Category Archives: Rants

Maternal Mental Health

Back in March, I came across an article that I thought was very sensible indeed. Seeing as I am more than a bit worried about global warming (I’ve moved on from nuclear disaster, although I lost a lot of sleep over it in my early teens, worrying, as my school was nine miles away from home, that the bomb would go up when I was there) and also about equal rights, and generally interested in matters of education, it made a lot of sense. Educate girls through to the end of the secondary years and all sorts of wonderful things happen that have a direct impact on, for instance, world health and population growth, and thus the preservation of the planet.

Apparently, my auntie Pauline, a very old and somewhat mythical lady by the time I came along, I have a vague memory of white hair drawn back into a neat bun, and dark, dusty corridors with the sort of carpets that didn’t meet the walls, used to say that if you educate a girl, you educate the family; that, while the effects on the individual are profound, the ripples of your positive actions are powerful and far-reaching. And, when I think about it, an education does more than give young (and older) women the knowledge that will enable them to understand, and control, their fertility, but is the means to the confidence to ask important questions of their sexual partners too. No longer do women of my generation have to go through what my great-great grandmother did, and bear thirteen children because she was unable to refuse a Friday night after a visit to the pub.

The thing is, though, that I think that it is more than education that matters in the lives of mothers. I remember, almost as if it were yesterday, a conversation I had with my mum when I was expecting S, my firstborn. I was OK with being pregnant (although I did cry the day I could no longer fit into my jeans, because I knew that, from that moment, nothing would ever be the same again), but every time I thought about giving birth it was if I was staring into a black hole of terror.

“You’ll be alright Nancy,” she said, in that practical way of women who have been through the whole messy business and come out the other side, “it’s not THAT bad.” It was strangely reassuring. If she could do it, so could I.

That said, the experience was, for me, traumatising; and I know I am not alone. When S was tiny, I joined the local library (I’d given up paid work for a while, so I didn’t have any money) and one of the books I read was an account of early motherhood that took on the difficulties, face first. The sleeplessness, the constant responsibility, post-partum pain and the trials and tribulations of feeding the baby, no matter how you do it. It’s a treadmill, all on top of the physical shock that is giving birth. Even when it goes well (and I’ve done that bit too), and everything is fine, there is nothing about the process that is easy. There is a sense of being ripped apart – and then having to get on with nursing a baby (and possibly one or two toddlers) before the ragged edges have even begun to knit together.

Put traumatic birth, and by that I mean anything from mass intervention to emotional shock and something wrong with the baby, from jaundice to chromosomes, defects requiring surgery or brain damage, in the same event and you have a recipe for disaster in terms of maternal mental health and wellbeing. And, like an education, when a mother is well supported, so is the rest of the family.

What annoys me is that we know this. We know that the mental health of mothers of disabled children is fragile. We know that when there is a disabled child, there is often a slow slide into personal isolation, marital breakdown and poverty. We know that the lives of mothers of disabled children can be dominated by conflict and struggle, with education, with health and social care – and yet what are we doing about it? The Children and Families’ Act?

There are real and concrete actions that maternity services could put into place in order to support new mothers, and thus the wider family. Greater support from midwives and health visitors, access to a counsellor – and not just one offer, but an open door, especially where health concerns over the baby mean that mama is a long way down the list of concerns. It shouldn’t get to crisis point before someone steps in. We need to stop pussyfooting round the edges with our educational solutions and go right back to the start.

I, it seems, was lucky.

And I hate writing that because I don’t believe in luck.

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Capacity

When I was a little girl I got involved in stuff a lot. I wouldn’t say that I was a joiner-in particularly, but when I look back, and count up the activities I did as a young person, it comes to quite a lot, especially when you consider I grew up in a Devon valley ten miles away from anywhere. For a small village, there was a lot going on, from amateur dramatics (adults and children) to gymnastics. The only fly in the ointment (for me, anyway, other children had differently inclined parents) was that if it didn’t happen in the village, it wasn’t happening for me. Hence, any dreams I had of being an ballerina or ice dance champion were dashed.

I started gymnastics when I was six or seven. As it was not long after the end of my four month hospital stay and I was a bag of bones with a red-raw operation scar that went half way round my back (still does, but it’s not red-raw) my parents were, understandably, somewhat anxious about it. I was put in my sister’s group, and she took care of me (or, as I saw it, bossed me about and made me be her partner – she took her role seriously, I guess), and made sure I didn’t hurt myself or wear myself out. I kept going until I was about 12 or 13, my lack of strength preventing me from being much good, but not from enjoying myself thoroughly, even though I could never manage to land on my feet after a handspring and my walkovers went one way but not the other.

Am-drams were similarly long-standing. One of my earliest memories was a rehearsal in the back room of Mrs Hughes’ house (she had so many children, I was never quite sure who they were or how many). I had somehow found myself in the group that were somehow baddies. I burst into tears and had to be moved, even though they came good and won out in the end. Costumes always seemed to involve nylon tights (yuck) and backstage was a wonderful gloryhole of rooms stacked with trestle tables that must have been born before the war. My favourite role was ‘Punch’, where my friend Kay and I got to hit each other with pipe insulation. The worst was when I had to wear an itchy leotard that was supposed to be my friend Carla’s costume.

The clubs were always filled with the same people (we all had similar parents, apart from Sophie, who gave up gym for dancing). Amy came with me to gym and drama. Kay to drama and Sunday School. My mum used to run the Sunday school with Mrs Hughes (who ran the Junior Players) and Mrs Freshney (who ran the holiday club with Mrs Hughes andmy mum), which meant that I didn’t have much choice in going or not (my dad was the man who Washed the Car on Sunday mornings) (not that I minded, I hasten to point out, I was more than happy to go). She used to make the booklets by spreading the individual pages out all over the sitting room floor. Kay and I used to giggle together, and I remained fascinated by the Chinese-style wallpaper in the vicar’s toilet for years, that and the open cistern, for years.

Actually, now I come to think about it, the reason I got so involved was no doubt directly related to my parents. My dad was on the organising committee of the gym club AND the PTA (until he fell out with the headmaster over the spelling of ‘barbqueue’). Along with a go-getty set of parents who ran the sort of clubs they knew their children would enjoy, they provided for us a range of out of school activities that certainly kept us busy and enriched our lives at the same time. When it came to my turn, and my children started nursery and Sunday School and football and scouts, naturally, I thought that I would do the same.

Except, I didn’t. I volunteered for the committee of this, that and the other, and even went to a few meetings, took my turn with a few teas, but, somehow, I couldn’t keep it up. At first I thought it was the new baby thing. Having three young children saps the energy of the youngest and fittest of mothers, so I thought it might be that. Next, I thought it was the fundraising thing. I have mixed feelings about fund raising (and very firm views on cake sales), or meetings and endless circular discussions. But, somehow, other women with more children than me seemed to manage. Other women who were equally busy, or impatient with group decisions seemed to get along just fine. They ran the committee and baked and sewed, raising large amounts of money for a variety of projects as they went along, cheerfully giving of themselves to the community and I…couldn’t.

It took me a while to figure it out. It took me a while to discover things like ‘mental load’ and capacity and how this is different for everyone and how when there is disability in the family, everything is magnified.

So now, when I see something about inclusive church, or business start-ups for learning disabled people, or personal budgets or anything else that sounds like a great idea if only it happened near to where I live, I smile sadly to myself (or scowl, depending on which side of the smile you happen to be) and sigh and know that what the answer will be to any number of good ideas.

‘Here’s an email address.’

‘Here’s a website.’

You make it happen.’

And, like every other time before, I drift away, disappointed. Having a good idea is great and all, but unless you have other people around you who have the capacity to turn your idea into something real, unless you have someone around who can make it happen, that’s all it will ever be. Without capacity, it will only ever be a pipe dream.

Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this here consultation on how the SEND reforms, in the form of the Children and Families Act, have been going (in a nutshell, not well), and I’ve been having what I like to call ‘teacher moments’. These moments are not the sort where my family entreat me to stop behaving as if I am in front of a class and they are the children; instead, they are those times when I think to myself, ‘if this was my class, this is what I would do’.

It happened to me a lot when I was in my last teaching job. Without a class of my own, I was in and out of other people’s classrooms, and I was always pinching their best ideas, always thinking how I might do things differently. It hasn’t been such a regular occurrence recently, but, possibly due to my imminent return to class, it has been something that has been happening more and more.

One of the hallmarks of a good teacher is, I think, the ability to recognise when the lesson has gone pear shaped and to stop and either abandon it or go back to the beginning and start again. Obviously, as I think this is the sign of a good teacher, I am happy to admit that I have done this more than once in my time. I’ve merrily made plans in the quietness of my own home and found, when I’ve been in class with 30 odd small people who either haven’t got the resources I had considered necessary for the completion of the exercise (usually because I hadn’t given myself the time to get them) or the prior knowledge (possibly because I had made an assumption), that I’ve needed to come up with an alternative – and fast.

And this is what I have been thinking about when I think of the state of the SEND reforms. It started off so well-intentioned. Putting children and families at the centre, getting the various agencies involved and talking to each other, rebranding BESD to better reflect the mental health needs of young people who find it difficult to conform to school behaviour expectations; all these things sounded so good, so plausible. And yet, now, three years later, EHCPs remain unwritten, LAs are struggling to keep up, SENCOs are drowning in work, and children and families…well, I don’t know about you, but being at the centre sounds great, but what it has actually meant for me is more meetings, more people to tell the same thing, more answering the same questions and more chasing up and checking. And that’s before we get to parents and families having to be the ones to personally hold LAs to account, to turn themselves into lawyers in order to get people to do what they are supposed to be doing, all set against a backdrop of austerity and cuts that puts everyone under pressure.

If it were me in charge I would be wanting to say, ‘OK, everyone, let’s stop, take a breath, and start again.’

Because I think the problems we are seeing are the tip of the iceberg. I think they are the products of changes to our education system that happened years ago (for a fascinating insight into educational change see here– you’ll notice that there’s nothing new to the arguments), and set into motion the perfect storm of competition (rather than collaboration) we are witnessing today. The mechanisms of assessment, funding and accountability have broken inclusion of children with SEND in our schools and it is time to draw a line in the sand.

It’s time we started speaking differently and stopped treating children with SEND as different; problems to be solved; negative additions to the every day. They aren’t. Students with SEND are just as special as anyone, just as commonplace and to be expected as everyone; just as entitled to an education, to be able to access that education.

It’s time to put to death the idea of difference and of competition in education, because after all, we all have the same rights to it. Making provision for disabled children – no matter what that disability may look like – isn’t an added extra. It is, or it should be, what we do every day. Let’s call what we do what it is: teaching. Every time we name it ‘inclusion’ (or integration or special or whatever) we make out that what we are doing for disabled students is different to what we are doing for everyone else. It’s time to go back to the drawing board, not just with the CFA reforms, but the whole damn lot. It’s time for change, and this time, for the better. This time, instead of blaming individuals, let’s look at, and I mean honestly look at, the constraints pushed on them by the mixed up, confused system within which they (we) work. There’s a reason why I failed to define inclusion when I wrote a book about it. Inclusion is dead. Long live education.

The Steam Train

I consider it a strange kind of good fortune that I spent the morning out on a steam train expedition, with three teens and their gaming devices. Such is our level of privilege that I am able to indulge my son and his friends in two of his favourite pastimes (steam trains and computer games) AT THE SAME TIME for his birthday treat. Lucky, lucky me. (I don’t know how I managed to get the job of responsible adult on this particular outing, but there you go. Such is life, and parenting. (I did my best not to be Embarrassing Mother; something that seems mostly to require me not to say anything and pay for everything.)

I’ve had, it must be said, a very pleasant Easter break (despite the weather), during which I have visited far-flung family, caught up with friends I haven’t seen in far too long and met new ones for the first time. Set against that, and a couple of days sunshine in which we ACTUALLY GOT OUT OF THE HOUSE, a heritage steam train journey accompanied by Mariokart doesn’t seem so bad. And, sitting in silence, pretending to teens that I was not actually here, removed from the continuing responsibility of Sorting Out The House, I have had that thing which I have had so little of lately; time to think, to pull together and weave the threads of conversation, to make a beginning to making sense of It All. When you get to sharing the news of the last year, catching up properly and, if not setting the world to rights, mutually reassuring each other that we are not, in fact, mad, or in the wrong, but actually disappointed in, well, quite a lot of things it turns out, it takes a while for everything to come together. It’s as if our talk, in turns hilarious and tragic, is motes of dust, taking time to softly settle. 

The unanswered questions, thrown into the air like chaff, take time to separate into some sort of pattern, to take on some sort of unified meaning.

Why is asking for the help you/your children are entitled to so stigmatised?

Why does the help you are offered never quite match the help you actually need?  (And, did anyone actually ask, before presenting you with a range of charitable ‘services’?)

Why are the hoops you have to jump through, in order to secure what you ask for, so off-putting? (And why does nobody ever seem to tell you anything other than, ‘here’s another person/website/charity you can ask yourself’?)

What is it about some people that seems to make them easier to help – or make people want to help them (whether or not the help they get is actually effective is a moot point)? 

How is it that some people seem to know exactly which questions to ask? And why, somehow, is that person not us? 

What is it that they, the recipients of so much succour, know, or do, that we don’t?

You can read more of our topics for discussion here and here.

It was satisfying and reassuring to find that I am not alone in asking them, but at the time, there was no answer. It is only today, as I sat in a railway carriage straight out of my childhood, the fantasy of Days Gone By passing by the window, alone in my thoughts, occasionally smiling at the round eyed amazement of a first time traveller, that I think I have some sort of an answer.

The reason why we feel so judged, despite the way our families, the way we love each other and, despite our various challenges, are happy, is that, winding through the fabric of the society in which we live, like a seam of dirty coal, is a deeply held belief that poisons attitudes and stigmatises the sick, the disabled, the carer and the cared for:

bad things don’t happen to good people, and it’s sickly sibling, bad things therefore happen to bad people.

It’s an idea that burns, turning charity into cinders, community into judgement and the certainty that one day, no matter how strong, resilient, independent or resourceful, no matter how beyond our shared humanity we think we are, we too will one day need a helping hand to shame.

A steam train may look glorious, puffing its way through the slowly waking English countryside, but the gleaming heat of the engine and the scream of the whistle, the freshly painted station and the guard with his jaunty hat, the romance of it all, especially from a distance or from behind the camera lens, cannot hide, despite all the effort, the dilapidated state, the generation dust of the creaking ‘first class’ carriages.

An Angel in Disguise

Some years ago, I did a stint in direct sales. It was around the time when I was starting to want to do a bit more with myself than shuttle between the school gates, nursery and playgroup. I’d been running a parent and toddler music group for some years, but had come to the point where I knew that I would have to expend considerable amounts of time and effort (and money) in order to keep it going, and I was ready to do something different. I was surprised at how good I was at it (selling things is not so different to teaching, to be fair, so I shouldn’t have been); for a little while, when I realised I had had enough of going out in the evening to work, I wondered whether I should pursue a more conventional job in sales.

I didn’t think about it for too long though. When it came down to it, I knew that one of the reasons the sales job was beginning to pall was not just the timetable, but the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to care about what I was selling. Yes, they were great products, but in the end…it was all a bit empty.

Motivation is a funny thing. For me, it was, and still is, the idea of making a difference that got me into education. That, and not being bored. I don’t do boredom very well.  Being only really interested in my own decisions, back when I was deciding what to do with my life, I never really considered anyone else; today though, after some years at this adulting thing, I’ve come to realise that, as in the cat-skinning business, there is more than one reason why people do the work they do.

Creativity. Many people want to be creative in the job they have. Or autonomy. Lots of people want to be in charge of themselves. Simplicity. Some people want to do a job that simplifies their life; they can fit it round the kids, or it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t take too much effort. Some people like chaos, others, order.

Then there are issues around how you are perceived by the outside. Some people like to be admired, because of the car they drive. Others, because of the physical strength they must exert in order to carry out their role. Still others, by the congratulatory things that people say to them, aren’t they wonderful for being able to do that. Some like the limelight, however that reaches them, others prefer to be backstage.

I was reminded of this the other night. I was at the TES Independent Schools Awards ceremony. As the TES SEND columnist and one of the judges, I was giving the award for Special Educational Needs Initiative of the Year (and a very good initiative it is, too). As I waited nervously for my turn to speak (I was reading out the name, hidden inside the gold envelope) (the nerves are something to do with being on show, having my photograph taken – I’ll have to write about that at some point), I was treated to a very good reminder of that fact.

It seems that teachers of SEN are somehow tarred with the angelic brush, just like the mothers of disabled children, who must sacrifice so much for their offspring. Leaving aside the role that the disabled child must necessarily play in this image making,  I was disturbed, enough that instead of simply reading out the name of the school, I took a moment to remind the assembled throng, in my best teacher tones, that EVERY teacher is a teacher of special educational needs. It’s not an aspiration, cockle warming call to action, it really isn’t; it’s a statement of fact. It’s there in the law. The vast majority of children with SEND are in mainstream schools too.

But it’s not just that. It’s how the notion of charity, of how working for a charity, such as the charity at the centre of the latest learning disability home scandal, or working in the field of SEND in general, somehow automatically means that you are a good person. The abuse and cruelty that hides behind closed doors, or the indifference that causes young adults to lose their lives prematurely, is hidden, glossed over by a false public perception of what you don’t do.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across one or two people in my time who have inadvertently shown themselves to be the opposite of who they pretend to be. I’ve come to recognise them for all of the things that they accuse me – or S – of. (Click the link to find out about that.) Liar. Unreasonable. Demanding. Malicious, selfish rule breaker. Incompetent. Dangerous. In a sad kind of way, it reminds me of the constant rhetoric of inclusion in schools; rhetoric that covers up the reality of a failure to do our jobs properly. Yes, people respond to the systems and management they find themselves working in, but, when it comes down to it, if we can’t accept that systems reflect the people who make them, then how will we ever change anything for the better?

But I’ll tell you the thing that makes me really cross, the thing that disappoints me, such that I can feel the bitterness rise up and taste it on my tongue; it’s that if these people, these ‘do gooders’, these angels, spent as much time and energy actually doing their job as much as they do protecting their reputations or producing pretty paperwork that shows how hard they are working, and you can look at schools as workplaces just as much as you can look at the work of charities, or homes for disabled people, then those we are actually supposed to be working for, the people whose lives we are supposed to be changing for the better, wouldn’t be so tragically let down.

I know we’re all trying our best. I know we get things wrong – I do as much as anyone else. The thing is, though, is it’s not supposed to be about us and our reputations. It’s supposed to be about them.