Category Archives: Rants

First Class

I went to That London yesterday. Now that I am no longer working in school, but as a consultant teacher, I get to go there once a week, on the train. This would not usually be a thing I would remark upon, after all, thousands of people go to London on the train every day of the week; except that yesterday, it was a little bit different.  For some reason, the coach in which my seat was booked was a first class one.  I double checked my ticket, I checked that it matched the one sticking out of the top of the chair, and yes, indeed, there I was, entitled to share the rarified atmosphere of the Preserve of the Posh People.

I wasn’t alone in my surprise. Opposite me was an equally excited traveller.  We chatted all the way, expressing first our astonishment at our good fortune, and then discovering a shared interest in things educational, him having lived and worked in Singapore for five years, and me being an SEN parent/teacher years further down the line (he took notes on what to write about in the parental statement part of the EHCP).  It was really rather nice.

First class seats are so much more comfortable. They cushion your frame as you whizz through the countryside; there is room to stretch your legs, should you so desire. If the sun comes out (it did) and makes you squint (it did), there is a little curtain you can pull across the window to shade your eyes. If your computing devices need a charge – or anything needs a USB, there is a plug AND a USB socket (with a handy blue light to show you where they are). The table is big enough to fit your things on. If you are tired and need a little rest, the carriage is quiet in a superior kind of way. It is, I am convinced, an excellent way to travel.

I arrived at Paddington feeling refreshed (which is remarkable in itself, since I had been awake since 4 – you know, that strange sense of alert wakefulness that attacks you in the small hours when you know you have enough time to get back to sleep, but you are convinced your alarm is going to go off any moment now), and strode off to start a very productive day thinking how nice it would be to get a First Class ticket for every journey.

There must be people around who never go any other way, and sometimes, I can’t help wondering if those who make public policy aren’t those who, in a sense, travel First Class everywhere.

They are wealthy, so they never know what it is like to count every penny to make sure you can pay the mortgage, or budget for the next pair of shoes, crossing your fingers that they won’t grow out of them til the end of the month.  Their children are always super-bright, like they are, so they never have to worry about what happens to them if they fail the test, or if they can’t get into Top Set because they used up their compliance quota just sitting quietly and they haven’t any energy left for any learning. They don’t worry about the impact on their children of being told by trusted teachers that they never quite measure up, of always finding themselves always in second class; it never occurs to them, because, well, it just doesn’t happen and if it does they are wealthy enough to buy them a place in a private institution that will repair their self-esteem with a good dollop of privilege.

But if you never went there, you would never know what it was like in Second Class; that there isn’t anywhere to sit, and that choice is never going to be an option because you can’t afford the ticket, or you have competing monetary priorities. You would never understand the way your body aches, from being forced to squash itself into the same position, for fear of standing on someone else’s toe, or brushing your leg against their knee.  You could very easily assume that, because you also travelled on a train, that your journey took the same amount of time and your ticket was checked by the same person, that you understood.  But you don’t. You have no idea.

I know I’m a better PE teacher because I didn’t like Games. I know I’m a better teacher because I have spent time outside, in the corridor, with the neediest of little ones. Am I a better parent because of Down’s syndrome? Maybe, maybe not. But I know I’m a more realistic one.

 

Politicians and Conferences: A review

Yesterday I had a lovely day. I hurried around That London feeling very pleased with myself (apart from the bit when I was squashed into an underground train and there were too many people and my feet were hurting) and generally surprised that I was doing what I was doing and going where I was going and it was actually work.  My head has been full of it all day; fractured impressions I can’t quite order into jigsaw pieces. My thoughts are like broken glass, scattered, rather than collected.

It’s been a busy month. I’ve been to meetings, to conferences (well, ‘summits’ – Head Teacher’s Roundtable and WholeSchoolSend), I’ve observed not one, but two education ministers (if you don’t count December, where my young colleague took photos of Justine Greening from a distance and we lobbied Nicky Morgan up close, and I gave her a copy of my book), and that was work too. I’ve gone from the hallowed halls of Westminster, where the very buildings speak of the timeless solidity of an unchanged State, to the Crystal, a funky glass edifice, modern and futuristic, a building that transforms dereliction into…something else entirely.  It’s been a lot to process, a lot to make into some sort of meaning.

At first I felt despondent. There is so much talk around SEND (well, make that education generally), so much moaning and complaining (workload, marking, planning, Ofsted), so many arguments that circle around the same old same old (I’m not going to bother making a list; pick your own subject, I bet teachers, somewhere, have argued about it til the cows came home), and yet, despite the arguments, nothing ever changes. Or if it does, like the introduction of grammar schools, it doesn’t matter that the profession is, for once, united, it happens anyway.

It’s a topsy turvey strangely powerful yet powerless world.  One where every day we sense the change we bring about in the lives of the young people we teach and yet. Yesterday I met a headteacher who had struggled in her SENCO past with the difference between the pretty looking paperwork and the not so pretty reality it purported to describe. How many of us struggle with the overriding need to satisfy the hunger of the evidence beast, I wonder? We tick the boxes, check off the lists of Things we Must Do, too busy or too reluctant to stop and consider the second story, the one that is woven underneath, and what it means. We satisfy our powerlessness, an attempt to redress the balance, with blogs.

There were moments of disappointment. A minister who said the pretty things, reiterated the rhetoric of inclusion to a captive audience, a repetition of the same old, same old sweet nothings that do nothing, and change nothing. ‘SEND must be at the heart of education policy making,’ he said. I wondered whether he had ever met his colleague, the minister for schools, a man bent on unteachable tests so that more children can get the sort of top grades (despite an exam system that means they are norm referenced) that look good on international performance tables.

Moments of misunderstanding, where the gulf between the profession and those of us who parent children with special needs and disabilities seemed uncrossable, unbridgeable, and I wondered how many more times I would have to tell our story of diagnosis. Moments of passion and anger, when a young man declared in a strong voice that he was a man and a proud one at that, and a mild mannered ex-deputy head railed against a system that tried to pretend the disabled didn’t exist, a forgotten, disregarded kind of human.

Moments of enlightenment when a woman explained her intersectionality, how young people cannot be what they cannot see, and of hope, when a newly appointed headteacher declared her commitment because she believed it was important and the right thing to do.

But it was only when I got home, when I went out for a walk with my mum, in the cold spring air, when we told each other about our weeks (well, it was mostly me banging on; thankfully she is used to that) that the moment of joy returned, when I began to think that the shiny glass and stone didn’t merely cover up the past with an illusion of change. Because, when I watched the evidence session of the Select Committee for Education I realised something; I realised something had changed.

Despite the fact that the minster for schools clearly hasn’t a clue, the committee members have realised something quite fundamental. That ‘Children with SEND’, that homogenised group, the not-quite human children who somehow belong to Other People, are just like them. They are the children who cry at night because they can’t complete the test. They are the children, comforted by their grandmothers, because they think, at ten or eleven years old, that they have not only failed, but are failures. The sort of children who have bedtime stories and cuddly toys. The kind of children who are unconditionally loved. They could, by no small stretch of the imagination, be theirs.

A Letter of Complaint

Heard

Believe it or not, I am not given to complaining. Not officially, anyway. I think it must have something to do with my Britishness; I don’t like to make a fuss. Either that or it’s because I’m inherently lazy. I don’t like to have to exert myself. Or maybe it’s because, like many disabled people who find that bits of the world they are negotiating are just not accessible, it’s easier to simply turn away and take my money elsewhere.

Or maybe it’s because there is always a little bit of me that wonders if it wasn’t, somehow, my fault. Getting the wrong end of the stick is entirely possible. I’ve always got half my mind occupied on something else; I live so much in the present moment that things like the start and end of school holidays or bills have a tendency to creep up on me. I’ve damaged my car in the past because keeping an eye on baby meant that I wasn’t keeping an eye on the gate post.

When you have a disabled child, a baby with Down’s syndrome, bearing the blame can get to be a bit of a habit. Your very existence is an insult to some people. The simple act of turning up and assuming you can take your place in the ordinary world, just like everyone else, is enough to get you into trouble. You get used to the difficulties that including you and your funny little family causes other people being your fault.

I find myself wondering if this continued experience of blame hasn’t got a major part to play in my reluctance to make a fuss.  Oh, I don’t like conflict, I’m the first to admit that. It makes me uncomfortable in whatever guise it takes. I’m usually the first to say sorry, the first to seek to make amends.  It gets tiring though.  To constantly live with the cognitive dissonance of knowing that you are actually in the right, that there are even laws that exist to protect you and your child and whose existence has firmly put you there, both feet on the ground, the right side of the line, and yet have people, especially those in positions of power telling you that you are, in fact, in the wrong.

You didn’t ask early enough.  You didn’t tell us in time that you would be coming along.  You asked in the wrong way; you demanded (rather than begging on bended knee).  You were rude. You were weird, strange.  And then there is him.  He was challenging.  He was naughty.  He was inappropriate, difficult, dangerous and wrong.  And by association, me: bad mother.

It’s funny when you think about it.  There is a whole industry out there, raising money, giving grants, running training courses, paying for helpers to make the world, and its activities, accessible for disabled people.  And at the same time, there is a whole load of other people, working away to make life as difficult as possible, to throw spanners in your way.

And you know what I reckon?  They don’t do it because they hate disabled people or their mothers or their families.  They do it because they can’t bear the fact that they got caught out making a mistake, getting something wrong, being the same as all the rest of us; human.

You know, when I make a mistake, given the chance, I’ll say sorry.  I’ll admit it and apologise.  I don’t feel the need to attack someone else in order to keep the world thinking that I’m perfect, that I never make mistakes.  Because, believe you me, one day, someone articulate, with good friends and good advice, despite their disability, will come along and show the rest of the world what you did, and they will all see that the pretense of perfection was exactly that.

Demonised

I don’t always make good decisions.  There.  I said it.  Sometimes I make decisions in haste, and live to regret it, sometimes I take my time over it, make lists of pros and cons, and I still get it wrong.  It’s almost enough to put me into a state of permanent stasis.  Almost, but not quite.

Jobs are one of the things it is possible to get spectacularly wrong.  Unlike a pair of shoes that rubs, or that doesn’t quite fit when you have your socks on and you try them on at home, or the top that you thought looked so great in the catalogue, but when upon your self makes you look not unlike a deeply unattractive and shiny sausage, straining at the seams in a most unseemly way, a new job, and especially a new teaching job, is not the sort of thing you can take back, receipt in hand and ask for a refund. I’ve done it more than couple of times now.  I’ve taken a job that, on the surface, ticked all the boxes it was possible to tick, but turned out to be one big fat mistake.  You’d think I’d learn.

Sometimes, though, the consequences of my mistakes aren’t as immediate as a bad fashion choice or finding myself as the wrong person in the wrong job.  It takes me a while to realise that the decision I made, the leap I took, went in a direction that wasn’t the right one for me.  I should have listened more carefully to my dad when he went on (and on) about disco deafness and I carried on (and on) going to discos and gigs.  I am reminded of the consequences of my actions every night when, instead of the telly, or the soft clicks and creaks of a house settling itself down for the night, I am washed with the crashing of the sea, the squealing and ringing of tinnitus.

I suppose I could blame my dad for not buying me ear plugs, or doing something to reduce the volume in my headphones.  As far as work is concerned, I could blame the economy, or better, politicians, for forcing me to work to help to pay my mortgage and support my family financially, or the pressure from family or friends to live and work in a specific place, thus narrowing my ‘career’ options.  I could blame my bad shoe choice on the traffic warden, or demands for an early lunch, hastening my exit from the shoe shop without proper consideration.  I could blame every other thing, and every other person for my choices, if I so desired – that’s what everyone else does, after all.

You see it all the time, this shift of responsibility from your own shoulders to those of someone else, especially when we make a bad decision, or one we suspect might be, well, suspect.  I forgot my homework?  The unicorn ate it.  I broke the prize ornament?  It wasn’t me; my brother made me do it.

But while the childish excuses for forgotten homework (I was in the middle of a really, really good book and I just had to get to the end) or smashed ceramic (the game of balloon tennis was especially exciting and we got carried away) might be essentially harmless, the older I get, the more I learn, and read and listen to the justifications for action in one direction or another, the more I am disturbed.

Because it doesn’t seem enough, to shift the blame from our own shoulders, not any more, not for us adults.  Instead, we must justify our actions in no uncertain terms.  It’s not enough to push it away from ourselves and point it somewhere else; we must make monsters of our scapegoats too.

‘It’s the parents!’ we declare, when the children in our classrooms won’t do as they ought.  ‘It’s a lack of discipline at home!’  Or morals, or values, or boundaries or bedtimes, or whatever else we think they are lacking.  And, before we know where we are, they become easy to ignore, the imperfect adults on the other side of the school gate, to override as almost incidental in the process of bringing up baby.  We are the professionals, after all.

‘It’s the children!’ we cry into our glasses of wine and our social media at the end of the day, retaining our profession deep into the hours of the night, or the weekend, or the holidays.  If they won’t do as we want when we want and how we want there must be something wrong and OUT! OUT! OUT!  No excuses.  Our way or the highway, and if they choose the highway it’s because there is something wrong with them not us.

And for me, as the mother of a disabled child, with Down’s syndrome, so easily detected it is part of a national screening programme, something to be eliminated, like cancer, I hear another justification.  ‘It’s the disability,’ we whisper (or publish in newspapers, social media or on the telly).  ‘They would have been condemned to a life of misery and suffering if we had carried on with the pregnancy.  Their disability would have been so great that it would have been a life not worth living.’  (You can also find this narrative in mainstream novels and big budget films.)

I get it, I do.  No one wants a hard time. I don’t want a hard time.  No one wants to make their life intentionally more difficult, more full of hospitals or responsibility than anyone else.  But it shows me something.  It shows me that an exaggerated story, told enough times by enough people can start to be seen as the truth.

It shows me that when we shift the responsibility for our own decisions onto the shoulders of someone else, when we over-egg the pudding in order to ensure that we come out of it looking good, spotless and shiny, no moral qualms allowed, no doubt, no admission of our own human frailty, when we do someone else down in order to make ourselves look good, what happens is that children like mine end up cast into the pit, like demons.

 

I know it will seem like this post is inspired by recent education-based news, and I have dug it out of the drafts vault in part because of what I have read recently, but it’s been one that has been brewing for a while and was kicked off by this:

http://www.mamamia.com.au/terminate-down-syndrome-pregnancy/

I just wanted to make that clear.

A world without downs

So, I posted this thread on Twitter a while back, while I was waiting for my daughter to sing in a concert, and, well, I thought I’d reproduce it here.

You see, the thing that upsets me I think most of all in this #worldwithoutdowns thing is the way that the problem seems to be all about the person with Down’s. My son isn’t a problem. He isn’t sick with it. He doesn’t suffer with it, and yet suffering seems to be the main reason why people decide that a baby carrying a little extra isn’t viable, and why they are advised to start again.

And that’s when I start to get angry. I start to feel that rage inside that burns and makes me stamp my feet and cry that there IS an element of suffering – but that it’s ME when nobody helps me.

When nobody draws alongside me and my son and asks us and asks us what we need so that we can join in the everyday things of life.

He suffers when people laugh at him, or when they can’t seem to see beyond his disability enough to bend their own inflexible attitudes even just a little bit because that’s the way we’ve always done things here.

And I don’t like living with sadness. I don’t like living with grief and loss – but the thing is, if I don’t I subscribe to the idea that we can wipe the tears away as if they had never been, doesn’t that mean that what I want is to live a plastic, a sanitised life? Doesn’t that mean I am afraid? That I am pretending to myself that life is not as it is?

No, it’s not what I thought it was – but I wouldn’t be without it, not for the world. Because without the shadows, without the pain of loss or all those negative emotions that assault me regularly, would I ever know what joy was?

A #worldwithoutdowns isn’t real. A #worldwithdowns is life.
Ends.

But, after having this post in my drafts for about a week, I think I had a deeper reason for getting it out and putting it here in its entirety.  It’s because I have been thinking about selection.

I’ve been busy with my new job (very exciting) and this has made me busily think about selective education.  Our government wants to bring back selective education in the form of grammar schools, you see.

Now, I am not alone in thinking this a bad idea.  Given what I see in the community around me I don’t see schools open to the ‘brightest’ but the richest.  I don’t see children who show everything they are capable of at 11 years old.  I don’t see more choice; I see fear and worry and unseemly scrambling over the leftover schools when the selection has taken place.

But more than that, I see a disturbing pattern.  I see adults who seem to have forgotten that they, too, are human; that they, too, are subject to the whims of fortune, and that they can no more escape their messy reality, the pain and tears as well as the joy and laughter, as I can.  Adults who think that they can somehow select the children they want, the perfect ones (or whatever constitutes perfect these days), and discard the rest, as someone else’s problem.

We tell ourselves we can select for success, but at what cost?  What price are we paying for pretending?