Tag Archives: Mainstream Education

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I sent out a tweet the other day.  It was a little, innocuous retweet of a picture of a little girl, trying on her school uniform for the first time.  In it, she is clapping her hands, as pleased as punch to be wearing a blue checked dress, her hair in a ponytail, shiny black shoes as neat as a pin.  Clearly, her parents were pleased as punch too because they sent it out to some big hitters in the Down’s syndrome tweeterverse.  I saw it and I was glad to share it with the many teachers with whom I am connected in a virtual sense.

It had a surprisingly large effect.  To date, it has had 32 retweets (which is a lot for me), 90 people have saved it with little love-heart likes, there have been 8,672 impressions and 148 total engagements (whatever they are).  I’m pleased, because I thought at the time, and I still think it this morning, that it is an important little tweet for people to see – and to notice the three, innocent sounding hashtags that follow. #inclusion #acceptance #school

You see, I too have been in the place of this mother.  When my son was standing there, all togged up in his little school uniform, ready to take his first big steps away from my side (I don’t count the little ones at nursery, it was only two and a half hours anyway, hardly enough time to get there and back again and make a cup of tea in between) (if I was the sort to drink tea), I, too, was filled up with a sense of importance of what his entrance into mainstream school would mean.

You see, what I don’t think that many people understand, and why should they after all, is quite what it is like to be told that your child, the baby you hold in your arms, the one you have waited for, anticipated with such joy, is somehow less; a cause for concern.  It’s a shock, I can tell you, and not a pleasant one, either.  People who have not had this experience don’t know how it knocks you sideways, how long it takes to recover, to rebuild the life you thought you had lost.

And, again, what I think many people, many teachers, don’t understand is what an important role they play in regaining, reclaiming that stolen joy, in denying the less than and turning it on its head; the way that they can turn the role of the state from destroyer of dreams to healer and hope.  They don’t understand, and there is no reason that they should, the importance of their symbolic role in the life of another.

But, and here’s the thing; what will happen when inclusion turns out to be less warm and fuzzy and more blood, sweat and tears?  Will we blame the parents, for not telling the truth about their children, for carrying on in an irresponsible manner? Will we blame the children, for being too disabled, too needy, too naughty, dangerous, even?  Will we, instead of examining a system that fails to put in place proper and adequate support, for teachers, for families, for children, blame everyone but ourselves and throw inclusion out of the window?

I do not wish to peddle a kind of warm and fuzzy inspiration that has little effect and no lasting value, for, while the smiling faces of cute little children with Down’s syndrome and tales of inclusion might make us feel good in the moment, will they help when the going gets tough?  It might be enough for me, because I am driven by more than a moral imperative, but will it be enough for you?



It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984.  My friend Allie, who used to have room 101 at college, had a quote from it photocopied and stuck to her door (I had a Jacky Fleming one and a the obligatory sheet of paper for my friends to leave the obligatory ‘I came to see you and you were out’ message on) and, at the time, I smiled, but I didn’t really know what she was talking about.  I had had Animal Farm read to me as a class story when I was in Year 6, but that was about as far as my knowledge of Orwell went at the time.  I was more of a Jane Austen kind of girl.

I did read it though, a while after I met her, accompanied by its feminist partner, The Handmaid’s Tale, one rainy summer when I had a job selling ice-creams (there wasn’t much to do), chuckling to myself at the snatched memory of my parents, in the real 1984, saying that they never thought they would ever reach the year, that now that they were 41 it didn’t seem so old.  When I read it (them), the dystopian image of a life controlled by Big Brother (which wasn’t a TV show), or by your membership of the female sex, it seemed to me to describe a fantastical world; an impossibility.  I was young.

Today, though, it is doublespeak, rather than Big Brother or Room 101, that I find most striking. The news is no longer the news (it is fake). The truth is no longer the truth (it’s not even relative). Social mobility doesn’t mean to be socially mobile (as personified by that much derided character, Hyacinth Bouquet/Bucket), but to be a certain kind of poor (the deserving). And, of most interest to me; inclusion doesn’t mean inclusion, quite the opposite in fact.

I can see why people want to use the term. It makes us feel nice, especially when we apply it to ourselves, or stick it up on a sign or a flyer, illustrated by smiling, cartoon children.  We are morally in the right, in a right on kind of way.  It is not quite the opposite of exclusive, which somehow means special and desirable, an honour bestowed upon the few (like advance notice of a discount or a new season, something that pops into your inbox, glistening with the temptation to part from your hard-earned cash and be the first from the starting blocks in the fashion stakes), a strange sort of justification of yourself as a shopper, or a parent. Instead, to be inclusive speaks to us of welcome.  There are no bouncers here, checking that you are on The List.

And, of course, inclusion is intertwined with notions of disability. To run an inclusive activity, or to be an inclusive school or church, it means that you welcome (or you say you do) disabled children and young people and their families, whether they are in a wheelchair or not; everyone, in fact.

Except, somehow, it doesn’t.  Somehow, an inclusive activity has come to mean one for disabled people (but only if you are the right kind).  An inclusive school is the one where all the disabled children go. An inclusion unit, a space within a mainstream school, has become the place where you send someone (those pesky disabled kids, the undeserving ones who have slippery labels they just won’t obey), not to keep them in, but to get them out.

We say all the right things, but somehow, it feels empty. It all feels a bit too much like doublespeak to me.


Trench Warfare

Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker?  (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now.  I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on.  I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly.  Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.

A couple of things stand out in my memory of them.  A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.

But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’

In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.

We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.

It’s the same with teaching.  Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.

And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.

You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes.  When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.

How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.

When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child.  It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all.  Being something and nothing, a split person,  a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.

Have you been there? Do you understand?


A Christmas Carol

img_4865I’ve been to my first carol service already.  It was last week, in fact; an evening service of medieval simplicity on the first Sunday of advent.  I wasn’t in the choir, I didn’t play the piano.  I sang no parts.  I sat somewhere towards the back, slightly to one side, concealed by semi-darkness, shadowed as the candles and the brightly lit choir passed by.  It was peaceful.  I came away refreshed; my mind calmed and my spirit eased.

Carol services and concerts haven’t always been this way.  For years, I was a participant, someone with a part to learn, to perform.  When I was a little child, at primary school, we spent hours (or at least it felt like hours) learning words off by heart.  Mrs Puddicombe played the piano (I never got used to calling her Ruth, even when I grew up and I understood that she was a friend of my mum’s) and the rest of us, the children and the other two teachers, sang the words from the pungent purple typescript, a banda-ed copy of the traditional and modern, until we could do without.  There was always ‘Little Donkey’ (plus coconut shells) and ‘The Calypso Carol’ (wood blocks, tambourines).  (For some strange reason there were also always crepe paper hats; we used to design our own and wear them for the Christmas Dinner and the Christmas Party.  There was a competition, and I never won it, not once.)

When I went to secondary school, I left the hats behind and joined the choir.  The carols were no longer a simple affair, in the village hall or Top Class with the tables pushed back to one end and the sliding doors opened.  Now they were much more complicated, with parts (alto, followed by various descants, I was a confused chorister, I admit) and an orchestra.  There was a sale of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ at the back of the church, and my dad bought one.  When I was older still, I gave up the choir and concentrated on the orchestra.  I learned the bass, and how to fake it when you lost your place.  There was a cathedral and mulled wine; no uniform, we were far too cool for that, but a similarity in dress brought on by arran jumpers and Doctor Marten.

And then there was teaching.  As one of the pianists in Key Stage Two, it fell to me, and my colleague Rose, to take it in turns to play or lead the singing.  More parts, this time for recorders and triangles; no coconuts, but ‘The Calypso Carol’ too.  I used to enjoy it when it was my turn to play.  We used to borrow a Clavinova and set it up, just to one side of the rood screen.  There I would sit, tucked away, filling the church with my choice of the empty melodies of waiting while the pews filled and the cold air warmed with the steam of subdued conversation.  It was far better than conducting the singing, standing in the front, waving your arms about for all to see.

Of course, the advantage of conducting is that you can hide your own mistakes in a way that you can’t when you are accompanying singers on an instrument.  One time, our choir were taking part in a competition, and I got so nervous that I made them sing without (we didn’t win, we didn’t get anywhere near winning); often I would get out the guitar and convert every song to sing-along-a-G-C-and-D.  Rose and I had a running competition going over who could do the best Les Dawson impression, and we had trained the children well to JUST CARRY ON REGARDLESS.

I reckon it made them more aware of the imperfections inherent in any performance anyway.  And, like I said to one young lady, curiously seeking me out on a cold January afternoon when I was stamping my feet on the playground and wishing that I had brought a hat, I didn’t ever feel embarrassed, because, when it came to it, the assembled throng hadn’t come to see me.

That’s the thing I often think about teaching.  For all our loud, strident, in charge voices, we are a quiet profession.  The stage is not ours.  The prizes and medals and stickers and certificates are given, not taken.  The hours of practice, the preparation and planning, are not to show how clever we are, but to showcase them. 

Moonbeams, or, What Inclusion Means to Me.

I took my children swimming the other day.  They have been desperate to go for a while, because, during half term, our new swimming pool finally opened.  Not our personal swimming pool, you understand, we aren’t the sort of family to devote a large part of our garden to a large child drowning device, but the one that belongs to our town.  It’s all shiny and sparkling and brand new, and it  was the first opportunity they have had to go for a dip.  We have been driving past it for weeks, wondering what it was like inside, so, when I had finally consumed my lunch (I’d been out, my lunch was late) and I suggested an outing, they jumped at the chance.

I particularly enjoy taking them swimming these days because, joy of joys, I don’t have to go in the water myself.  There is far too much holding in of the mid-section and dodging of other people’s slowly sinking plasters for my liking at the swimming baths.  They, thank heavens, have reached the age where they are allowed to take themselves into the pool and I am confident enough in them to let them.  And it was very nice.  Up until recently, taking them swimming had either involved a dip in the people soup myself, or a stay in a sort of cross between a sauna and an assault on the ears in the observation area.

At the new pool, there is none of that.  There is a pleasant seating area behind large glass doors, so it is nice and cool and nice and quiet.  Perhaps fortunately, there is no reception for my phone and no data signal, so I was able to read my current Very Interesting Book in relative peace.  As there was no way to the pool side from my very comfortable arm chair, I was forced (forced, yes, forced) to watch my children making their own way, without any help from me at all, other than the odd encouraging smile and thumbs up.

The only fly in the ointment was the locker key.  Usually, when I take them swimming, I sit and nod and smile, and they give me the locker keys, on their plastic wristy-ankley things, to look after, which usually involve me putting them in a pile and hoping they remember which is which.  Which is fine if there is only a couple of metal bars between you and your offspring, and not so much if you are on one side of a double-glazed, floor to ceiling locked glass door and your child, the one who can’t quite manage the buckle is on the other.

Only here’s the thing.  When the pool opened, all the staff at the old, falling down, holes in the roof one transferred to the brand spanking new leisure centre up the road.  All of my children have been swimming there, pretty much every week, during term time, with school, since they were four years old.  Sam, because his school has their own mini-maxi-buses (they are bigger than minibuses and not as big as coaches, they must have a special name) has already been to the new pool twice, without us.  When he couldn’t manage his key-buckle-thing, and he couldn’t get to me for help, the lifeguard stepped up.

Now, I know that lifeguards are supposed to do this sort of thing, but experience has shown me that not everyone, despite their position, are comfortable with Down’s syndrome, or disability or difference of any sort of kind.  Only last week, when we were eating out, everyone got a menu – except Sam.  We handed them round and when L rather pointedly asked, ‘where’s mine?’, the waiter hurried off to fetch another, embarrassed and unsure.

Sometimes I think that I deliberately ignore the stares and uncomfortable glances.  That I have become so used to a defensive mode of being that it has become a way of life.  Until there really are funny looks, and then I know that I wasn’t pretending after all.  Most times, especially at home, it’s fine.  It’s really fine.  Sam knows people, and people know Sam.  When Sam is in trouble, when he can’t manage his key, or he needs help with his locker, or coming to terms with the fact that public swimming has finished for the day, there are other people, other people who aren’t me or his dad, who can help.  He is included.

Inclusion is a funny thing.  It’s like a shadow.  You know it’s there, following you along, but, when you want to, you can’t seem to grasp it.  You can reach out, touch the things it touches, feel its effect, but it isn’t the sort of thing you can pick up in your hands and examine.  It doesn’t work like that.  Unlike shadows or rainbows, there isn’t a set recipe, or defined set of instructions and BOOM, there it is, sitting in your hand; instead it, like the shadow and the rainbow, slips further away with each attempt to capture it. You only really know it when you see it, when you feel it.

I used to think that for Sam to be included he needed to go to his local mainstream school.  I broke my heart for years, worrying about where he would go to secondary school. I worried about it until the moment I stepped through the doors of the special school and I realised that here was a place where Sam could belong, where he could be included.

You see, I didn’t understand about the process of ‘othering’.  I didn’t know that the practices that no one thought to question, not really, not enough to change, because they can’t be changed really, can they?  he can’t keep up, he isn’t the same, would make Sam feel as different as others felt about him.  I thought that putting Sam in the mainstream would be enough.  I didn’t realise that, in the million subtle ways that a person or a child can be excluded from the group they find themselves in, there are an equal number of bringing someone in.

I went to a very interesting talk the other day about bullying.  And one of the things we talked about was how, as educators, in the same way as many other issues that affect us and the children we teach, from mental health to poverty, the things we wish we could change, things that would make our students’ lives better, are beyond our reach.

As educators we can, if we know how, make our schools inclusive spaces, safe ones, oases of calm, or all the other sorts of definors we use when we explain our ethos; but we cannot do the same for the rest of the world.  Our sphere of influence, authority, control, whatever you want to call it, while strong, only reaches so far.

But here’s the thing.  I don’t exist, in an inclusive fashion, if you like, only in the world of the school.  As Sam’s mother, I see inclusion reaching far beyond the school gate.  I, and he, straddle two, three worlds, and as we move between them, my son and I, I see how they impact upon each other.  Inclusive education is important.  It’s a game changer for many, many children and for many, many adults. It does not sit purely in the world of the mainstream school.  It isn’t something that is fixed, in one place, or in one way, the same way for each child.  It’s a moonbeam.  It is no more fixed than the wave upon the sand.