Monthly Archives: December 2013

Did a Teacher Change Your Life?

I occasionally read articles in the newspapers where famous persons (I hate the term ‘celebrity’, as if being famous is somehow to be celebrated) write/talk about the teachers who made a difference to them in their formative years, and I, as a teacher, always feel slightly guilty.  The thing is, I don’t remember any one teacher having an enormous effect on my life; indeed, I can’t remember many of them at all.

Actually, that’s not true.  I can remember the ones I didn’t like, and those who taught the lessons I didn’t enjoy.  Oh, how I hated Spanish!  I worked really hard in Geography because I didn’t want to attract the attention of the teacher, because he smoked cigars and I hated the smell and the way he breathed all over me when he came to my desk to answer my question.  I remember the primary teacher me and my friend Kay detested, because he had favourites, and made it clear we weren’t.  And I remember the Deputy Head at my secondary school, the one we were all terrified of, because he was renowned for giving the cane with a run and a jump.  We would fall into silence as he strutted around the school, a small man in a brown nylon suit, a man who I can’t remember ever teaching me.  Most of them, though, have disappeared out of my memory, never to return.

But I know, as an adult, a parent and a teacher, how important this person can become in the life of a child.  Take my daughter, for example.  She has taken the line of least resistance at school so far. She is there because she has to be, tolerates the working side of it because she has no choice, and has actively aimed to keep herself below the level of notice-of-the-teacher.  Until this year, that is.  This year, all is different.

This year she is actually trying hard at school.  She wants to get a pen license (good luck with that, kiddo!).  She wants to answer questions.   She wants her teacher to know who she is.  I know this, because she talks about her a lot, and makes her gifts.  I don’t for one minute think that she has changed in her attitude towards school because she has better targets, or knows what her next steps to learning are or how she can improve.  I don’t think she gives a monkey’s about any of that.  She wants to do well for this young teacher because she likes her.  Likes with a great, big, capital L.

And what has this young woman done to inspire such devotion in my daughter?  She hasn’t given her a single sticker.  L hasn’t come home with any prizes.  She got a bit excited about the end of term party thanks to there being enough marbles in the jar, but the little girl’s heart was won way before that.  L loves the fact that she knows that her teacher’s favourite animal is the giraffe. She is knowledgeable about Cornwall because Miss comes from there.  She thinks she knows her first name.  As well as being kind, with a gentle voice (these are top teacher qualities according to my daughter), this teacher has been prepared to share something of herself with her class.  She isn’t afraid to show the children her soft centre.  And L thinks she is wonderful.

Sam always found it hard to have a relationship with his primary school teachers.  Of course, it was difficult to tell what he thought because it is only recently that he has been able to express his feelings about them (his form tutor is his ‘darling’ apparently – cue much smirking and blushing!).  It was partly down to having a TA – much easier for a teacher to engage with the TA rather than Sam, partly down to the number of different groups he went to. Different sets for Maths, English, time out for ‘fizzy’ or horse riding at the local RDA.  Having only worked in single entry primaries or smaller schools, I had no idea quite how much setting there would be.

And I am not convinced that this is entirely a good thing.  I can see it in my daughter, I can see it in my eldest son, I can see it not happening (again) for my middle child, and I knew it when I was standing at the front myself.  The reason they want to try, to do well, to behave, is because they care about their teacher.  They love them, and are loved in return.  What their teacher thinks, of them, and their work, matters to them.  Yes, some children are motivated by being top of the class and wanting to do well academically, knowing where they stand in the class pecking order, but I don’t believe that these are in the majority, and my children certainly don’t belong in this group.  It cracks my heart that A, my little line of jam in the family sandwich, has yet to find a teacher he really cares for.  Why should he bother to try if his teacher’s opinion, either good or bad, doesn’t matter to him?

Sometimes I feel as if my children have stepped into a world I know nothing about.  I used to think that the primary school was the one place where certain things never changed.  I used to read ‘Please Mrs Butler’ to my classes, and we would chuckle in appreciation of our shared experience.  I used to think that when they entered the school system, they were entering ‘my’ world.  But I don’t recognise the world they inhabit.  Theirs is a world where playtime has been reduced, where lunch is stuffed in(or not) in less than an hour.  Where silent reading doesn’t happen much because it’s much more important to be getting on with the questions rather than simply enjoying the story.  I know that my sons are somewhat introverted, but I never thought it would be almost eight years before one of my children fell for their teacher in a big way.

I’ve never been any good at keeping the children I teach at arm’s length.  When I was expecting Sam I pinned up his scan picture on the door and whenever my class lined up they would discuss whether or not it was going to be a boy or a girl.  I never went back to that school, other than to visit, because we moved away (and I’m not sure I would have coped, anyway), but I know that I mattered to them, that particular class.

I know this because years later I went on a weekend away to the city we used to live in, and I happened to pop into my old local Tesco.  There I was, minding my own business at the check-yourself-out and this young woman, as tall as me, no less, asked me if I used to be a teacher.  When I nodded, she asked me if I used to be her Miss.  When I nodded again she introduced herself, and I could just about make out the little girl she had been, one of the ones I was constantly sorting out after a playground spat.  And then she did a wonderful thing.  She asked me how Sam was.  By name.  And she told me all about what she was hoping to do at uni, and how the rest of the class were (I was to feel alright, because nobody had had a baby), and what they were doing.  She assumed that I would be interested, and she was right.

For me, being a good teacher isn’t about checklists for this, that and the other.  It isn’t about fantastic resources or differentiation or planning-to-the-correct-format.  It’s about the relationship that makes funny little boys with SEN come dancing down the corridor to tell you that they were right about the next installment of the story.  It’s about drawings, and letters, Christmas cards and notes from parents in school reports that tell you how happy their child has been in your class.  It’s about the ‘yessssss’ when you start the story and the ‘ooohhhhhh’ when you stop (on the biggest cliff-hanger point possible). It’s not just about knowledge, and it’s not just about skills. For me, it’s about that immeasurable something that you can’t put on a clip-board.

I look at my son, and I think that without love, where would he be?  Would he have stayed in mainstream primary school in his chronological year group?  Would he be riding a bike, or reading the credits for ‘Strictly’?  Would he still be wearing a nappy at night?  Or a bib?  Would he have written his own Christmas cards?  Would he be able to call me mummy?

In my book, if you haven’t got love, you haven’t got much at all.

Nurture13/14

I’ve been inspired by the #nurture1314 thingummy on Twitter, so here are the things that make me happy from 2013, and (some of!) my hopes for 2014.  As always, I haven’t been able to restrain myself as far as a word count goes (I hope you get to the end before wandering off, bored!) or keep to a subject of all things educational.  But anyway.  Here they are:

  1.  The absolutely best thing that has happened this year is that my husband has got a new job.  OK, I know this is supposed to be about me, but this new job is such a good thing that it really needs first mention.  This is not to say that he didn’t have a good job before; on the contrary, in terms of pay (reasonable), security (extremely), terms and conditions (very good) he had a good job before last September, and good things came out of it – he started a charity (http://www.severnfreewheelers.org.uk/) and waterproofed the cellar, but it was heartbreaking to see how it slowly but surely sucked  the creativity, joy, and even the hope out of him.  He took the old job because it gave us the security we all needed as a family, but the price he paid has been high indeed.  This September, though, it all changed.
    His new job is a lo-o-ong way from home, but, on top of the car they bought him, his new employers are happy for him to work two days a week from home.  Sometime in the foreseeable future we are going to have to move house (very nervous about that), especially as his enthusiasm for it grows.  One of the things that strikes me, as a teacher, is that he says, ‘No-one is in it to build a career.  Everyone is building a space rocket.’ (I’m really not joking with this one – he really has got a job as a rocket scientist, how cool is that?!)   The best job I ever had was in a school where, as a team, we gelled; I still miss them, years later.
  2.  Sam has settled at school. Alright, alright, I know that this is another one focussed outside of my own experience, but, the thing is, the happiness, settled-ness or anything other-ness of my loved ones has a knock on effect on my well being as I worry or stress or rejoice for them.  So. Sam.  Second year in special school, and whatever magic wand they have been waving over him is working.  After a tentative start, we now have a confident, calm, happy not-so-little boy who feels as if he belongs in his new school.  He has found his feet and we, as a family, are reaping the rewards.
  3.  So here’s one for me.  This blog. I can’t quite express how much this means to me.  There have been times in my life when I have felt as if I was going to pop if I didn’t find a creative outlet.   I love the opportunity it gives me to set down some of the thoughts that have been rattling round in my brain for so long; the process of writing them down helps me to set them in order.  The thought that someone else might read them helps me to moderate some of my opinions.  Part of me wouldn’t mind if no-one read it (honest, guv), but the fact that they have, even in the three short months I have been writing it, tickles me pink.  And retweets give me the unaccustomed feeling that other people might actually agree with some of what I have to say (even if they don’t); I don’t feel so alone, so silenced.
  4. The summer of 2013.  It occurred to me, while I was reassuring my children that they didn’t actually need to wrestle themselves into wetsuits in order to enjoy a play in the sea, that they probably wouldn’t remember the last long-ish stretch of hot weather.  Sam was in reception, so he would only have been 5, A would have been 3 and L a baby.  We sat outside, chatting to friends, drinking wine in the glow of candlelight, no less.  How Mediterranean!  We went about our business without taking coats, jumpers and umbrellas.  How un-British!  They enjoyed themselves playing with water in the garden, and I enjoyed watching them.
  5. Linked to the summer weather has to be my garden.  This year was the year that I finally took control.  The wilderness has been reduced (still not entirely gone) and in its place we now have four vegetable patches that actually produced things we ate (rather than the sort of variety we scratched our heads over and wondered why they hadn’t grown) and a plan for the rest of it.  My back didn’t particularly enjoy the digging, it has to be said, but my Mrs Doyle walk for the three or so weeks it took for it to recover gave my family and colleagues much amusement.  Always pleased to entertain.
  6. My job.  This has to be pretty high on the list.  While not everything at work has gone my way, I am privileged to work with such an energetic and passionate group of teachers who make such a difference to the life of the children we teach.  I also have a great boss who has allowed me to change my hours of work because I cannot think of another way to get Sam to school other than be available to do it myself.  Sometimes, the challenges presented by learning difficulties in the family flummox me and I am grateful for this solution.
  7. My job again.  You know, I really love the job of classroom teacher in a primary school. It is demanding, challenging, interesting, absorbing, and for me, doesn’t really work part time.  I’m not quite sure why I can’t manage when plenty of other people make huge successes out of it.  Maybe it’s a control thing.  Whatever it is, I have somehow managed to find myself working part time in a school where I not only don’t have classroom responsibility but I am also teaching to my strengths.  I’m not quite sure how this has happened, but I am eternally grateful that it has.
  8. My job again!  One of the things that is difficult about my job is developing a relationship with the children I teach.  When you are a class teacher it happens so quickly and so naturally.  You are working together all of the time (pretty much) every day of the week.  You go to assemblies and run clubs.  For me, when I only see most of the children I teach for an hour once a week, it has taken a lot longer.  I’m pleased that I am now at the stage where more than the children in my groups know who I am.  Makes playground duty easier too.
  9. One of the things that did go right in my advance-my-career-somehow-plan was my appointment as a writing moderator for the county council.  Several things I enjoy rolled into one.  Visiting different schools – check.  Talking to colleagues about teaching – check.  Talking to colleagues about children’s writing – check.  Wearing a badge with my name on – check.  Discovering new parts of the county I am lucky enough to live in – check.  It was a pity that one of my children was poorly on the day of the last meeting, but, hey, you can’t have it all, can you?
  10. My little girl’s teacher.  She started Year 3 this year and at long last has a teacher she really likes.  She hasn’t actively disliked any of her teachers so far, but she thinks the world of this young woman, and consequently wants to please her, and, amazingly, be noticed by her.  This attitude makes a bit of a change in our household – although, thinking about it, Sam’s teacher is no doubt the reason for his happiness at school too!  Let’s hope they cope OK when they move on.
  11. Family friends.  I have some great friends, most of whom I don’t see half enough, and I love them all dearly, but these ones deserve special mention.  These ones are people who know me, really know me.  Some of them have known me since long before I had children and I became smothered under motherhood.  They are interesting, articulate people with whom I enjoy conversations that range over fashion, politics, religion, feminism and parenting, and who, more than that, accept my quirky, introverted, special family without question and with open hearts.
  12. This year is the year I moved churches.  I put it off for a long time, out of a sense of loyalty and perseverance, I suppose, but I finally did it in around February last year.  I’m not the most regular of pew-attenders (a 9:15 service makes sure of that!), but I feel immeasurably blessed by the sense of peace I have gained, both over the decision and in the new place of worship itself.
  13. Health.  Back and knee aside, this year has been another one where we are all getting better.  Sam has certainly done a sterling job, throughout his life, of putting us through the health wringer and I am pleased to report that this year there has been (in no particular order) no broken bones, no pneumonia, no nits (for Sam anyway), no vomiting (apart from car journeys), and no worms.  There haven’t even been many temperatures (although chapped lips have featured reasonably heavily) or bumped heads.  Husband hasn’t had to increase either his Statins or his Insulin (or not to my knowledge, anyway), and my stress-induced headaches are making reduced appearances.  Slowly but surely.

Onto next year. I’m not sure that I’ve got 14 hopes and dreams, but I’ll give it my best shot.

  1.  Priorities.  This is always a challenge for me. I’m a bit of an all-or-nothing kind of person (maybe this is why I feel such dissatisfaction in part-time work?  Who knows?), so I do often feel that I haven’t quite got them right.  This summer, my middle son, A, gave me a lesson that has kept me thinking as summer turned to autumn and then winter.  One day, back in the summer holiday, it happened that I had him all to myself.  L was playing with a friend, Sam was at summer school, so A and I had that rarest and most precious thing that middle children get so little of – a whole day in each other’s company.  We didn’t do anything particularly spectacular; we went to a local PYO, picked some strawberries (dodging the wasps) and made some jam when we got home.  I didn’t think he’d particularly enjoy it, fruit not being up his street at all, but he (as he does) chattered his way through the day, licked semi-set jam off cold saucers and relished, with me, the delights of sharing each other’s company without the demands of anyone else muscling in.  I need to make individual time with my children a priority – for them and for me.
  2. I’m so looking forward to finishing paying off a loan.  We figured out, earlier this year, that if we double what we pay, it will be all paid off by the spring.  I can’t wait!  I want a cleaner again!  I struggle under the weight of domestic drudgery and you would not believe how having someone else to do the vast majority of cleaning in my dusty, untidy house lifts it from my shoulders.  Until the laundry piles up and I am crushed by the ironing, that is.
  3. Related to the paying-off-of-loan – I want to give my children some of the experiences that we haven’t been able to afford.  Like flying in an aeroplane.  That might have to wait a couple of years.
  4. I need to get back into a Zumba routine.  I badly hurt my knee in March, and, since then, I haven’t been able to find one that works (a routine, that is, not a knee).  Apart from the benefit to my waistline, Zumba was a lifeline to me during a period of overdose of stress-and-anxiety and is the funnest fitness class I have ever attended, with the funnest group of women who have become my friends through our shared love of leaping about to loud music.  My knee feels better.  The Zumba diary needs looking at.
  5. We have a sailing dinghy.  I have not been in it for over a year (bad back, bad knee, busy garden).  I am going in it next summer. I am going to sail in it with the spinnaker up.  I am.  I will not chicken out.  What’s the worst that can happen?
  6. I’d like there to be less stress at meal times. My husband is diabetic, so there is always going to be a certain amount of anxiety, especially when we eat out, but I would like this anxiety to be a little less reflected by my younger children.  The problem we have with Sam these days is getting him to stop eating; I’d like the other two to be more adventurous and eat more.  We’re getting there, but it’s a slow old journey and oh, so easy to slip back into bad habits.
  7. Clubs.  Inspired by three hugely successful holiday clubs for big brother, my little two have joined the local youth theatre.  They are never going to push themselves forward to join clubs at school, they are just not that sort of children, so how lovely to see their confidence rising in a different group.  Sam would like to go too, so I hope that they can get some more people in to help.  Hopefully I won’t have to jump up and down too much or fill in too many forms to help it to happen.
  8. I’d like to continue to ‘develop my career’ in ways that don’t impact too much on my nearest and dearest.  Yes, there needs to be room for me, but we have a complex set of special needs at play in our family, and keeping the balance means that I don’t become unbalanced. I’ll keep on knocking on doors and seeing which ones open. In the meantime, maybe this blog is the way forward.
  9. I’d like to find a way, in between working, blogging and Zumba-ing to find a place in the new church.
  10. I need music in there somewhere.
  11. Friends.  Thank you for being so forgiving.  Next year I will make more effort.
  12. I have finished off the trifle today.  Next year I am going to be thinner.
  13. I will be calmer with the children.  I will, I will!
  14. I am going to invent and extra time device.  That should sort it.

Thank you for reading, and have a great, and healthy, 2014.

The Self-licking Lollipop

I am a teacher.  For a long time I tried not to be a teacher, but I found that you can take the girl out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the girl. I resisted the call to the classroom for a couple of years while I pursued my dream of becoming a pop singer or some sort of singer/song writer in the manner of Suzanne Vega (except that I didn’t like the hours overly much and I had no desire to travel around Germany in a VW camper accompanied by greasy men wearing Megadeath t-shirts),and then again after my children arrived, but it was not to be.

When I had a baby it was the ideal opportunity, it seemed to me, to make my escape from fate.  I had slowly developed that awful feeling that teachers suffer from, that of being like a hamster stuck on a wheel that spins ever faster and faster, so my first maternity leave came as a bit of a relief.  When the boy arrived, my world turned upside down, and I found that I couldn’t muster up much energy to care for other people’s children in the way I had before.   When two more babies arrived I found that I didn’t have time to care for other people’s offspring, let alone the energy.

But after pushing ten years at home, I started to feel that maybe getting back to work might be a good idea.  I thought about a different role in a school – but what?  I’m not really the sort of person you would want to have in an office.  I have a tendency to put things down in random places and I can’t decide where things, in particular paperwork, should go.  I wondered if maybe I could be a Teaching Assistant, but then, after all that time at home, my in-charge-ness had kind of got out of control.

So back to the chalk-face it was for me.  Except it isn’t a chalk-face any more.  It’s more of a PowerPoint-face.

Everyone kept telling me how much it had changed, how much more rigorous it was now, and I thought to myself, ‘how different can it possibly be?’  Children are still children, they still smell the same (a sort of mix between washing powder, sweaty plimsolls and wee), they play pretty much the same games in the playground, they have the same arguments and difficulties over English spelling and punctuation.  When I first started teaching again it didn’t seem so different, but now that I’ve been back in the game for almost three years I think I know what they mean, and it hasn’t got anything to do with rigour.

For a start there’s OfSTED.  What’s going on with that?  It was always a scary thing, but when did they turn into some sort of black-patent-leather-suited secret police, whose demands dictated everything that went on in your classroom, regardless of your own particular style?  Was its r’aison d’etre always to be the enemy of individuality?  I know it was always about ‘rooting out bad teachers’, but when did it turn out that all teachers were bad?  When did it become the acceptable canon that the teaching profession, my lovely, caring, passionate profession, is the whipping boy for all of society’s ills?

When did it become the done thing for educated adults, such as those who write newspaper articles, to fall back on that old chestnut of 9-3 and long summer holidays, ignoring the blend between educator, surrogate parent and social worker, ignoring the hours that all teachers put in, over and above their contracts because, funnily enough, they are not motivated by money, to join in the approbation, right at the end of the longest, darkest, hardest term?  The term in which we have struggled against coughs and colds and vomiting to put on nativities and carol concerts, pantomimes and plays so that all of us parents can oooh and aaah and feel our bosoms swell with pride at the talent and gorgeousness of our offspring, displayed by people who ask for no recognition for themselves.

And data.  Oh.  My.  Word.  I’m really not a detail person (give me broad brushstrokes any day), but it seems to have got completely out of control in primary schools.  When did a child turn into a 1c or a 3a?  When did it become the expected thing that children made ‘three sub-levels of progress every year’?  When did children’s learning suddenly become a linear thing?

And this performance related pay thing.  What’s going on there?  While I have no problem with accountability, after all I’m a parent myself and I want the best for my own children, how is it that my pay is tied to the performance of small, random beings?  Have you ever tried to get a recalcitrant child to do anything?  And what about those with special needs?  I’m worried that the pressure I, and my fellow teachers, feel to ensure that the children in our care make the required progress will be passed on to the children – they, after all, will have to do the work.

And the teaching of writing.  Don’t get me started on the teaching of writing!  What on earth is going on with this higher and lower level connective nonsense?  In our desire to measure and tick off and show and prove that children have made the correct amount of progress we have reduced the art of writing to a set of rules that must be obeyed; where purple prose is valued over and above teaching children to use their own voices.  Where the joy of creativity and thinking for themselves, of breaking the rules, is sucked out in favour of checklists of sentence types and a variety of openers.

And while I’m on a ranting roll, although I have no problem with sharing with children what they are going to be learning in a lesson, sometimes, just sometimes, I would just like to get on with the doing, rather than the talking about the doing, and checking we all know what we are supposed to be doing, and seeing if we learned what we were supposed to be learning.  After all, children with special needs very often have no idea what it is they are supposed to be doing in the first place.  Rather than the lollipop licking itself, they need to be doing the licking.

And then, just like when Sam learned to crawl because he wanted to play with a ball that kept rolling away (funny that), they might get on with learning what they need to learn, just for fun.  Just because they can.

Too Many Toys

Christmas is coming.  I have made my Christmas puddings and there is a big credit card bill awaiting my attention, but apart from that I am not really ready for the Big Day.  It is usually around this time of year when I start suffering from a mild form of panic as I, a reasonably seasoned mother of three, survey all the jobs I have yet to do.  All the writing of yearly catch-up letters, queueing in post offices, wrapping of parcels, making of pastry…  And, as is my wont, I usually, at around this time of year, suffer from some form of rebellion, generally focussed on conspicuous consumption.  Or more particularly, on the number of toys belonging to my children.

In an attempt to reduce the amount of stuff, I have been acting, for several years now, under a policy of only buying things for them (except when things like shoes and clothes are grown out of or damaged beyond repair) for Christmas and birthdays.  The problem is, though, that I become tired of constantly saying, ’No’.  Once in a while, I would like to say,‘Yes’.  Actually, I did this in the summer holidays (can’t think what came over me), and the kids nearly keeled over in shock.  It was worth it just to see the looks on their faces.

There have been years when I have looked at the display of presents on Christmas morning and felt slightly sick.  I have wondered if we have gone a little overboard and have had to remind myself that I have three children, and that three children do indeed generate a hell of a lot of gifts. It’s not so much that we, the doting parents, buy them a huge amount, just that they have relatives who also buy for them and it all adds up.

When Sam was a baby, I like many new mums, suffered from an overly strong desire to control the toys that he played with.  I would have liked to restrain them to only the nicest of wooden toys, the kind that make a beautiful display on the window sill or mantel shelf – you know the sort I mean, the ones that make you seem as if you are living in a lifestyle magazine, but this was not to be.   My focus was shifted by the diagnosis of Down’s and from that moment on, instead, every toy had to have some sort of educational value.  Hand-eye co-ordination, doing and undoing, putting in, taking out, putting lids on and off, posting through slots of different shapes and sizes, same and different, colours, in, on, under – if there was a skill, there was a toy to help.

In the early days I had in mind a very specific idea of what I thought people should buy for my beloved firstborn, but did a single one of my wider family and friends take a blind bit of notice?  No.  They did not.  I have a lovely friend who issues a list to her relatives and they mildly comply.  I have no idea how she does it, because mine are a rebellious bunch and consistently do their own thing, regardless of what I might say.

Despite my, on many occasions, doing down huge numbers of different types of toys for being too plastic, too cheap and nasty, too expensive, too gendered, too everything, no-one has taken the hint.  They joyfully fill my house up with stacks of gifts I have not chosen, and I, well brought up child that I am, do not dare to say anything for fear of looking the dreaded gift horse in the mouth.

I can’t even bring myself to quietly get rid of the stuff-what-I-have-not-asked-for.  It feels wrong to dispose of gifts bought to please my children because they don’t always please me.  I’d love to be one of those organised mums who box up all the toys and then bring them out at different times of the year.  I always had the good intentions, but I never seemed to be able to find the time. 

I know that they would be just as happy with half as much.  I know that they don’t need to have the latest, or the best of everything.  I know that they are just as happy playing with the box that the latest thing came in, just as my sister and I were, back when we were kids.  I can see the stacks of toys that go un-played with and dusty in the corner, while they return, again and again, to the old favourites.  But someone spent good money on them.  Someone took the time to think about what the children might like, they wrapped them up and delivered them to the house.  I can’t bear to throw away someone else’s love gift.

So I might allow myself the luxury of believing that the children of today have far too many material possessions.  I might agree that my sister and I had just as much fun with our cardboard boxes and lack of wall-to-wall tech.  But I also agree that other people are allowed to bless my children.  Other people are allowed to love them and be loved in return.  Other people, who could never afford to bless their own children, because they, like me, haven’t got enough money to get them the very thing we know they would love more than anything else.  I understand that the joy of gifts lies not just with the recipient but with he or she who gives.  And I’m not going to put a stop to that.

We Don’t Have to Agree

I have a great friend who, despite the fact that we have children of uncannily similar ages, never really enjoyed going to mother-and-toddler groups.  She says that she always felt uncomfortable, and that, apart from the fact that she had a baby and so did everyone else, she never felt that she had anything in common with the other mothers. It wasn’t that she disagreed, just that she disconnected.  I know what she means, because I feel very much the same in many aspects of my life. I seem to spend most of my time feeling like the round peg in a square hole.

Take my children, for instance.  Thanks to the added chromosome of my eldest I was automatically catapulted into a different category than almost all of the other parents around me, whether I wanted to be or not.  Actually, quite a lot of my parenting life and energy has been spent reclaiming the common ground that I share with parents of ordinary children.  From sleepless nights and nappy obsession, we have moved on together to heartache over secondary school choices and shock at the cost of new uniforms.  These days I’m hearing a lot about strops and hormones, and it’s not so very different in my house.

I’ve never felt entirely at home in the SEN world, either.  Some of my friends have found great comfort in attending the various support groups and therapy sessions that we have round here (and there seems to be a lot), but I have never got very much out of it.  I have always had that nagging, persistent voice at the back of my head that says, just because we have children who have Down Syndrome, or other forms of disability, does not mean that we automatically have enough in common to make us friends.  Not that I mind particularly being the odd-bod contrary girl.  My dad would say that it is one of my defining characteristics.

At first sight, it would look as if I closely resemble other parents of children with disabilities, and in many respects, I do.  I, too, have had to readjust my expectations, to look again at what it means to be a parent.  I, too, face a range of added complications because there is an extra facet to my parenting.  But, just because I, as a parent, fall into this category, does not mean that we are all the same, either in our needs or our desires – any more than our children are the same because they have an extra chromosome.

When Sam was born I was handed a leaflet produced by the Down Syndrome Association.  In it, the text was at pains to point out that my child had inherited just as much from me and his daddy as he had from the extra chromosome.  In it, I read that he would share just as much genetic material as his future siblings, and that his resemblance to his family would be far more defining than his resemblance to another ‘genetic group’.  To me, this meant that, despite any label, any condition he carried, he was, and is, just as much an individual as you or me or anyone else you care to mention.  This means that, despite his label, his needs, and ours as a family, are individual too.

There is a lot of worrying going on at the moment amongst many parents of children with SEN as the government is in the process of redesigning health-and-education for children and young people with special needs.  In the new code of practice they are seeking to bring together health, social care and education in the interests of improving the life chances of children with SEN and their families.  I think this is a truly laudable aim.  I do, however, suffer from a large dose of cynicism over whether the aim is to truly include disabled people in our society or whether it is a money saving measure – time will tell, I suppose.

What is clear is that ‘Inclusion’ is the goal – what is not clear to me, is what Inclusion actually means, because it seems to mean something different to everyone.  For me, inclusion means being accepted, acceptable and valued in our society in all our multicoloured and multitalented glory.  We are all different, and we all have a part to play. Sam may not ever be the brightest academic tool in the box, but this doesn’t mean that he can’t participate in community life.  He gets people talking.  He makes them smile.  He makes the tired old man who feels that his life is over because he feels he’s no use to anyone help him out when he gets his trolley wheel stuck in the gutter.  He shows young men how to care for someone vulnerable who needs a hand with putting a bag on his back or crossing a busy road on the way to school.

For some people, though, I wonder if inclusion means that we should all be the same – or at least have access to all the same things regardless of our abilities and needs, and this is most often focussed, I believe, on schools.  And, having popped out with Sam at the other end of primary school, I’m not sure that this is entirely right.

While I would agree that the primary school is central to the local community, you only have to wait in the playground for your kids to come out at the end of the day to see that, I certainly don’t think it is the heart in the way it used to be. From the inside it may appear that way, but, slowly and surely, primaries are, I think, becoming more and more disconnected from the communities they serve.  At my children’s school the gates are increasing, all in the name of safeguarding.  The teachers don’t have time to chat, because they are overburdened with targets for this and planning for that.  Very few of them live in the same place they work; I certainly don’t.  Those moments where the school meets the outside world, the carols, the assemblies, the plays, the fetes, are all kept to a minimum because the time is wasted when it should be spent on valuable learning in classrooms.

I hear many times from parents, at the odd times I do manage to make it to a group thang, that they are reluctant to move their SEN child from a mainstream school into special education because what will happen to that child’s social life?  I have to walk away from that one, because inside of me there is Mrs Outraged from Tunbridge Wells who wants to blurt out, “When did schooling become about a social life?  When did it stop being about an education?”  I don’t consider it the school’s job to help my Sam with that.  I expect them to help him out with the three Rs.

I have found that I can’t debate what inclusion means with other parents of kids with SEN –partly because we all think different things, but also because I have too much respect for the fragility that is so evident amongst us.  I’m pretty sure that is the reason that Sam nearly went to the local comprehensive by mistake.  Everyone made assumptions about what we wanted, everyone seemed a little afraid of actually asking because, maybe, they worried about how we might take it.

They never stopped to ask whether we thought that having a minder for every moment of the school day represented a true inclusion to us.  We never talked about how it might feel to Sam to be the only one like him in a school of over a thousand children, or how it might feel when everyone else understands what is going on in the fast-paced-progress-every-twenty-minute lesson when you don’t, and you are still struggling with the zip on your pencil case.

But we need to debate it, openly and honestly, because otherwise we let others lump us together – we find ourselves without special schools when we really need them, we find ourselves with a policy of inclusion that doesn’t really work, because no-one has really asked, and I mean really asked us what it means to us, who we think it is for.  While I very much appreciate Cherie Booth taking up the cause of disabled children and their families, after reading her article in the New Statesman I was left with a feeling of disquiet.

I understand that Cherie is a lawyer and therefore it is her area of expertise, and I would not want in any way to play down the importance of laws that ensure, or at least attempt to ensure, equality for all.  But what I want to see is a change in the human heart. I don’t want Sam going to a school that accepts him because it is illegal for them not to.  I don’t want people around him who pay lip service to the concept of inclusion, or carry it out half-heartedly, because that is the path to failure.  I don’t want to see people so hemmed about with rules and regulations and labels and prescribed practise that they fail to see the child at the centre.  The very last thing I want to see for my fabulously individual boy is a one-size-fits-all approach.

Yes, it’s great that Sam went to the local primary school and is well known amongst the children and parents of his little group.  He knows them and they know him.  Job done in that regard.  But now, the focus is changed.  He needs an education that is truly tailored to his needs, and that, for him, can be found in a special school.  His needs, not ours, have become paramount.  So inclusion needs to change too.  Just because he goes to a different school does not mean that he is no longer part of the world.  He hasn’t entered a different dimension.  Now is the time for other agencies to step up.  It shouldn’t be just about the schools bringing people together, and giving children and families with SEN the chance to meet, mix and find out that we’re not so very different after all.  Inclusion means being included – by us all.

And unfortunately, I don’t think we can legislate for that. Yet.  I expect there will be someone collecting data about it somewhere.

Sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees, or, I wanted a picture and this was a nice one.
Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, or, I wanted a picture and this was a nice one.