Many of you will have seen the outcry on social media over a 22-page rules document circulated to pupils and parents at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, formerly Great Yarmouth High School – the full booklet can be downloaded here, and a report can also be found on the BBC News website.
As a Youth Patron of Ambitious about Autism, I share the concerns raised, and I am particularly concerned with how this will affect children with special educational needs and disabilities, including autistic children.
It is worth noting from the outset that although many pupils (as in all schools) will try and bend the rules where they can, autistic pupils are more likely to take the rules literally and follow them to the letter, despite the larger impact on their welfare.
Autistic people may have particular difficulty with verbal communication as well as the body language required by neurotypical people in our culture, such as making eye contact.
Dismissing these difficulties as “excuses” and claiming pupils who do not make eye contact are “deliberately damaging their own learning and the learning of their classmates” creates an atmosphere which is hostile to autistic people, and is especially damaging for those who are not yet diagnosed and may already be blaming themselves for their difficulties.
More generally, while it is possible to help many pupils develop their confidence and speak more clearly in class, using shame is likely to have the opposite effect.
Referring to quieter teenage voices as “little baby voices” and describing people who speak quietly as “selfish” will only make these pupils even more self-conscious about speaking in the first place.
It is important to ensure pupils can learn without disruption, but to prevent harmless, non-intrusive fidgeting and stimming is damaging and can affect many pupils’ ability to learn. The document claims that “when people fiddle or doodle they are not giving their work their full attention”, ignoring that for many autistic children (as well as other neurodivergent children such as those with ADHD), stimming in fact aids concentration on the task at hand rather than having to divert attention away from their work to focus on suppressing movement that is natural and sometimes necessary for sensory regulation.
According to the booklet, teachers “will correct the slightest sign of rude behaviour, be it your body language, your facial expression, your tone of voice…” This has the effect of forcing autistic children to “mask” as neurotypical, which is unsustainable in the long term – our recent Know Your Normal report found that 80% of autistic people aged 16 to 25 have experienced mental health issues, with 76% saying they normally feel more under strain than their neurotypical peers.
Similar pressure to “mask” can be found in stating pupils “don’t pretend we didn’t understand” and in rules requiring pupils to smile and not “whinge”, with other emotions being compared to “remaining like a toddler”, an attitude which can have a wider impact on mental health amongst pupils.
The physical health needs of pupils are also minimised, with the document stating “we all know that children often pretend to be ill when they are not” and offering pupils a bucket for vomit rather than allowing them to leave the classroom.
The pressure to “mask” and adopt neurotypical behaviour at school is why many parents find that their autistic children appear to cope with school but then melt down or shut down at home, where it is finally safe to do so.
This time for self-regulation and rest can be vital, as it is for everyone, but this document also attempts to control the actions of pupils at home. In the real world, adults often visit friends on the way home, stay up later than they should, and waste time on social media, because we’re all human.
The attitude to social media is particularly concerning – it is unlikely that teenagers will suddenly stop using social media when all their friends do, especially autistic teenagers who may find socialising online much easier than face-to-face, so they should instead be taught how to use it safely and responsibly (see the Ambitious guide to online safety here).
A total ban means that if and when there is a cyberbullying incident, the victim is punished as well as the perpetrator, and by claiming “if you do go on social media you are putting yourself in danger”, victims of cyberbullying are blamed for using social media rather than their abusers.
Of course, reasonable adjustments might be made for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities – in fact, this is required by law.
However, this puts the onus on the pupil and their parents to fight for inclusion, and once the adjustments are made, being a visible exception to the rule marks the pupil out as “different” which can itself be damaging.
Also, these adjustments generally cannot be accessed until the child has a formal diagnosis, which can take years, and many autistic people go undiagnosed until adulthood. If school policy is inclusive to begin with, these problems are avoided.
It is reassuring to see that so many people, including parents and educational professionals, recognise the ableism of these policies, and I hope that lessons are learned from this incident when redesigning school policies in future.
To read Greater Yarmouth Academy's new updated bahviour rules, click here