Category Archives: Teaching

The One Way System

I’ve been reflecting recently on our decision to send S to a special school. At the time, it was a no brainer. The moment we walked in and the headteacher said to us, “of course, you do understand that he won’t have his own 1-1 TA,” we knew we had come to the right place. S, of course, preferred the mainstream school next door, where the room he had explored had computers that came up out of the desks. He was, I am sure, convinced that every day there would be a day of games and play, while everyone around him smiled and told him how cute he was (he was, still is, if I may say so myself).

We had been thinking about which school he should attend for some time; when I say ‘breaking my heart over it’ I don’t think it would be an exaggeration. In the world of Down’s syndrome parenting, whether or not your child goes to a specialist school or a mainstream one is a major point of debate. After a diagnosis experience still common to many, I believe, one of sad, solemn faces, apologies and the vague, unspoken inference that the baby you hold in your arms doesn’t measure up, is some sort of alternative, inferior creature, the inclusion of disabled children in mainstream institutions such as schools goes a long way to healing this wound. What would sending our son to a special school say about how we saw him? Would it mean that we were giving up? That he, and we, were failures?

And, like all parents, we worried about who his friends would be. In a mainstream setting, my experience as a teacher rang warning bells. Would he spend his school days swilling around in bottom sets, with all that that entails? Or out in the corridor, present but isolated? Would he be able to spend time with the children he would learn the best habits from – or would he be forever out of their way, removed from them by either the presence of a permanent TA or the effects of setting? If he went down the special school route, what would he be learning from the other children there? Shouldn’t he be with typical kids and learning typical things from them? It was a spiral of indecision and I’m glad that one visit settled the matter. We walked in, had a look around and all our doubts and worries fell away. He would be OK, and that school would do a good job.

I guess the thing that I am stumbling towards is the thing that I, as the mother of a disabled child, forgot, and the thing that people who do not have disabled children often mention (and which I, up until recently, have dismissed out of hand as patronising); that spending time with disabled people, or in this case, disabled children, is good for us, that we learn things, all sorts of things, by doing so.

I had always seen this in terms of the typical population, and underneath my skin-deep agreement there was always the resentment; that my son isn’t here as an object lesson in learning to be patient (or something) for other people. That he isn’t an inspiration lesson and that he exists, just as himself, and that is exactly how it should be.

But.

I forgot something, and I forgot something important.

I forgot that, as much as he could learn from typical people, he could learn from disabled people too. He could learn to accept his own difference, by accepting it in others; he could learn to transcend that strange kind of narcissism that assails a person who has a lot of attention, all fixed on them, you know, the appointments, the meetings, the endless, endless questions about what he wants and how he likes to be helped. He could learn to be the one who helps, and be empowered by doing so. I forgot that all the benefits of being educated with disabled young people were true for him too – a disabled young person. I forgot that it wasn’t one way.

It’s a good thing education’s a long game, or I’d be jiggered, frankly.

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Welcome back, the weekend wash

It’s the start of September and I, like my teaching colleagues, am gearing up for the new year by having recurring anxiety dreams (mine involve no one listening to me) and wondering how, after a summer of baguettes, I am going to fit into my work trousers. I have browsed my favourite clothing websites (lovely) and completed as much planning as I can before the starting gate opens (mummy, you have worked for FAR too long today). I have bought the shoes, checked the bags, lunchboxes, pencil cases and stationery supplies, looked at the forms (they are under the fruit bowl, their clamour for attention getting louder by the day), attended all the appointments, fetched the prescriptions (but not visited the hairdresser, haven’t had time for that) and, luxury of luxuries, read five books (didn’t really like The Time Traveller’s Wife, to be honest).

And now, the Saturday before it all starts again, before we put our collective family feet on the treadmill to Christmas, all of us fit and healthy all at the same time for the time being, in that moment of pause while we who are about to go back to school take in and seem to hold a simultaneous breath, I have depressed myself with a reflection upon the state of my household laundry.

Unlike many others of my ilk, I have to admit that I don’t overly mind doing the washing. Leaving aside the anxiety and angst it causes me when my beloved puts my best things in on a hot wash, I am really relatively happy to be in (mostly) sole charge. It’s quite therapeutic, especially the clean bedding bit, and it means that I always have a good idea of who needs new socks and pants, and who has grown out of what. I even know which bits of clothing belongs to which person. I don’t particularly mind the ironing – although I prefer it when my mum does it. She’s so much better at it than me, but more, the act of chatting while she does it brings back echoes of my younger self when I used to hang around for hours while she transformed seemingly endless stacks of shirts from crumpled rags to pristine uniform.

The only part of the process I actively don’t like is the putting away. By the time I’ve got to sorting out six piles and putting them on the bed (one for each of us and one for the airing cupboard) I’m bored. As a consequence, the washing can stay in suspended animation for days, sitting in silent tower blocks in my bedroom or accusingly in the kitchen, waiting for someone to complain that they have NOTHING to wear, not even a sock.

One of the (many) nice things about the long summer holiday is the sudden ability I have to space it all out. Apart from those moments when you return from a week away and you have everything in the entire world to wash, you can take your time, do it in dribs and drabs, set your own timetable. Nothing needs to build up, or wait for the Sunday evening session of sorting out and putting away, the sweaty race against the clock to get everything done before Monday morning comes around again. And that’s what I thought, as I pegged it out (usually a cause for celebration, especially when you can get all the towels on the line as well as the bedding and everything is clean and nice and fresh) this morning.

Living through the school terms, whether as a parent or a teacher (and a parent) has that quality about it that wears us all out – careful about workload or not. If you’ve got a private life (and who hasn’t) you will need a survival routine there too and preferably one that’s shared.

(One day I will write a blog about modern parenting which seems to require double the economic contribution while at the same time demanding one partner stays at home to service the needs of the rest and make a comment about how constant homework and clubs and running around after your kids encourages the idea that they need a support team of their own.)

The Promenade

When I was 17, my mum took me to a prom concert at the Albert Hall. Being from Devon, we made a day of it; she took me to see where she went to college, bought me a t-shirt from some sort of brown paper bag, organically woven, rustic varnished floorboarded shop, you know, the sort that you only find in London (or on Gandy Street in Exeter). I wore it a year later, when I went to college. She’d got us seats, right at the front. I remember watching, fascinated, as the percussionist sweated through the soundtrack from a TV show, gaining a round of applause, all to himself. My uncle, a long standing friend of my dad’s, dashing off to get us drinks in the interval, the race to catch the last train home. A hot summer day that sits in my memory, part of my cultural upbringing.

I’m not quite such a fan of theatre as my parents, it must be said. While my childhood was full of visits to the Northcot, Plymouth Theatre Royal, the Haymarket, my own children are much more schooled in the way of the castle and cathedral, seasoned visitors to museums and Site of Historical Significance. This is not to say that theatre and musical culture isn’t something we deem to be unimportant; just that, for us, it is more difficult.

There’s something about the darkness, the tension, the are they pretending or are they real that turns what should be an enjoyable experience into something that…isn’t. Rather than pleasure, it so easily becomes struggle. An attempt to stay rather than participate. Apart from anything else, taking a family of five to the theatre or to a concert isn’t cheap, and certainly not if you add in the cost of transportation and time. For a long time, it hasn’t been worth it.

But last year there was a change in our circumstances. We moved house and suddenly, the idea of going to London for a show wasn’t quite such a pipe dream. For some reason, I can’t for the life of me think why, I made a discovery. A prom concert, something that was impossible for the likes of me and mine became something real. Relaxed. A lunchtime performance, lights on, a social story, break out spaces and hand dryers turned off. Even a short video to show us where to go and what to do. I spent much of the performance with the sort of lump in your throat and moisture in your eyes that won’t quite let you speak. I can’t have been the only one. The mother who chased her son across the stage; I recognised her quiet sense of determined desperation. The girl the conductor gave his baton to so that she could lead the orchestra from the pit, conducting a piece she knew well and loved, she still has the power to call an unfathomable emotion from the well-spring of my heart.

Without that experience, the rules relaxed, what was happening and what it meant spelled out clearly, in a straightforward, no nonsense way, even down to the musicians, wearing different coloured t-shirts according to which part of the orchestra they belonged, we would never have been able to go again. Because last week, that’s what we did. We gathered up an even larger number of family and off we went, access lines to railway and hall called, special seating arrangements for disabled guests made.

As I sat there quietly, lights dimming, waiting for a fantasy, an imaginative weaving of music and movement, words and song, to start I thought about how much it is assumed that we, the audience, will understand. How much it is assumed that we, with no preparation, no explanation, will be able to do, how we will be able to bring together, from the snippets of our experience, to make an evening at the Albert Hall a success. A children’s performance – and a very good one – a serious introduction to some serious classical music. An important addition to a cultural upbringing. A step on the road towards something with even less support for understanding.

I don’t know though. The one that went before. The bounce. The unpredictability of the audience. The love and joy at sharing their musicianship that came from the orchestra in waves as they swapped places during the Soul Bossa Nova, how we sang along to ‘Happy’ (sung by one of the Strictly singers). There was a real-ness to it, a raw power to the performance of disabled children from a special school who played alongside the professional orchestra. There it was, almost touchable in its intensity; the knowledge that music isn’t simply a matter of ‘the best’, but is an experience that should be shared, and that the sharing goes both ways.

What about the rest?

It’s been a busy week in edu-world. Some of us finished (at long last) on Wednesday, some of us have a stack of work to do (and, somehow, entertain the kids and the rest of the family, sort the kitchen cupboards out, unpack the last of the moving house boxes, pack for a holiday etc etc etc) left over from the end of term (I reckon at least two solid weeks – I suppose it could be worse, at least I don’t have a book deadline looming), and many of us have been taken up by the Education Select Committee report into the state of exclusions. Personally, I haven’t had time to read it (too much work to do – ah yes, the irony of the DfE publishing guidance on how to manage your workload this week has not passed me by), but I have, in those moments when I have glanced at edu-twitter, caught some of the ensuing Hot Debate.

Exclusion is a necessary act – I’m not going to get into a debate about that – but I wanted to respond quickly to a question that is asked repeatedly, both in person and online: what about the rest?

Of course, as a teacher (and indeed, as a mother), the question of how you balance the diverse needs of the young people in your class (or family), and remain fair and equitable, is one that occupies a lot of thinking (and handwringing) time. It’s impossible to give everyone the same (and they don’t need it anyway), and some children, due to the nature of their needs (often expressed in their behaviour) do gobble up more attention than the others. Any parent who has gone through a medical crisis with one of their children will know this, too. It’s difficult, and there is no easy answer. But, while I might find the question hard to answer in terms of my parenting (there is always a ton of guilt, always, and always the pressure to neglect myself or my husband), the teaching one is not so tricky.

The thing is, you see, that children learn all sorts of things when they are at school. Some of the time, it’s the thing you (the teacher) actually planned for them to learn. This is a cause for celebration. A lot of the time, it’s incidental, messy. They learn to play all manner of playground games that pass, unseen, from generation to generation. They learn how to deal with it (or not!) when things don’t go their way. They learn that it hurts when they run into a pole/get thwacked with a wet football/trip over on a gravelly playground. And, if they have someone different in the class, be that social class, family background, ethnicity or disability, they learn that no one is the same, that people are people and, hopefully, that when there is difference, there is nothing to be scared of, that there are a million different reasons to be kind.

So, when I am asked this question, I remember my son. I remember his 11thbirthday, the children who came, every year, to every party (and told me off with accusatory glances when there was a film and not games), and who greeted the news that he would not be moving up to the same school they were heading to in Year 7, that he would, instead, be going to the special school next door, with shock and disappointment. I remember the way that his teacher contacted me, how she made a special effort, to let me know just how disturbed, how ruffled, were the rest of the class. I remember how, for years, when they bumped into him in the street, they met him with hugs and high fives. How the adults showed the children how to be.

Of course, I am writing about a particular circumstance and a particular person, and, I am sure, people will say, ‘but of course, he’s so gorgeous, it’s not the same’, to which I will counter with a reminder that he is, and was, no angel, no beautifully behaved ‘good’ disabled child. Where Sam goes, disruption often follows.

Sometimes, I think we all need a bit of perspective, a bit of time to sit and think, to reflect on our own personal circumstances and stop making blanket, catch all statements. Somehow, we need to get to a point of agreement, to get to the point where we have the “serenity to accept the things [we] cannot change, the courage to change the things [we] can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr

 

 

 

Consultation Response

I thought you might be interested in the response I wrote to the Education Select Committee on how the 2014 Children and Families Act is working out from my perspective.

Obviously, as I have responded as an individual, I have a particular view that is coloured by my personal experiences, but I do wonder how much of it I share with others, both professionally and in my private life.

Anyway, here is my response – edited because it is long, and because I am not quite sure what the rules are about publishing it in a different place (so I have made it slightly different ie. shorter!). I am sure that there are more things that could be said and recommended. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  1. The assessment of and support for children and young people with SEND
  • It remains that case that Local Authorities carry out both statutory assessments and award EHCPs while making difficult funding decisions. This means that there is a conflict of interest.

Recommendation: The role of the Local Authority as both assessor and granter of funds must be reassessed in order to remove the conflict of interest.

  • The assessment of children and young people with SEND, rather than acting as a means by which ways to support learning can be identified, acts instead as a gatekeeper. This is illustrated in a number of ways, from access arrangements to EHCPs, including access to benefits and social care. Without certain diagnoses, it remains the case, despite the Graduated Approach/Pathway, that certain support cannot be accessed.
  • Due to the constraints of running two systems (Statements and EHCPs) and set against a backdrop of austerity measures both locally and nationally, it is questionable whether assessments are undertaken by multi-agency professionals such as Educational Psychologists at points in time other than transformation to EHCP or in the initial stages of statutory assessment, prior to the granting of an EHCP. This can mean that information, upon which the professionals reviewing any plan are relying, can be considerably out of date and therefore of limited use.
  • Access to specialist assessment is also limited. Many parents resort to paying for private assessments. This means that children and young people from poorer backgrounds are not able to access the same level of assessment. This also means that professionals question the validity of private reports, suspecting that those who privately seek and pay for assessments must therefore have paid for the desired results. This is not equitable or fair.

Recommendation: Access to specialist assessments must be equitable and fair. It is not fair that some parents are paying for private assessments, and that these are disbelieved by professionals.

  • Support for young people is variable, with some schools doing an excellent job and some not. Excellent inclusive schools act as ‘honey pots’ for parents and their children. Some schools operate a ‘soft selection’ by implying that SEND children are either not welcome or that other schools do a better job with SEND than they do.
  • Access to specialist support is limited. Educational Psychologists, for example, have limited time to spend on supporting colleagues as they are busy with statutory assessment. In some areas, support from specialists is a ‘traded service’, in others, the Local Authority provides SEND services, such as advisory teachers. However, whether schools are able to access support as needed in order to provide early help is questionable.

Recommendation: Access to specialist support must be equitable and fair. Any moves towards an increasing system of MATs must be considered in the light of SEND support.

  • An open Graduated Approach/pathway means that there are many systems at work at any one time, with some Local Authorities using ‘My Plans’, others IEPs. There is no standard pathway for schools to follow, and no standard template for Local Authorities to use. This means that plans such as an EHCP can be confusing rather than clear for professionals, families and young people.
  • This confusion increases the likelihood that SEND ‘paperwork’ can be seen by professionals as an administrative exercise, increasing workload for teaching staff and the cause of stress for Local Authority case officers, leading to poor plans which can be effectively ignored by the staff who work directly with young people.

 Recommendation: One system for SEND documentation nationally, with proper training for those working within the system, will help schools and Local Authorities to collaborate and improve their service for SEND children and young people.

  • Children on ‘SEN Support’ are not protected by a legal framework. Only those children with an EHCP are protected in this way. This means that it is very difficult to hold schools or Local Authorities to account for the way that they support these young people. There are far more children and young people on SEN Support than those with EHCPs.

Recommendation: Children and young people on SEND support must be protected by a legal framework.

  • However, while a legal framework appears to allow for accountability and transparency, it is the parents of disabled children who are forced to hold schools and Local Authorities to account. They become reliant on forming positive personal relationships with professionals with whom they can be drawn into conflict over provision for their children. Where positive relationships do not exist, parents are pushed into problematic categories which themselves hinder effective collaboration. Holding a school or a Local Authority to account is an exhausting activity and can have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of families who are already under pressure.

Recommendation: Accountability must rest between schools, young people, Local Authorities, parents and government. It is not fair that parents of disabled children must hold schools and Local Authorities to account as individuals. It is wasteful and costly. OFSTED must play a role in holding schools and Local Authorities to account for SEND provision by both inspecting Local Authorities regularly and ensuring that SEND is always part of a school inspection.

  1. The transition from statements of special educational needs and learning disability assessments to education, health and care plans
  • The transition of Statements to EHCPs has been difficult for Local Authorities to manage, especially when sent against a backdrop of cuts to local services. This has meant that some Local Authorities have not been able to complete the transition by the deadline, and others have resorted to measures such as outsourcing to independent EHCP writing companies or simply copying the Statement over to an EHCP. This is not acceptable.
  • It can take a long time for EHCPs to be finalised. This means that in the interim period, staff working with children and young people with SEND are forced to do so with little or outdated professional advice. This means that the likelihood that the statutory document, when it eventually arrives, will be ignored and characterised as useless, out of date or unhelpful, is increased.
  • As EHCPs are subject to statutory time scales, the dates at which they are issued is significant. Coinciding with school holidays such as Christmas or the summer break is unhelpful to families and SEN caseworkers. Planning timescales needs to be properly and thoughtfully carried out, with the needs of children and families at the forefront, rather than the Local Authority.
  • When preparing assessments for an EHCP, professionals consult both the child or young person and the parent, usually their mother. This means that the same questions are asked of the same people multiple times. Where a child has health or social care needs, the requirement to answer more questions and attend more meetings is increased. This impacts on parental, usually mothers, ability to work. Professionals, subject to statutory timescales, can unwittingly pass on the pressure they are working under to families. This is not acceptable.

Recommendation: The systems for producing or annually reviewing an EHCP must be reviewed, in order that Local Authorities understand the negative impact they have on the families they serve.

  • It can be very challenging to extract useful information on what the future hopes of a disabled young person might be, especially if they are very young or if they have significant learning and communication difficulties. Questions about the future can be difficult or distressing to answer, especially if the young person has a severe or life-limiting condition. There is little support provided for parents; it is possible for questions such as these to damage rather than support the wellbeing of families.
  • Support for parents in stating their views is, in my experience, limited to a single piece of paper which does little to allow for an exploration of their knowledge of their child or give their views. This is especially the case where parents also experience learning difficulties or have a problematic relationship with schooling, based on negative experiences from their own childhood.

Recommendation: The structure of the EHCP process, with its relentless focus on preparing for adulthood must be reviewed. Young people with disabilities must be given the same respect as the typical population, and access an education that helps them to fulfil their own aspirations, at an appropriate time.

  1. The level and distribution of funding for SEND provision
  • Local Authorities have been required to make considerable savings in expenditure. Local Authorities have restructured and reduced services, and the motivation to limit the number of EHCPs has increased.
  • Local Authorities and schools are subject to a new, fairer funding formula. This means that while resources are distributed more equitably nationally, there is less flexibility to respond to need locally.

Recommendation: Funding for SEND needs urgent attention. Local Authorities must be able to respond to need as it appears locally.

  • School budgets are increasingly squeezed. This means that school leaders are forced to make difficult decisions regarding staffing, in particular Teaching Assistants. While the use of Teaching Assistants for supporting SEND children and young people is not without its difficulties, this has a disproportionate effect on those children and their teachers, who thus come under added pressure.
  • However, more money for SEND children and young people does not necessarily translate into better or more effective provision. Long standing attitudes and practices must be challenged through a programme of reformed accountability and training.

Recommendation: Local Authorities must be held to account for the way that they spend money for SEND. There is no improvement to be had by simply increasing funding. Any increases to funding must be done intelligently.

  1. The roles of and co-operation between education, health and social care sectors
  • While being an excellent idea in theory, the reality is that much of the work falls upon SENCOs, who are working in diverse situations, from full time leadership to squeezing in the role to a Friday afternoon. The role of the SENCO is subject to considerable flexibility and change.
  • Education, health and social workers are all professionals working under the pressures common to those in public service in challenging times. Finding time to meet to discuss SEND children and young people is difficult. Understanding the needs of each other in terms of producing a workable EHCP is difficult, especially where there is no uniform or standard way of communicating or setting out a young person’s requirements.
  • The role of social care can be problematic, especially where the language and assessment forms cross over between disability and child protection. This crossover can be ill-understood by education and health professionals and increase the levels of stigma falling upon families and young people attempting to access the societal support to which they are entitled. This can mean that families who do not wish to have their lives scrutinised in an intrusive manner failing to access support.

Recommendation: Social care for disabled young people must be reviewed, and the information gathering process divorced from the processes of child protection. A new language of social care for disabled young people and their families must be developed in order to reduce both stigma and levels of intrusion for families.

5  Provision for 19-25-year olds including support for independent living; transition to adult services; and access to education, apprenticeships and work.

  • Provision for 19-25 year olds has seen an increase in number of EHCPs maintained by Local Authorities, with associated costs, in an era of cut backs to funding.
  • There is an emphasis, from Year 9, on ‘preparing for adulthood’ in the EHCP, requiring young people and families to make decisions and declarations about what their future career choices are from age 14. This is a difficult thing to do, as all young people are subject to changes in expectations as they grow up. It is a concern that SEND young people may find themselves on a pathway that reflects an earlier understanding of their future, rather than allowing them time to mature, as in the typical population.
  • A lot of time is spent investigating what young people would like to achieve and their aims for their future. This is a pointless exercise if options for them are limited to particular courses, where they are funnelled down a one-size-fits-all pathway to a life of café volunteering and charity day centres.
  • There is little information to parents and families about post-19 options for further education for SEND young people. The onus is on parents, who are already under pressure, to investigate options, many if not most of which are private institutions, such as National Star College or Foxes Academy. This means that parents and families must be prepared to appeal to Local Authorities to allow their young people to take up a place.
  • FE Colleges operate under a different ethos, different systems and timetables compared to schools. This means that, due to an understanding of a young person as an emerging adult, information for parents and families regarding post-19 options is not as effectively shared as it could be.
  • Where options for post-19 education and training is private or independent then there is a perverse incentive for Local Authority professionals, who are required not to spend excess funds, not to share information with families and SEND young people.
  • Where a young person may not yet have attained certain accreditations by age 19 it could be characterised as a failure to progress and a reason for a Local Authority to cease an EHCP. This does not give disabled young people the opportunity to develop their skills or further their education so that they can participate in the economic and cultural activities of the communities in which they live. A learning disability, such as Down’s syndrome, does not mean that a young personcannot learn; rather, it is that learning takes a longer time.
  • FE Colleges operate under different timetables to schools. This means that a ‘full time’ college course may be three days a week. The day may be a shorter day. The terms may be shorter and holiday periods longer. This means that a disabled young person aged 16-18, compared to a typical young person at school, is accessing less education and training. This also has an impact on the ability of parents to sustain the ability to work and make a contribution of their own and they must access social care or become full time carers themselves.
  • When a young person has access to a suitable education and training up to age 25 it is more likely that they will be able to participate fully in their community, make a contribution to it and fulfil their own dreams and potential, leading to better mental and physical health and wellbeing for the individual and lower costs for the state.

Recommendation: Provision for young people aged 19-25 must be urgently assessed. Existing providers must be consulted and collaboration with young people and their families encouraged in order to find imaginative solutions. Failure to progress  – or failure to provide – is not a good enough reason to cease an EHCP for a disabled young person.