Category Archives: Rants

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.

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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.

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.