Tag Archives: Education

The Mirror

I have a mirror hanging on my bedroom wall. R doesn’t like it. He says it’s a heavy, old-fashioned thing. It is one of those mirrors that hangs from a square-linked chain; the glass is framed in wooden gold, the edges rubbed from precious metal to dull grey-bown. It belonged to my great grandmother, I inherited it when she died, so it stays.

Wherever we have lived, upon whichever wall it has hung, it has never been at the correct height. At the moment, the hanging chain is twisted into a knot; if you want to see your feet, you have to stand, on tiptoe, in the bin in order to get the angle right.

These last nine years it hasn’t mattered much. I don’t have to make a great deal of wardrobe decisions. I tend to wear the same few things, day in day out; one lot for work (mildly traditional teacher clothes, smart enough to be smart, but not so smart that you either put the kids off or annoy the boss), one lot for home (jeans). I haven’t been to a wedding for seven years. My last job interview was a good long while ago (and I wore my trusty interview outfit).

And then there is the speed at which I get up and dress these days. I look back to my teen years and wonder what it was I used to do, spending all those hours and hours getting ready. These days, with three reluctant children to winkle out of their night-time cocoons, I have been known to leave the house without properly checking whether I resembled Yummy Mummy or the Wild Woman of Borneo. The mirror hangs, silent and unloved.

Most of the time, as I charge about, rushing from one place to another, our interactions are brief; gone is the self-indulgent gaze of my younger years. Today, I am more likely to experience a sense of shock, rather than of satisfaction. Where did those grey hairs spring from? Those lines on my forehead, when did they appear? What happened to my middle when I wasn’t looking?

It’s easy, when you are the queen of the cursory glance, keen to persuade yourself, despite your years and the size of your children, of your youth and immortality, if you stand always at your best angle to the wall, shoulders back, stomach in. It’s easy to persuade yourself that you are, in fact, the filtered, airbrushed image you have on your social media feeds, even though it’s hard to dismiss that same sense of dislocation you feel when you meet someone from off the telly and find they are nothing like you imagined, when you catch sight of yourself in shop windows, a chubbier-than-she-thought-she-was, older-than-she-imagines-she-is, tired looking woman.

The thing is, though, I don’t think it’s only me. Oh, I don’t mean that the whole entire world is populated by busy women who forget to take care of themselves (although it probably is). I mean that we, culturally speaking, have forgotten what we look like.

We have forgotten that we are not, as we would like to think of ourselves, somehow superhuman. We have forgotten to look in the mirror and see who we really are, instead of how we wish to be.

I suppose if there never were a child or person with Down’s syndrome, if there never were a child or young person with extra requirements in our schools, it wouldn’t matter.

But there is, and there are.  And it does.

Find out more about Through The Looking Glass, a report from the Driver Youth Trust here.

On diagnosis, parents, teachers and clinicians

A couple of summer holidays ago I wrote a book. I enjoyed writing it a great deal, it was a strangely cathartic process, and it was published last May.

You can find details of it here, and buy it if you like.

Over the course of that summer I found myself asking a question – should I include the bit about specific labels, or would doing so blind readers (labels can be a bit dazzling), and get in the way of them finding out about the child?  Or, should I leave it in, as information about the sort of diagnoses that teachers are likely to come across is useful in that it demystifies them? I debated with a number of my teacher friends, and in the end I compromised. I left them in, along with a largeish section on the problem with labels, the different kinds of meaning they hold for different people (adult and child) and how a teacher needs to be aware of this and bear it all in mind when teaching.

The other thing I thought was important to put into the book, bearing in mind that being the expert in the classroom can give a person the impression that they are the expert in everything (or at least, that’s how it can be perceived from the outside – there is also a section on saying sorry and how to manage mistakes), was clear and unequivocal guidance on what a teacher is able to diagnose – or not.

Here is a quick taster:

Autism Spectrum Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

Attachment Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

ADHD/ADD : a teacher cannot diagnose

Down’s syndrome : a teacher cannot diagnose

I’m sure you get the picture. These things are diagnosable, not by teachers, but by clinicians, that is, medical doctors and psychologists (who may also be doctors).

You can find a reflection on a medical diagnosis and what it looks like in practice here.

What this means is that the problems a child is facing in the classroom are problems that they face everywhere – down the shops, in the swimming pool, in the home, all the time. Aside from Attachment Disorder – and even then, when a child is adopted, this is not the case – these diagnoses, or labels, have nothing to do with parenting, style or anything else.

But to get back to my list, next up:

Dyslexia – can be diagnosed by specialist teachers (the specialist bit is important –  you need to complete further, demanding qualifications in order to be a specialist dyslexia teacher with the ability to diagnose), parents/schools (does a school ever do this?) have to pay around £500 for a full assessment of dyslexia

And then we come to yesterday. Yesterday there was a report published (you can read it here), based on a survey commissioned by an assessment company, GL Assessment, that claimed (in a nutshell) that teachers think that labels of SEN are obtained by the pushiest of parents (and by default, the wealthiest and most middle class), and that this means that some children, who need and deserve support (presumably the children of the poor, or JAMs), aren’t getting it. Sounds like truth, doesn’t it? The squeaky wheel and all that. Except when you contrast it with the statements above, and the fact that we have (for now) a National Health Service.

Are we teachers really saying that we don’t believe in clinical diagnoses? (see press release here)

Now personally, I don’t think anything of the sort, but I do think, because I am a teacher and I know how difficult it is to balance a class and to understand the sort of SEN that doesn’t come with a diagnosis (the sort that is most common in classrooms), that questions about teacher perceptions of labels of SEND need to be very carefully framed. Firstly, because SEND does not mean some sort of group of children where each one is the same, facing the same kind of difficulties: homogeonised. And secondly, because, if you are not careful, what you actually get in answer to your question is something completely different.

If you look at the survey (link here) I think what you find are two things:

  1. A lack of understanding of the reality of SEND by the questioner.
  2. A neat exposition of teacher attitudes towards a certain set of parents (mothers, let’s face it) who are exhibiting anxiety about the educational progress (or not) of their child/children.

I’m not going to go into the reporting of the results of the survey (although the Guardian – what were you thinking??), I’ll  save that for another day, except for one thing – a press release is an important document.  Read an excellent exposition of the dangers here.  You can see two contrasting reports on it here, from TES and here, from the Guardian, and draw your own conclusions.

Needless to say, if I was writing it up, I’d have written it very differently, because guess which SEND assessments (among others) GL Assessment sell? Dyslexia.

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.

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?