Pupils with autism to qualify for temporary home schooling
The measure will grant four hours’ specialised home education for every nine days a child in mainstream education is advised by a doctor to stay off school
Within the mainstream
Last month Flemish MP Kathleen Helsen convinced education minister and CD&V party colleague Hilde Crevits to broaden the existing regulations to include autism, in the hope of keeping such pupils within the regular system.
Under a regulation introduced in 2015, pupils who are part of the mainstream school system but who have been diagnosed as chronically ill on the basis of a doctor’s certificate are permitted to remain at home, on a case-by-case basis. The concept of temporary education at home stipulates that for every nine days’ absence, students who qualify are entitled to four hours of lessons at home from a specialised teacher. It allows them to keep up with the school’s requirements and remain part of the regular school system.
Crevits points out that broadening the new measure will not apply to all students with an autism spectrum disorder. “It is first and foremost the intention that all students will be supported at their school,” she says. “But for some students, temporary home education is definitely needed.”
For children with autism, social and emotional stability is just as important as their education. Without this, even the most academic student can flounder.
The new approach allowing them to stay at home on certain days can be helpful in some – but not in all – cases. “It is just one option added to all available options for children with autism,” says Marijke van Bogaert of the Catholic Education Network, adding that it will only be offered within a very specific context.
Sometimes it can be best to take a child temporarily out of the classroom or just let them sit by themselves
“Sometimes it can be best to take a child temporarily out of the classroom, give them another task or just let them sit by themselves,” she continues. “Ultimately, the idea is that children with autism spectrum disorders in regular education are participating and integrating to a maximum of their ability. Part of education is preparing youngsters for adult life, where it will not always be possible to retreat or take a day off when things are difficult.”
But, she says, “in specific cases, staying at home could be absolutely necessary”.
Belgium has more pupils in special education than many other European countries. Until 2015, 4.4% of pupils in Flanders were in special education schools.
Following the ratification of the UN treaty on the rights of people with a handicap in 2009, which stipulates that they have the right to full participation in society, including education, Flanders introduced the M decree, to allow students with autism and other special needs to enrol in regular schools. To keep them there, schools will need to be supported financially as well as with skills development and specialised training for staff.
Patience and attention
Educators in Flanders tend to see mainstream schooling as positive for everyone. All students benefit socially by forming positive relationships and learning how to be more at ease with a variety of people.
In practice, however, it can be difficult to offer students the care they need to succeed. In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of space.
“In an average classroom with 25 children, it’s not possible to give that much-needed attention or show the patience that is sometimes required,” says Katrien Debergh from West Flanders, whose son went from special to regular school and eventually back to special education. “Even if the teachers have been given training and know a lot about autism, there is often simply not the time to support them.”
One of many options
The only way her son, who is in grade five, was able to function in regular school was because a personal assistance grant allowed her to hire an individual teacher to help him with homework and other skills. Without that personalised support, her son could not stay on in the regular system.
“Having a child with autism in a mainstream class can be hard for teachers, parents and the child,” she says, but she wouldn’t see sending them home as a solution. “For working parents, that would be extremely difficult.”
I am not a teacher. I would find it very hard to assist my child with schoolwork at home
Rozina Spinnoy of Brussels, whose 11-year-old son is in a special needs school, agrees. “I am not a teacher. I would find it very hard to assist my child with schoolwork at home,” she says. “And with two working parents, it’s not a realistic option. There is already so much time where school is closed for teacher training and soon the autumn break coming up. It would definitely not be feasible for me, and I suppose this would be the case for many parents.”
Van Bogaert agrees that there should not be one solution, but many. “These students are a very diverse group so schools should be able to offer a very diverse approach, with the emphasis on integration and participation,” she says. “The new measure should be viewed as one of the options on a continuum. One thing will work for some and not for others.”