Tag Archives: SEND

Reading to Babies

I do my best, these days, to persuade people that I am not completely mad. Occasionally the mask slips (I sang a snatch of Everything Is Awesone in a staff meeting the other day – I tried not to, but it sort of slipped out), but most of the time I reckon I get away with it alright.  I have to admit, though, that I struggle to hide it from those who know me well.

My mum, for instance, thought I was bonkers to make almost the first thing I did post-baby, a visit to the local bookshop, and then to the library to get Baby Sam his membership.  At the time, we were a little strapped for cash, having gone down one wage and up a new house, so, given my behaviour in bookshops up to that point (never leave without a straining carrier bag), I decided that the library card was a safer bet.

That said, I still thought it was important to own a few classics, so off to the bookshop I did trot and into my eager hands fell several board books, a fabric one with squeaky and crinkly bits and lots of different textures and little bits of string and ribbon to grasp and a plastic squashy one that went in the bath.

Down’s syndrome aside, I could tell that she thought that me buying books for a baby was an act of severe bonkersness.  What did babies need with books?  Shouldn’t they have a rattle, or stacking cups (he had these too, and an excellent little triangular wedge with a plastic mirror velcroed to it – I used to prop him up on his eblows and watch him gaze and coo to himself for ages) or something else more accessible, more suitable? Why was I wasting my time and money at such an early age, when there was no way on this earth that he would be able to read them? Thankfully she loves me, and she adores Sam, so she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I think it had something to do with Teacher Me. Learning to read, leaving aside the decoding print bit, is partly about knowing what to do with a book;  which way is up, the way the pages work and how to turn them, that sort of thing. Seeing as reading has always been a joy to me (although not, it has to be said, to R, who mainly reads to find out how to make things), and seeing as I knew Sam had a learning difficulty, I reasoned that he may as well start young.  (Nothing to do with me wanting to buy books, not at all.) I didn’t want him missing out.

Over the years, with the addition of two more babies to the family, the collection of stories grew. We had our favourites; Peepo (a good strong board book with a hole for loose little fingers to grasp, a baby who looked remarkably like Sam and a natural rhythm to the poem that encouraged us to drop out words for him to fill in), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (where little three-year-old Sam, still unable to call me ‘mummy’, would manage to ‘woo woo’ as we struggled through the blizzard), The Blue Balloon (fantastic for mouth control), Brown Bear, Brown Bear (the book I used to persuade his Reception teacher that it was worth while teaching him to read) and The Elephant and the Bad Baby (we liked the Tweeny Clock Cake). As I continue on my mission to sort out the house, I look at them all, their covers and pages dog eared and tatty now, and I cannot bear to throw them out.

Was it to teach them to decode that I shared these stories? To be honest, no. They were for me (or daddy, or grandma) to read to them.  Like Shakespeare’s plays performed in an age when, despite England’s relatively literate population, proportionally, not that many people could read – and fewer could write – it was never about literacy.  It was about access to story and rhyme, to an experience; an opportunity to enter in to a shared imaginative world, if you like.

I suppose I could have bought them more audio books (they are really rather fond of Pants, and used to have a very jolly time jumping on the beds to Lenny Henry’s various different versions, the ones that go too fast for you to turn the pages in time and still appreciate the humour in the pictures, or discuss which pants they like the best); I could have bought more films (although, I hate that feeling you get when the actors don’t look the way you had imagined the characters, and I can see, by the way A and L dismiss the Percy Jackson films as Not Right At All, that they feel the same way too).  I suppose I could insist that L reads Anne of Green Gables by herself, even though our copy was old when I first had it, the print is small and it is falling apart. But to me, that would be missing the point.

You don’t need to be able to read it yourself to enjoy a good story, well told, pictures and everything.  It’s about literature, not literacy, and access to it, and that, it seems to me, is an entirely different thing.

 

Baby Sam playing the piano before he could read music too.

Doublespeak

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.

 

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.