I usually quite like reading The Guardian’s Secret Teacher series. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t; but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, or even if today is your first visit, you’ll soon know that I’m all for hearing the voices of the unheard. And sadly, in today’s climate of anxiety, despite how they are when you meet them in real life, with their loud voices and commanding personalities, teachers’ views in public spaces are muted at the very least. But this one, with a title guaranteed to catch my interest, being as it’s about inclusion and all, touches me a little too close, and not in a good way.
Oh, I understand the difficulties of teaching children with challenging needs in a mainstream classroom. I’ve done it, and it is indeed challenging, even when you have another adult in the room to lighten the load. Children lying down on the floor at the front of the room, or breaking out into fights while you are trying to teach them what a noun is, or a fronted adverbial, is not an easy thing. Planning activities that get everyone thinking but avoiding panic (and therefore stropping and not thinking) isn’t easy either. When behaviour gets extreme, and plans get abandoned for whatever reason, be it a change of staff, or unrealistic expectations, or a lack of communication and/or support, or because at first it seems to make no difference, it’s hard. Very hard. And, honestly, some children just don’t fit into mainstream schooling – I know because my son is one of them.
Feeling powerless, caught in a riptide of other people’s expectations, or immovable policy is never an easy feeling. Get any group of teachers in a room, be it classroom, staffroom, training room, pub, wherever; throw in the word OFSTED and watch what happens. It won’t be long before ranting and railing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and generally despairing at the state of statistics and one-sized-fits-all classrooms, teachers and children takes over, and anything else you wanted to discuss falls by the wayside, never to be taken up again.
And there’s that other thing about teachers that isn’t apparent until you are one – the feeling that you are never doing a good enough job. Oh, I don’t mean the pressure of inspections or observations, although that certainly has a part to play; I mean the desire we all have to do our best for the children we serve. Teachers often complain of those times when the domination of one child, for whatever reason, means that they have less time to spend with the others, who need them too. We are always walking a tightrope line, balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the class. And for those of us with children at home, it’s exactly the same there too.
And the pressure. Oh, the pressure. We must not only do our best for them all, but we must make sure that they are making at least acceptable progress in their school work, learning about their verbs and spellings and times tables, and how to do long division before they leave us, and all from their very different starting points. Little Jonny, with his happily married parents with university degrees and books covering every wall in his big house, must do as well as Jade, who lives in a one bed bedsit with an alcoholic (or more) relative and no breakfast. Or tea. Or supper. It’s a hard, hard job. We wish that someone would come along and make it easier for us.
Oh, there’s a lot wrong in our educational system, with its standardised demands over a diverse population. The inspection system is groaning before our very eyes with the knowledge of its own inadequacy. The statistics are stuttering under an onslaught from teachers who actually know what they are talking about. Educational funding is being cut and cut (don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t) and the axe is falling on specialist provision because it’s just so expensive, as well as everywhere else. On the one hand we are told ‘RESULTS! RESULTS! RESULTS!’ and on the other, ‘INCLUDE! INCLUDE! INCLUDE! AND ADD IN FLUFFY BUNNIES!’ We, conflicted and confused, are struggling with the strain.
And our society is no better, with its expectations of perfect mothers, with their beach-ready bodies, nano-seconds after giving birth, and perfect babies, checked for acceptability before they are born, before they have even taken their first breath. We must have perfect families with perfect children who never squabble in the supermarket or throw a tantrum because they wanted to wear the red shoes, not the blue ones. Our education system, with its issues of increasing control, over teachers and over children, is merely a reflection of the wider world we live in. We are all looking for something, somebody to blame when the going gets tough, when it doesn’t turn out to be quite so picture perfect as we were led to believe.
We think we have the answers. We think there is a magic pill to make the kids behave; a quick and easy solution to doing as they are damn well told. We think that somehow a label will wash all our troubles away. We think that shutting the special schools and moving the children to a mainstream one, with a helpful adult in tow, one who has experience in working in care, or who has intimate knowledge of the local population is the answer. We think that somehow, after we’ve spent the money on the equipment that somehow everything will be OK. The nice little disabled kid, the one who is so loving, and always happy, never sad or cross or a pain in the neck with their constant getting up too early in the summer mornings will fit in just fine. We don’t like it when we find out that nothing is ever easy, that children, with or without disabilities, never stick to our unexamined rules, and we look for someone to blame. Someone who is not us.
But let me tell you a story. Let me tell you a story about the man who has been the love of my life since I was eighteen years old; the father of my children. Let me tell you of the day we were told that our firstborn son had Down’s syndrome. We didn’t cry together. We didn’t even say very much. We each went on a super-fast readjustment journey we told each other about later with glasses of wine and talked over telly. ‘I just thought to myself,’ he said, as he told me of his dark drive home, leaving the wife and child in their hospital beds, ‘that it’s not me who has to live his life. It’s him.’
So the next time you feel like a moan; the next time you feel like telling the world how it is, how our school system fails those with additional needs when it forces them to fit into an inflexible and ill-trained system, the next time you want to stand up for the needs of the many over the needs of the few, the next time you want to point out how hard teachers’ lives are and the difficulty they have in providing an education for a child with complex special needs you think about that. The next time you think it’s acceptable to give voice to the attitude that says ‘if that child is in my child’s class, I’m moving mine out,’ you think long and hard about what you are saying.
You think about the real lives that people with Down’s syndrome live, the confusion, the prejudice, the bullying and the abuse, and you turn the blame to where it properly lies. You don’t turn it on their parents, whose job it is to stand up for their child’s rights. And you don’t turn it on the child. You don’t ever centre it there. Your job is to break down barriers, not create them.