Category Archives: Teaching

SEND and the law

A very dear and very old friend of mine (as in, we have known each other since we were girls, not that we are Of Ancient Times, despite what I may be told by my middle child) is a lawyer. While I was teacher training, she was ordering up a wig and gown and hurrying around London carrying large boxes. It’s a very different life. At one time, I too was going to be a barrister; I was rather taken with the idea of wearing said wig (and gown) and arguing the case and saying ‘me lud’. A little bit of work experience, however, soon put paid to that idea. Then, as now, I find that I am unsuited to the law.

My friend A is not the only lawyer of my acquaintance, you see. These days I know several, in both a personal and a professional capacity, and they are almost as different to me as it is possible to be – all perfectly nice and lovely, but very, very different.

For a start, there is their commitment to details. They just love them. They love ferreting them out meticulously. (I’m more of a big picture, grand statement, splodge and mess making kind of person; my teachers used to sigh, as I grandly made pronouncements, and failed to back them up with evidence.) Off they go, burrowing into this, that or the other Act of Parliament, surrounding themselves with stacks of books of case law, with a sense of joyful purpose, finding out.

Then there is the letter writing. OK, so I can do a good letter, but I don’t do lawyer letters. There’s something about them that is spoiling for a fight and they just love it. Me, on the other hand, is more often to be found quaking like a jelly and wringing my hands over appearances and getting along. Lawyers, they just don’t care. Confrontation is their stock in trade. They thrive on it, that and their sense of justice.

Advocating is something they do so well, and so comfortably. Me, I do it all the time, but without the anonymising wig and gown, the creation of an official persona, backed up by years of history, I find myself standing on shifting sands, rather than the solid stage of the courtroom. Where lawyers win their cases through the full force of the law (when my sister and I were children, we were fond of playing the game that involved us banging on closed doors, declaring ‘open up, in the name of the law’ in loud voices), I find myself arguing for the spirit, rather than the letter. I’d much rather people just did the right thing.

The thing is, though, that they don’t. Last November I went to a conference on design for disability, and the point was made, again and again, that the laws exist to protect disabled people, and yet again and again they remain broken. Again and again, in all sorts of fields, from websites to coffee shops, we, as a society, fail to treat disabled people properly. And by that I don’t only mean people in wheelchairs, I mean people with learning differences too.

And, as I watch the debates that swirl in education, the ones that touch special educational needs and disability, about the way that we, as a community of adults, treat children, and disabled children at that, I think that we aren’t any better than the businesses who don’t provide disabled toilets, despite our claims to the moral high ground conferred by public service. Current narratives that speak of giving disadvantaged children opportunities brought through education fail to notice that they speak of disabled children too – the ones who seem so quickly excluded, thrown out, and written off as disruptive influences.

The plain fact is that those disadvantaged children we purport to save are the very same as those protected by Acts of Parliament, such as the Equality Act (2010) and the Children and Families Act (2014), not to mention the Teacher Standards and international agreements such as the UNCRC.

And I can’t help wondering just how much longer they will go on being ignored.

 

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On Knowing and Knowledge – the bubble in the sky

You might not know, but I have another, more directly teaching blog ( http://www.classteachingtips.wordpress.com ) and I have toyed with the idea of writing this post for that blog, as it is about a debate on knowledge and the organisation of it, that rumbles on through the teacher summer holidays, but as I want to approach it through the lens of motherhood, I thought, what they heck, I’ll put it here.

Blogs on knowledge organisers can be found here:

The highs and lows of knowledge organisers: an end of year report

https://primaryknowledgeorganisers.wordpress.com/geuifger/

https://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/on-knowledge-organisers/

https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/science-knowledge-organisers/

http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/food-for-thought 

http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/workload-thoughts

If you are an education blogger and you have a perspective on knowledge organisers, please add your link in the comments. 

So.

Something that took me by surprise, when my boys were babies, was their language development. I knew that it was likely that Sam was going to have some sort of language/communication difficulty as part of his disability, and, while part of me was happy to let him develop at his own pace, another, bigger part of me was not prepared to let him carry on growing up in his own sweet way without some direction. Like many mothers of babies with Down’s syndrome, I learned to sign, and I took him to bi-weekly speech therapy classes from an early age. I was fascinated and committed – I find language development interesting anyway, and therapeutic techniques easy to do – and, love his little cotton socks, Sam was signing before he was two years old. (I remember his second Christmas vividly in this regard. It was in the quiet week between the festivals of Christmas and New Year, and we were in hospital, pneumonia having paid him a visit, when we first noticed.) When baby A came along, speech therapy was in full swing, and, funnily enough, he was making meaningful utterances by the time he was about 17 months old. (I like to put it down to the signing, his adoring grandmamas like to put it down to giftedness, as is their right.)

Even now, thanks to his speech difficulties, it is difficult to tell what Sam is thinking, but, thanks to a vociferous younger brother, a precocious chatterbox, I had a burbling window into the mind of the very young thanks to my middle child. 

 Sometimes, I think that we forget how little young children actually know.  As adults – and teachers – we make huge assumptions, forgetting that, when they are young, they are like unwritten pages. Not empty vessels, the fashionable description among some teaching circles, they are full up with all sorts of things (rage, mostly), but pages, the story of which they have yet to write for themselves.

When he was around two years old, and Sam was about four, we went camping with friends. Unlike his peers, A had reached the stage of talking in sentences and, up late thanks to the camping, had never seen the early evening summer moon.

“Look mummy,” he said, his little voice piping and his little finger pointing, “there’s a bubble in the sky.”

We adults breathed a collective aww as I explained that it was, in fact, the moon – tucking away the dawning realisation that he didn’t know what the moon was either.  He’d only just noticed it, after all, and, even if he had seen the silver crescent hanging in the midnight sky, he’d hardly think that the bubble in the twilight was the same thing. He just didn’t know enough about life, the universe and everything.

It was the same the first time he fell in the sea. Not living close to the coast, as I did when I was a little girl, he had little experience to go by, in all things oceanic. Seaweed, pebbles, gravel-rough sand, waves; all these things were ideas gleaned from CBeebies (he tells me that most of his wide knowledge of wildlife is down to It’s Our Planet and Spring/Autumn Watch, the CBeebies versions) and bedtime stories. The day he was knocked over in the surf was the day he bounced up, gasping, “It tastes of salt! I didn’t think it would taste of salt!” I never thought to tell him; I assumed he knew.

Maybe, though, looking back, it wasn’t all down to the speech therapy. Maybe my habit of giving a running commentary wherever we went and whatever we did had something to do with his constant chatter (you will know if you do this if you find yourself pointing out items of interest – trains, diggers, tractors, solar farms etc – to either your empty car or your adult travelling companions).  The conversation between A and I, as we travel about our surroundings has always been a joy, as we leapfrog from subject to subject, inspired by what we see on our journeyings.

Apart from hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, to me, were an animal of great interest. Rare and shy, you’d be lucky to see one in the wild, even luckier if you had one come to stay in your garden. We’d pass a tangle of trees and brambles on the way to pick Sam up from nursery, and I’d thought aloud that it would be a great place for hedgehogs to live. When A burst into tears and begged to be rushed past, rather than stopping to look, it took me a while to realise that he, only ever encountering them close up via the television screen, had conceptualised them rather differently to reality. Not for him the quiet sniffler, instead, the spiked danger of hogs the size of bears (who also live in woods).

I don’t know, but whenever I see teachers talking of knowledge organised on pieces of paper and tested (sorry, quizzed) on a Friday morning, like a spelling or a times table, I remember the bubble in the sky and the hedgehog in the woods, and I know that there are many different ways of knowing and that, like spellings, it takes more than a sheet and a test to ensure meaningful learning.

The Year of Leaving Dangerously

OK, so I have maybe stretched a point with the title of this blog, but I couldn’t just end it with ‘leaving’, could I?

The end of the summer term is here.  The hubs is in the kitchen cooking curry, A and L are sprawled upon the sofa, still in uniform, slowly discussing the events of the day in little dribs and drabs.  Sam is upstairs, music is cascading in a torrent from his open door, and I, sitting at a little table, am steadily ignoring the domestic chaos and tippy tapping the computer keyboard instead.

Just like all the other years, I have made it to the end of July by the skin of my teeth.  Like every other year, the last three weeks have been dominated by sports days, school reports, the mad dash to buy gifts and cards of thanks, school plays and the emotion of final assemblies, albeit this year from the parental edge rather than the staff centre.  This year, my heart strings have been twanged by just three children, rather than thirty-odd of them.

This year has been significant in its leave taking.  L has reached the end of Year 6.  She has just this moment stepped over the threshold of her primary education, and I find myself wondering whether she will join the ranks of girls who insist on wearing thick black tights, whatever the weather, or whether she will carry on with socks and cool comfort.  And Sam, he has made the biggest change of all; today he left his special school, ready to take up a place at the local mainstream college.

To his credit (and possibly his teachers have had something to do with it too), he is far more prepared for the move than I.  He left with a cheery wave and a ‘see ya!’, while I was required to hurry up and tag along, wiping away the unbidden tear.  He is satisfied that College will mean exciting times and growing up (and, to be fair, I went to a college, and I had an awesome couple of years of growing up and having fun), and I, ever anxious, am worried that his timetable doesn’t seem to have much maths and English in it.  We are entering a new era indeed.

It has been a slow process, this leaving, a bit like when you finally release yourself from the clutches of a sticking plaster, pick by pick.  A house move, new schools for A and L;  it has been a long time coming. When I look back, I can trace its roots, its beginnings, to over a year ago, to the moment when I realised that I could no longer stay on at my school, that the time had come for me to go.

I haven’t really written about it, not in an open way (I wrote this with a friend – and then all my best sentences got cut!)  I haven’t known what to say.  There is a mixed-up feeling of loss and relief, and it’s hard to untangle.  Instead of trying to tease it out, to make meaning through writing, I’ve left it; an undisturbed scab.  I haven’t been in a school, except in a parental capacity in almost a year and I’ve been glad.

So now, like my children, instead of focusing on the pain of what is left behind, I’m turning my face towards the future.  It’s a new college and school for them – and me.

Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.

 

See also:

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-teacher-and-the-doctor/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/clickbait/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/removing-the-rose-tinted-spectacles/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/the-secret-teacher/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/reality-check/

I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.