying principles of AfL may enable a more comprehensive assessment of ASD pupils’ skills and abilities, in practice teachers need to know how best to implement AfL strategies with these pupils.

In order to promote equal opportunities and achieve a truly inclusive educational environment, teachers, therefore, require a level of knowledge about the specific educational and assessment needs of ASD pupils. Finally, this report underlines the importance of further investigation into the potential of the AfL approach for use with ASD pupils who are educated in mainstream classrooms.

Wilkinson, K and Twist, L (2010) Autism and Educational Assessment: UK Policy and Practice, Slough: NfER