Ah, the Secret Teacher. The ever popular Guardian column featuring the very best of Britain’s Pissed Off Teachers. It’s not the kind of thing you read if you want a laugh or a giggle, a chuckle at the end of a long day; more a kind of nationwide outlet for the frustrations of the Pissed Off.
I get it, I really do. Much of this blog is fuelled by my irritation with Life, the Universe and Everything, and very cathartic it is too, to write it all down, to see the numbers of people clicking on it, finding out that every so often, people actually agree with me. It’s great. I get it all off my chest, and I feel less mad, all at the same time. Yay. Sometimes, though, you read the newspaper, and rather than a weight lifting off your shoulders, you finish with a sour taste in your mouth.
It’s hard to put a finger on why you feel so not quite right. It’s not unlike the feeling I used to get, around five years ago, when I was bullied at work. I’d go back in on a Monday, after my couple of days off, and wonder why the atmosphere was…frosty. On the face of it, everything was okay, but there was this indefinable sense of walking on eggshells. Like this week’s Secret Teacher, it took me a while to figure out what was going on.
On the surface, the secret teacher tells a tale than needs to be told. Children with vastly different needs are being lumped together in her (his?) special school and, not only is she (he?) not coping, but neither are the children. Vulnerable pupils who need to be in school, getting their education, are refusing to come in, so intimidated are they by the behaviour of others, who are, frankly, spoiling it for everyone else. It’s a sad tale, and, at first glance, an important one.
But there is something about it, something familiar, something underneath, and if you don’t mind, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, to consider it fully, I’m going to share with you what it was that gave me that prickling feeling.
It’s people being afraid of kids. And more specifically, people being afraid of kids with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities, you know, kids like Sam).
Somehow, there are ‘good’ disabled kids, you know the dear, sweet little vulnerable darlings, who take an age to complete their intricately detailed pieces of work, who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, who are charming and lovable and never put a foot wrong, and ‘bad’ ones. The sort who really ought to be in institutions that can cope with them, you know, the sort of places with “coded security doors to every room … emergency buttons and staff … issued with walkie-talkies to communicate emergencies swiftly and effectively. If a pupil “kicks off” and threatens the safety of other pupils and staff [there is] a special isolation room for … the very worst offenders”. (Please excuse the paraphrasing, please follow the link for the original.)
Maybe if I didn’t have a son who occasionally, like every fifteen year old that ever was, kicks off and has a bad day, I wouldn’t take it so seriously. Maybe if I didn’t know that there was no such thing as the sort of passive and compliant, or explosive and dangerous two-dimensional child with SEND, I wouldn’t care. I would concentrate on the story of responsible adults lumping vulnerable children with hugely different needs together under one label of SEND and be done with it.
But the thing is, I know about #7daysofaction. I know about #justiceforLB. I know about places where it is deemed acceptable to restrain young people and adults with learning difficulties face down on the floor because someone has deemed them uncontrollable, and not afraid, or confused, or lonely and sad.
I know what fear of someone who is different allows people to do, what happens when you sweep their existence under the carpet (remember Winterbourne View?), away into a specialist institution and out of the hair, and the notice of the mainstream.
So yes, I think that the words we use to describe children, young people and adults with SEND are important. I think that the pictures that we paint with words like ‘violence’ or ‘compromise’, ‘frightening’ or ‘nightmare’ in national mainstream media are VERY important (and yes, I get just as cross about the one-dimensional-inspirational-Down’s-syndrome-baby-story). And I absolutely will not stop pointing it out, because if we can work together, those of us who educate, those of us who care, we might just manage to change the future for vulnerable people for the better.
It isn’t about semantics and it isn’t about free speech. It isn’t about that at all. It’s about fear.
After you have read the secret teacher article, I recommend you watch this video.