Paula McGowan: We need mandatory autism and learning disability training in education settings to change culture, hearts, and minds

With Paula McGowan OBE

Few of us will be unaware of the scandal of young disabled people abused, mistreated, or neglected in residential health and education settings One of the most notable cases was autistic teenager Oliver McGowan, who died as a result of inappropriate and inadequate care for a seizure condition.

Since his death, Oliver’s family, in particular his mum, Paula, have campaigned relentlessly—and successfully— for better training about learning disability and autism for health and care staff, resulting in The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism.

The Government has just launched a consultation on a draft code of practice on statutory learning disability and autism training created as a result of the McGowan’s work. The draft code outlines the standards that training on learning disabilities and autism must meet to comply with the legislation from the Health and Care Act 2022, and guidance on how providers can meet those standards.. You can read more about this and respond here.

However, it’s one thing for health staff to be under obligation to have the right training, but what about staff in educational settings? That’s the new phase of Paula McGowan’s focus and she’s written for SNJ to explain more about it, and to ask for your support for her petition for a new law requiring all staff in educational settings to be trained on learning disability and autism.

It’s not just health that needs mandatory autism and LD training— we need the same for education. By Paula McGowan OBE

For far too long, too many neurodivergent students have not always had positive experiences at school. Many are excluded or not able to attend due to trauma suffered for various reasons while at school. This can often lead to mental health, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.

Students who have a learning disability or who are autistic deserve to be taught by staff who really understand and can fully support their needs. Staff who fully accept and value them for exactly who they are rather than expecting them to conform to neurotypical standards.

That’s why I’ve started a petition calling for a new law that would require all staff in educational settings to be trained on learning disability and autism. This must start in Early Years Settings, Primary and Secondary Schools, Colleges, and Universities.

The mandatory autism and learning disability health settings training can easily be adapted

The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training for health and care, which passed into law last year, could easily be adapted for educational settings.

Teachers deserve to be given skills to really understand and support autistic students, and those who have a learning disability, to reach their full potential. It is essential that they know how to make reasonable adjustments, how to adapt their environment, how to understand a sensory crisis, overload, anxiety, and masking. They need to know how to adapt communication to meet the individual need. They need to be able to self-reflect, and to be aware of unconscious bias. It is essential they are aware of the laws such as the Human Rights Act and the Autism Act. It is essential we change culture, hearts, and minds.

As is the case for the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on Learning Disability and Autism for health and care staff, this adapted training for education will be designed, evaluated, and delivered by autistic people and those who have a learning disability. It is crucial that we learn directly from these communities.

Paula has long dark blonde hair and is wearing a magenta blouse and smiling
Paula McGowan

Still far too little training in mainstream settings

I can hear some people saying, “We already have training”. Yet, a report by the National Autistic Society (NAS) showed that just one in seven (14%) school teachers have received autism training. That’s a shocking statistic considering that nearly three-quarters (73%) of the 180,000 autistic pupils in England are educated in mainstream schools. According to NAS, autistic children are twice as likely to be excluded from school when teachers do not receive appropriate training.

The School Report found that more than half (54%) of autistic students said having teachers who don’t understand them is the worst thing about school, and seven in 10 said school would be better if more teachers understood autism.

Training teachers in autism and learning disabilities could therefore help to avoid unnecessary exclusions and improve the mental well-being of autistic and learning-disabled pupils.

Oliver McGowan, shown as a little by wearing a school uniform and with headphones. He has light brown hair and is smiling
Oliver as a little boy

Sign the petition for mandatory autism and learning disabilities training in education

You all have the power to bring about real change and that is simply by taking 30 seconds of your time to sign this very important petition. Please do not assume that others will do this for you. We must stand together to ensure that your children receive an education that fully embraces and enriches their learning in an environment that is welcoming, kind, accepting and inclusive.

It gives me great pride that The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training is already giving a voice to those who are so often not heard. It is now time for real change. We must be strong enough to say we need to do better, not because we are told to, but because we want to. This must come from our own hearts, we must have it within us to really want to change what has gone before, changing culture, hearts, and minds.  

The Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training on learning disability and Autism for Education staff, is the start of that journey. You all hold the power to make a difference.

You can sign the petition here.

To learn more about Oliver's story, click here.

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