Battle Weary

There is something strange happening in Edu World.  After a (more than) decade long drive towards the inclusion of children with learning disabilities, or special needs if you want a broader term, something unexpected has cropped up.  After years of special school closure, the acceptance and education of the vast majority of special kids in mainstream schools, the parents of said kids, and the children themselves, it has to be said, are voting with their feet.  Like me, they are sending their children, not to the local mainstream, but to the (hopefully) local special school.

Why is this happening?  These parents, and their predecessors, have fought long and hard for the right of their children to take their places in the mainstream world, to no longer be deemed ineducable, to, simply by their presence, do a bit of educating of other people themselves, to be accepted and acceptable.

First up, training.  Let’s be honest here.  Mainstream teachers just aren’t trained to deal with complex needs in their classrooms.  Classes are big, my first class was 33 children, and children like mine are a challenge.  They are a challenge in terms of teaching them academically, in terms of their behaviour, in terms of the way they change the balance so much in the class, and that’s before you get to the accountability measures that mean high stakes testing and jobs on the line, and progress and all that jazz.  Classrooms with 30 children in them and a prescriptive national curriculum dictating what you teach in them are not flexible places.  They are a bit like ocean liners.  They take a long time to turn.

Resources.  Many of our school buildings are old and difficult to negotiate.  I went to a school that was 100 years old in 1980.  I’ve taught in two storey Victorian buildings (where the boy who was recovering from Leukemia had to have a person with him so that he could get to the music room), mobile classrooms with and without their own toilets, in and outside classrooms in varying states of repair, and not one of them, not one of the crowded spaces that are my stamping ground, has been set up for someone who might need a hoist to get out of a wheelchair (even though there is a disabled toilet with the PE mats stored inside it).  Ok, that’s an extreme example, but you get my point, I hope.  Physical adjustments can be hard to squeeze in to your common or garden classroom.

The yearly nature of schooling.  Like it or not there is an element that is all about surviving the year.  So your child doesn’t get on particularly well with their teacher, they haven’t done as well as you would like?  Hey, it’s only a year.  We can all afford to write a year off here or there.  Eighteen year olds do it all the time.  So you’ve got a nightmare class with children you find really difficult to teach.  It’s only a year.  It’ll be over before you know it.  And before you know it we have forgotten what went before because we are on to the next set of challenges, we are taken up with the next lot of obstacles.  Nothing gets changed because we are too busy mountaineering/fighting the next set of fires, and we start to wonder how many years off it’s acceptable to have.

Unseen difficulties.  I’ve written about the hidden power of labels before.  I’ve written about the insidious effect of having your own personal TA (who may or may not subscribe to the labelling effect) before.  I’ve wondered aloud at the wisdom of entrusting our most vulnerable, and our most difficult to teach, to the least paid and the least trained members of our educational workforce before (and really, no disrespect intended).  I haven’t written about the day that Sam fell off a wall and I took him straight from school to A&E.  I haven’t told you about the time he walked for miles with his class on a day out, or sat on a church floor for the carol concert and was poorly for a week after the experience.  Needless to say there are plenty of tales to tell of the unexpected, the events preventable by a little experience, or specialised knowledge, or effective knowledge sharing.

Home and school.  I can’t count the times I see the relationship between parents of children with special needs and the schools they attend characterised as a battle.  As a parent I’ve been labelled as pushy, or fussy, and difficult; precious.  I’ve alluded to the magnifying effect of Down’s syndrome, the way that everything is harder, slower, in sharper relief.  Parents are under pressure.  Teachers are under pressure.  Add to that a challenging child, and I don’t mean that in a perjorative sense, but what you have is a powder keg, a road crash waiting to happen, and one that echoes, continues to affect families and subsequent teachers, for years to come.  It was a shock to realise that maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I was made to feel.

Friendships.  What it is that we want when we send our children off up the road, tiny in their miniature uniforms, is acceptance; a public acknowledgement that our children are worth just as much as everyone else’s.  That, when we were told that we wouldn’t be going on holiday to Italy, but in fact were heading to Holland, they lied; that we were taking our two weeks in Italy just the same as everyone else.  And one of the bench marks of our citizenship on planet normal?  Friendships, playdates, birthday parties, after school clubs; involvement in the extras.  Over his primary school years, Sam had few birthday invites and one play date, and those were confined to the infant years.  A try out at the school football club resulted in me being told that to have him there ‘wasn’t fair on me’ (not me).  If there’s one thing that this blogging process has taught me it’s that I am not alone.  It’s that my experience is echoed up and down the country, and is the subject of academic research papers (qualitative probably).

In a school system where the emphasis is fairly and squarely on academic results, where the pressure is on from the moment the children step through the door for pace, pace, pace, not a moment wasted, heads down (but not thumbs up), where is the space for children with difficulties to learn how to be friends, to learn about the oh-so-important incidentals?  Did we forget that the point of education is not so that we can have nice pretty sheets full of pretty data, but to prepare our young people for adult life?  Did we forget that part of being an adult is the ability to make and form friendships, to accept that other people do not exist in order to service our educational needs?

Sometimes, when I see that my daughter(she’s in Year 4) has 15 minutes in the morning and less than an hour at lunch to play with her friends, I wonder if that is exactly what we have done.  When I see or hear of children with SEN consistently excluded from playtime because of playground difficulties, and by this I mean things like fighting with other children, or causing or getting into constant trouble because it’s easier just to keep them in than get to the heart of the matter, or worse, excluded from the school itself, I worry.  I’m not saying that the playtime thing is particularly different in special schools – after all, they are under the same inspection pressures as everyone else – but what they and great mainstream schools like them do have is an explicit care and attention to social learning, a recognition that this is part of the picture.

Put all of those things together and what you have is a monumental struggle to communicate, to explain, to ensure that all is working properly, and let me tell you: I love my son from the top of his greasy unwashed teenaged head to the tip of his uncut toenails, but life with Down’s syndrome, or ASD, or ADHD, or sensory processing disorder or any other label you care to mention, from gifted to cerebral palsy is struggle enough.  Just parenting children, especially if you have multiple offspring, the ones who don’t have labels, is struggle enough.

I’m too tired.  I haven’t the energy.  Is it any wonder that we, the extraordinary, are heading elsewhere?


This little soldier is tired of fighting all the marbles.


22 thoughts on “Battle Weary

  1. I don’t blame you for heading elsewhere but mainstream is the poorer for it and this blog is a tragic indictment of a system that is devoid of moral purpose or vision. There are inclusive high schools but only where there are deeply principled Heads who are prepare to prioritise it despite the lack of any incentive to do so in relation to Ofsted or, the real enemy of inclusion, crass league tables.

  2. This was so refreshing to read. I taught in a large comprehensive in Newham for 28 years. Newham took the philosophical “one size fits all” to integrate children with special needs (no I’m not indulging the jargon and listing the categories) into mainstream and enforced it with a heavy handed. I will agree this was good for many children but if there is any sector of education where a uniform approach is not appropriate, it must be in special needs.
    As a teacher I did my best, as early years trained I could contribute reasonably well in many cases however I had a friend in the borough with a different tale to tell.
    She was told her son would neither walk nor talk but she pushed for the best for him at all times. Newham could not bend enough so she had to face the decision of residential school half a days travel away for him to be developed according to his needs.
    Now he walks, talks, travels, works part time in a national retail chain, plays in a darts team, has a normal life. Mainstream integration would NOT have given him this.

  3. …and for those of us whose children are “too academically capable”, “too high functioning” to even be considered for statutory assessment we have no choice but to battle on to get their needs met in a mainstream environment which by its very (physical) nature will never meet their needs – too many children, too much noise, too many teachers, too many transitions…there is no choice for parents like me and children like mine and I am oh so battle weary but cannot head elsewhere. Things really do need to change.

  4. “Is it any wonder that we, the extraordinary, are heading elsewhere?”

    It isn’t. It isn’t any wonder at all. And I wish we’d done it sooner.

    My kids (who have high needs, low-incidence SEN) are at special school now. A wonderful place that is utterly transforming their lives for the better. But they have spent most of their school lives in mainstream.

    When my kids were in mainstream, they were supported throughout by front-line staff who worked to the outer limits of their capabilities and endurance in their efforts to give them a decent education. We couldn’t have had more dedicated front-line staff supporting our kids than the ones we had in this school.

    But they failed. Partly, because my kids’ needs were simply too great. But also, because the front-line staff were supporting them with two arms tied behind their backs and pistols pointed at their heads. At its most basic, there was a fundamental clash between the priorities of the school’s senior leadership team and the specific needs of my kids.

    Here’s how it played out. The school employed specialist teachers to cater for my kids’ disabilities; genuine experts, trained in research-validated methods to teach in a specific way in concert with outside professionals. But the school’s SLT had its sights set on Outstanding – and the way that these teachers went about their business was incompatible with Outstanding teaching.

    Everybody said so. The SLT said so. The LA’s school improvement partner said so. The previous Ofsted inspector had said so. All of these people had two things in common. None of them had any experience or expertise in teaching kids like mine. And all of them had a relentless, demented fixation on the concept of Outstanding

    So these specialist teachers were given a choice. Teach our way, or face capability. Show demonstrable progress in 20 minutes, or die trying. Take your hard-won specialist teaching qualifications and record of success, and shove them up your arse.

    It wasn’t really a choice, was it?

    We’ve left the school now. The specialist provision there has had the life strangled out of it: the priorities of SLT, and the DfE’s insane new SEN funding arrangements have seen to that. The specialist teachers and TAs have left. The attainment of children in the borough who have my kids’ disabilities has dropped like a stone. But you’ll be as pleased as I was to learn that the school now has its Outstanding status.

    There are so many reasons why my kids are thriving in special school now: the social side that Nancy mentions above (my experience in the social side is here at – ).

    But one of the main reasons that they’re doing so well is that they have specialist teachers who have a luxury that most teachers in mainstream do not – the ability and freedom to teach according to the specific needs of the child, not the needs of a system.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response – I totally understand what you are saying. Our education system needs to take a good long hard and honest look at itself.

  5. My choice to enroll Marcus in a “special school” was, as is yours, complex. However the heaviest point for me was one you mentioned here: Friendship. I wanted Marcus to be in a place where he could develop and grow real relationships, true friendships. I wanted him not to be an example “to be kind to,” but to have friends who understand and want to hang out, as friends should do.
    On a personal note, this point of choosing schools and classrooms is one of the hardest subjects to speak about openly as some people tend to take a personal affront to not fighting their fight. Also, I believe there is no greater advocacy than in sharing your truth and your story; You do it so well. Keep on, it gives me courage too. 🙂

    1. Thanks Mardra-I have been a bit nervous, especially as it’s not my way to advise people on school choices EXCEPT to keep on banging that drum that says all of our children are different and they all need different things. It’s not a valur judgement.
      The friends thing means so much-without meaningful, balanced friendships he remains inequal and patronised, doesn’t he?

  6. I think you’ve written a very incisive post here, Nancy.
    I started in mainstream secondary; became interested in SEN; obtained posts as Deputy SENCO and SENCO working in two great schools, battling for inclusion. Unfortunately I ended up very disillusioned. Then I moved to my current post in special. What a difference! As you say, our pupils are valued for who they are, they make real friendships, and the curriculum and our approach are built around their needs. A really inclusive mainstream school is very unusual and, as Mary says, needs brave and principled leadership – very risky in a climate in which success is measured so narrowly. We need to celebrate what’s so special about special and make sure everybody knows it.
    Best wishes.

    1. Thanks Paul – I think you’ve really made my point for me. It shouldn’t be a battle. If it is, something is wrong. We know this, and yet it still happens – in part because we have a system at war with itself. 😦

  7. “Inclusion” was one of those initiatives that was imposed on schools by ideologues without anyone asking teachers if it would, or could, work. It was always unlikely that every type of need could be dealt with by teachers making adjustments (or by throwing a TA in the room). It was also, therefore, inevitable, what as soon as it didn’t work the teachers would be blamed and the ideologues would claim that “true” inclusion had never been tried and we saw a hideous shift towards SENCOs who weren’t there to support students, but were there to hound teachers for not buying into the ideology.

    I hope that in the days of social media, this sort of ideologically-driven initiative could not be tried without the policymakers being aware of what was happening at the frontline, but your post really reminded me of how obviously doomed it all was right from the start. But we do still have the legacy of it. There are still some SENCOs who believe that their job is to police teachers; there are still snake oil merchants trying to sell “inclusive” teaching methods that do not work; there is still the belief that writing down a need on the right piece of people is more important than doing anything about it, and worst of all, there is still the widespread belief that a child’s bad behaviour is the result of an unmet “need” (to be met by giving the child whatever they want) rather than a deliberate choice which can be condemned and punished.

    1. A very quick response (i’ll probably write a proper post later):
      1. Inclusion is vastly misunderstood, i think, and to simply close all teh special schools and put the children in mainstream is no solution for anyone.
      2. There needs to be a proper distiction between ordinary children misbehaving and the very real behavioural difficulties faced by children and adults with very real difficulties and disabilities.
      3. Labelling needs to stop being equated with excuses. That is the way that eating your own poo, or smearing it on the walls, continues without understanding that it can, and must, be stopped.
      With that in mind, i really do think thag mainstream teachers, rather than being blamed for finding themselves flummoxed, and possibly shocked by the behaviour they find themselves having to deal with (and in some cases is probably caused by putting a child in an environment where they should not be) sjould have the chance to work with their colleagues in special schools, to observe them, to see the higher standards if behaviour set and how they are achieved.
      And 4. I think your comment demonstrates the weariness we all feel. Education should be a joy, not a battle.

  8. Hi Nancy,

    Powerful stuff! Thank you.

    I’ve often wondered why do we label schools as mainstream and special. Surely all schools should be special places! I would just call each school by its name and that’s it.

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