My son goes to an Outstanding school. Not that what Ofsted had to say about it bore any bearing whatsoever on our decision to send him there. I’ve never been one for looking at school websites, or reading Ofsted reports (unless I am applying for a job there) or checking their place in the league tables. I’d much rather go and have a look round on an ordinary day, get a feel for the place, ask a few questions and get a few answers from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
Still, it was nice to have the inspectors’ agreement. The novelty of having someone agree with me is always a pleasure, whatever the subject. Sam regularly puts his uniform on in the holidays, he is keen to go no matter what his state of health, and we know, thanks to great communication, that he doesn’t get an easy ride when he’s there. Some weeks he seems to be constantly in detention for something or other, but he still wants to go; it is his school. Although I’m not much of a getter-involveder, this school has changed all of our lives for the better.
When I got the inspection report I was curious. You hear such things, on the teacher grapevines; things like ex-secondary-cooking-teachers inspecting nurseries, people making judgements on institutions about which they clearly know little, that sort of thing, that you hardly know what to believe. Whenever I have met an inspector they always seem like perfectly nice people (the last one – who was being inspected by an inspector herself – paid me the great compliment of asking me – before she’d seen my lesson, I hasten to add – if I was the NQT – I assumed it was my young and fresh demeanour that led her that conclusion), but you never can tell. Apparently. I wanted to know what this inspector thought of our wonderful school. What I read made my eyebrows raise and my eyes pop. I have never read a report like it. Clearly the inspector was blown away. Clearly the inspector knew what they were seeing.
And my son’s school isn’t alone. It is one of a significant number of special schools ranked ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. It is part of a success story that is changing lives for the better, not just those of the children who attend these schools, but for their families too, but, as Laura McInerney pointed out last week (was it only last week?) one that so few seem to know about, or care. Why is this?
Often, when a school is rated outstanding there are fanfares in the form of banners hung along the school fence, stories and photographs in the local press; the parents of the children who attend these schools glow with reflected glory. After spectacles such as those seen in the 2012 Olympics, people with disabilities carrying torches through the sun and rain, a signing choir at the opening ceremony; the way that everyone likes a bit of triumph over adversity you would think that they might get a bit more attention, but no.
It goes against the story that the education storytellers are telling at the moment. Or some of them anyway. It’s a story of smallness. A story of scale. While one son attends a school of around about a hundred pupils, the other attends the behemoth next door, swallowed through the gates along with almost two thousand other children. It’s a story of ‘spiky’ profiles that defy nice graphs and small, small steps that sometimes go backwards. It’s personalisation and experts in their field quietly getting on with the job.
It is perhaps a story that some don’t want being told. I mean, what would happen if all the parents of ordinary children got to find out about these schools? They might start wanting their schools to be a bit more like them. We don’t want our mainstream teachers finding out about the professional expertise or respect with which their special colleagues are held, or the freedom they have to personalise a useful curriculum, or they might be wanting some of the same,and then where would we be?
I don’t think it’s the low expectations factor. There are no pats on the head in our inspection system. And while I’m at it, there are no pats on the head for the children who attend these schools either. Special schools are subject to the same vagaries of the inspection system as everyone else. We mainstream teachers, struggling with our fear of categories might want to look at their success and write it off as letting them get away with it because aww, look at the poor dears, but that wouldn’t be honest.
Oh, I don’t think that the presence of Learning Disability has nothing to do with it. After all, we are so keen to deny the existence of Down’s syndrome that expectant mothers are screened to within an inch of their lives. ‘Abort it and try again,’ is the somewhat inelegantly expressed advice that, nonetheless, so many of us are given.
Down’s syndrome, or other conditions like it, you know, the ones you don’t get better from, the ones you cannot triumph over because they are a fundamental part of who you are, is not exactly the story that the newspapers, or the politicians, our national storytellers, like to tell. There’s something about learning disability that we, we who are in love with strength and beauty, winners not losers, the survival of the fittest expressed through market forces, are turning from, attempting to wipe out of our collective consciousness, if not our existence.
We don’t like to look at our imperfect selves. We don’t like to see the reality of who we are.
The funny thing is that it is here, in this examination of our weakness, in this dedication to the welfare of our most vulnerable, that we could well be at our greatest.
What do we make of that?