Category Archives: Rants

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.


Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

When I was about 19, I went out for a night of karaoke with friends at a local nightclub. Although I’ve done a lot of singing in public in my time, karaoke was new to me, but, ever the performer (I hesitate to write ‘show off’ – I really do try not to get too up myself), I chose a song from the catalogue and signed up to the list without a second thought (I’ve always been a bit overconfident on the singing side of things, comes from my early childhood experiences when I was constantly being called upon to Do The Singing bit in school shows, church and amateur dramatics). For my turn, I chose Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and, I remember, I sang it to much applause (afterwards, when I went to the loo, I was accosted by another young lady who, rather aggressively I thought, asked me if I was the one who had been singing earlier; when I rather nervously admitted it was me, she told me I had been fookin’ ace – I’m taking that as rapturous). I remembered the experience when I was out in the car earlier today and it came on the radio (an expedition into the cold and rain in search of Forgotten Items From the Supermarket). It made me smile.

My friends and I, when we were at College (we were 17 and we thought we were the bees knees) used to request this song regularly when we went out to discos (a regular occurrence); we’d jump on to the dance floor in our Doctor Martens and bellow the words to each other, bouncing with the joy of being young and brave and having the world at our feet. We’d sing the lines ‘Some guys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/ I wanna be the one to walk in the sun/ cos girls just wanna have fun’ and vow that we would never put up with the sort of nonsense from our chosen partners that would have us stuck in the house being subservient. We were feisty, and determined.

As I drove along the slick streets, brown with the slightly thickened ending to raindrops, I turned the volume up and sang along, happy to be diverted down memory lane for as long as it lasted (I had taken the precaution of writing myself an actual list before I set off from the house, I thought I would be safe), remembering the days when I was younger and thinner and much, much fuller of energy. The younger me isn’t so different to the older me I thought; I’m still determined never to be shut away, an adjunct or an add on to someone else. It’s just that back then, I thought it was personal. I thought it came down to the person you chose as your life partner.

Now, though, I know different. I can see that this shutting away, this turning of a woman into some sort of silent trophy, or idealised image of supportive womanhood, or motherhood, or whatever else it is that women are supposed to represent or do, is not so much, not in my life anyway, personal and private, as systemic.

R thought I was going on a bit, but when he found that he was the one who had to curtail his working day in order to meet the kids from school and damage his career prospects (and I don’t mean extras, school events such as assemblies or school shows or sports days or anything like that).  Not that schools are in any way the same as places of child care, but dropping everything at half-past two in order to make it to the school gates for three does kind of cut in to your day. And, when you add in the magnifying effect of caring for a disabled young person – right at the point when you’d think things would be getting easier in the school run department you find out that it is actually worse, what with the even shorter educating day at college and the difficulties in finding the sort of care support you actually need; not for S the wander round the shops with friends that I used to do, while I was waiting for the bus. Holding down a part-time job, or even working at all, becomes increasingly challenging the longer I am in this game, and I haven’t even begun to write about health or social care. I’m lucky to be able to work the way that I do; I don’t for one minute think that my working arrangements are the norm. Employers pay you to do a job, and if you aren’t there, because you have to share the caring load, they will look for someone else who can. Part-time leaders? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I don’t know about you, but today, as I consider the opportunities I might have had, the chances I’ve missed to make a wider contribution, to effect a bigger, direct change in my chosen field of education, Cyndi Lauper, and her bouncy, buoyant, rebellious song doesn’t really do it for me any more. Yes, the personal is political, but now, it’s more. It’s bigger than me and my choices. Now, today, I might have a reminiscent singalong in the car, and smile at my youthful innocence, but tonight, when I do the washing up, next week, when I sit on the train, hurtling though the early morning chill to London, now, when I sit here, editing this post and considering what it is I am trying, so clumsily, to say, I will be, I am, choosing a different song. In so many ways, I’ll be singing, ‘what about us?’



An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.


Having your cake and eating it

One of the things I was very interested to read yesterday was Ofsted’s annual report. Reading Ofsted reports is not something I would ordinarily do with much gusto (unless, of course, it was a school I worked in and I knew that someone was going to say something nice about me), but yesterday, given that I have become more and more interested in strategic pronouncements from our inspectorate, I read it with interest.

And what should I find there? Lo, and behold, much to my astonishment, a whole section about SEND. After the last few years, since I have been able to be outward looking enough to notice, the silence on matters SEND, from all sorts of educational establishments and offices has been, frankly, deafening. I, for one, am heartened that the spotlight has shifted its focus and started to shine our way.

Some of the report was good to see. The unacceptably high number of school exclusions that concern SEND of some kind. This is unacceptable. I agree. The continuing rise in home education for many of these young people and the concern raised about LA’s ability to keep an eye on them and make sure everyone is OK speaks to me of how many people’s right to an education is being ignored.

It was alright for us. Along with so many since 2010, we had the option to send our child to a special school. With an EHCP, he was able to get into one, and an excellent job it did too. I recognise that we were part of the rise in numbers of families choosing the specialist sector for their children. I’m very grateful that so many have read our story, and that it has played its part in heightening awareness of the difficulties many of us face, every day, in dealing with the education system. Without that special school, our son may well have found himself in some sort of time-warp, when children with his kind of disability were deemed ineducable, and I would definitely have been mentally crushed.

But many, the majority, of children with some sort of special educational need or disability do not find themselves in so fortunate a position. The majority of young people with a SEND of some sort do not have an EHCP, and neither are they educated in the specialist sector. As such, and I quote, these children:

…often have a much poorer experience in the education system than their peers…parents reported that they had been asked to keep their children at home because leaders said that they could not meet their children’s needs.

 Many children who have SEND present very challenging behaviour…The number of pupils who have SEND and were excluded [from school] was typically high.

This is, indeed, unacceptable.

And yet.

We are told that:

Higher than average rates of exclusion were also common [in failing schools]. However, this was sometimes seen as a positive step and linked to leaders taking a robust stance on behaviour.…

I don’t know, but it seems to me that we have got a bit of having your cake and eating it going on with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. Which is it? In, or out?  Exactly which children are we talking about here?

Why is this is so difficult? And so difficult to emphasise?

The underlying causes of poor behaviour in children are not always evident, and therefore there is always a risk of misidentification.

I’ll finish with this quote, which was written in the context of shared British values and jumped out at me when I read it, and remembered with sadness all the little souls I have taught and I thought about my own children and their lived experience through this inspection period and wondered exactly which shared values we were thinking of.

…there are…those who seek to isolate young people from the mainstream, do not prepare them for life in Britain, or worse, actively undermine British values.


For more comment, please read:

Maybe one day I’ll come up with a few solutions, and we can start building that better system for us all.


A Baseline Assessment

I was going to write something about the act of getting children to do things for themselves (after yet another morning of noting to myself where Sam randomly put his bag, hearing aids, lunch and shoes – after eleven years of getting that boy to his place of education I have learned a thing or two, I can tell you), but then I read this (it’s an advert for the tendering process for the job of designing a method by which four year olds can be assessed when they start school in order that the effectiveness of schools can be measured and the public money we spend on them accounted for) and I was right put off the idea.

Instead, as the mother of medium-sized children, I was left, while I was cooking the tea (pizza and salad – more an assembly job than actual cooking, I suppose), ruminating upon all the ways that the shadowy hand of the state can get in the way of you enjoying your family life, good and proper. All with the best of intentions, of course, but perhaps not with the eye firmly fixed upon what is good for families, that is, policies that help families to find, and keep, secure homes and live in such a way that anxiety, the sort that increases the chances of a home full of conflict, is reduced.

Way 1.
Make your families feel that their child is somehow some sort of second class model. There are lots of ways you can do this, from the traditional, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Sam, you appear to have had a non-baby’ to the insidious ‘you have to remember what they take away from the rest comments’. Follow that up with the continual homework, reading, test results of the school kind, and you have a recipe for anxiety about your child’s future (if they aren’t the sort who are good at performing to such an adult tune, that is).

You can start this at birth (or before, if you really want),  or you can wait until they are in the school system. Either way, each assessment point offers a myriad of opportunities to crank up the fear, and the more money you spend on your testing regime, the more wedded to it you will feel, and the les spikily you are to want to give it up.

Way 2.
Make your adult members of families feel like failures. You can do this in a huge number of ways, from ensuring that they find it difficult to pay the mortgage to assessing their children and constantly going on about how the children of rich families do better in school when they are compared to the children of poorer families because, parenting.

Way 3.
Deliberately increase the chances of conflict within the home. Homework coupled with strict policies as to the consequences for when it is undone (the younger the child, the better) is a great place to start, followed by rises in the costs of food, energy and housing. While you are at it, you can berate everyone over healthy/unhealthy lifestyles and add in a good dollop of guilt (see, bad parenting above) for the hell of it.

Way 4.
Encourage the idea that you have to (or your children have to) reach certain standards – of education, of income, of the ownership of Stuff – in order to be deemed a successful adult. Make this success achievable through competition, rather than cooperation.

You can use both official and unofficial channels to achieve your aims; basically, the more you use, the better, because then you can convince everyone that the situation they find themselves in is both inevitable, natural and entirely their own fault.

When you think about it, it’s a good thing there is such a thing as Down’s syndrome to come along and show us that it really isn’t.