How much do you know about foetal alcohol syndrome?


Would you know how to support a child with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder? The ground-breaking work of the Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities project, led by Professor Barry Carpenter, is helping schools to cope with a range of increasingly

During his 36-year career in education, Professor Barry Carpenter has focused on finding ways to nurture, encourage and enable all children with SEN.

He has held three headships, written scores of articles and books and in 2009 was appointed to lead the Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (CLDD) research project. This was funded by the Department for Education and developed a series of online tools and materials for teaching children with severe, profound and complex learning disabilities.

But over the last five years, Prof Carpenter has become increasingly concerned about a particular group of children for whom there is little or no provision in UK schools.

These are the children born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). The result of alcohol being drunk during pregnancy, FASD varies considerably in severity. However some children can suffer facial abnormalities, damage to the central nervous system, hyperactivity and attention deficit.

In the classroom, youngsters experience a variety of barriers to learning. These typically include poor short-term memory, on and off days, lack of organisation and problems in understanding abstract concepts (such as mathematics, money management and the concept of time). 

Keen to raise awareness of the issue, Prof Carpenter will be leading two workshops at the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool next month (December 4 to 5). The conference theme is “Innovating Learning” and his first workshop will concentrate on children with FASD, while the other will be on children with complex needs. 

He also wants to highlight the fact that even though one in 100 children has FASD (a similar number to those with autism), little attention has been paid to their specific learning needs or to the education strategies required to support them at school.

“These children are receiving the least attention in our education system,” said Prof Carpenter. 

“They have been born through a social consequence, through maternal use of alcohol, and unless we get their education right these children face very bleak outcomes. 

“I cannot think of another group of children in my field of special needs for whom we need to innovate learning more. We have gone through a phase of innovating learning for children with Down’s Syndrome, for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, for children with cerebral palsy, and we need to keep improving – but when it comes to children with FASD, we are starting with blank sheets of paper.

“Teachers believe in the power of education to transform lives, but they are desperate for guidance on how best to teach children with FASD. I have seen teachers working desperately hard, spending hours making materials, but they are missing the mark because no-one has guided them.

“It is vital we do something for these children. This is the largest group of children in our country going into fostering and adoption. Out of every five children with FASD, four are fostered or adopted, because their mothers frequently go on to become full-blown alcoholics. I was talking to a grandmother recently whose daughter died at 25 of alcohol poisoning and who is now rearing her grandchild.

“The other shocking figure is that they are the largest group of adolescents going into the criminal justice system. So not only do they potentially face losing their biological families very early on, then because we are not always guiding them properly or educating them effectively, some really do go off the rails. Some find themselves excluded from school and end up in the criminal justice system.”

As well as talking about his research and offering practical teaching strategies at events like the SSAT National Conference, Prof Carpenter has produced a series of briefing sheets for teachers on complex needs, including FASD. These can be downloaded (see further information) and include everything from the characteristics of FASD to how teachers can support students in their learning.

With co-authors Carolyn Blackburn and Jo Egerton, he has also written Educating Children and Young People with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which was published earlier this year. The book helps teachers to recognise FASD and to set about “constructing personalised learning pathways for students”.

Prof Carpenter first became aware of FASD during his headship of a special school for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “We started to get children coming in who were wired differently to the traditional children we had admitted,” he said. “They were autistic, one didn’t deny that. But there was a difference you couldn’t put your finger on.

“Then one day in 2007 a set of referral papers on a child came in and they mentioned maternal use of alcohol. I went to find some information to guide my teachers and there was very little. There were medical and psychological texts about this disability but nobody was talking to teachers. Our teachers were pedagogically bereft. By chance I had just been elected as a Fellow at Oxford and I thought ‘right, I am going to take this on as a topic’.” 

Since then, Prof Carpenter, now associate director (SEN) of the SSAT and an international education consultant, has developed a raft of practical guidance to help teachers. “Many of these children have a short attention span and it is helpful for teachers to use visual approaches,” he explained.

“I interviewed young people for my research and a 15-year-old girl gave me some excellent advice. She said ‘show me, don’t tell me’. Some of her teachers let her have their PowerPoint presentations and she said that that was very helpful because she doesn’t retain information well.”

It is common, too, for children with FASD to exhibit “spiky” profiles. Teenagers might have impressive language skills, for instance, but display the emotional maturity of a six-year-old, the social skills of a seven-year-old and the mathematical skills of an eight-year-old. Their learning attainment in mathematics is often “way below” their chronological age.

Prof Carpenter pointed out that children with FASD need a safe, structured environment. They often find following verbal instructions hard, so along with visual material, short and simple instructions are helpful. 

Other strategies include creating set routines in the classroom, refreshing work that has already been covered, helping children to understand their feelings and practise the vocabulary to express how they feel and offering plenty of encouragement and praise when they achieve.

“When it comes to their short attention span, these children are often a bit like Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout bouncing around,” he added.

“I often suggest that teachers put some yellow sticky tape on the floor around their desk area, so the minute they start to move over the yellow tape they have a visual reminder.”

Prof Carpenter is now being asked to give talks about FASD  all over the world and he is certain that awareness will gradually increase. “I believe there is hope for these children – and that is because I know my profession,” he said. “I know my profession has the ability to respond to children with a whole range of special needs and I’m sure that in a few years’ time we will be doing better. This is something I believe passionately about and I want to do something concrete about it before I finally retire.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

  • Prof Carpenter is working on an international book entitled Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, to be published in 2013. He will discuss his work at the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool on December 4 and 5. Download SecEd’s official conference preview supplement at
  • More information for teachers about FASD is available from


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