Tag Archives: SEND

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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Afraid

I was chatting the other day,  with some mothers of children with Down’s syndrome; what was it about Down’s syndrome, we were asked, that everyone, the world and his wife, finds so scary?  It’s a question that knocked on the door of my consciousness long before it was posed.

You can find a post on the fear of disability, and Down’s syndrome here.

It doesn’t happen straight away, but once your child is no longer a baby, or a cute toddler, a little one in a too big school uniform, once your boy starts to turn into a man, people’s attitudes change.  The miasma of fear hangs around them.  A fear of male sexuality.  A discomfort with a feminised masculinity; a man who will always need to be helped.  A not-quite someone.

You can find a post about Down’s syndrome and manhood here.

And I have written about the judgement on women, on mothers who dare to have a disabled child. Framed as choice, the discourse has more than a whiff of judgement about it, there is a you made your bed now you lie in it stench.  I have read about, thought about and written about the blame that is hung around the neck of mothers of disabled children.  Too needy. Hysterical. In denial. Awkward. Liars, even.

You can read a post about the inherent sexism present in our schools here.

Mothers of disabled children are set about with rules. In a digital age, we are told we share too much. We place our children in danger; we share stories that are not ours to tell, as if the stories of women, of mothers, are somehow less important, less deserving of a hearing.  In an economic time of debt and austerity, we must both pay the bills and stay at home. We have no need of ambition; our fate is to lay ourselves down at the feet of our children, the price we must pay for bringing to birth a disabled baby.

Today, for work (although I’d have read it out of interest), I read a report into the mental health and wellbeing of children with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities) in schools, and, to be honest, I wasn’t shocked.  Depressed and angered, yes. Shocked, no.  You can read it here.

You see, we know that SEND is intimately connected with poverty and economic and social disadvantage.

We know that having a disabled child puts a strain on adult relationships and many such children grow up with an absent father.

We know that teenage girls are deeply unhappy with the world around them and their place in it, and that this is especially pronounced in girls who don’t, or who feel they don’t fit in.

We know that disabled adults and children face greater levels of bullying than any other group – and disabled girls even more so.

The report paints a picture of a toxic cocktail of powerlessness centred on the experience of women and girls; of individuals caught in the feminised state of disability.  No doubt there will be calls for change, for interventions or plans, for government backed initiatives, citing the well known unhappiness of the UK’s children in justification.  We have a big problem, requiring a big solution.

Except we don’t, not really.  To be kind costs nothing.  To be alert to bullying and to help our children and put a stop to the behaviour that has blighted the lives of so many costs little; some thought, some understanding, maybe a bit of training and a heap of commitment.  Challenging workplaces and demanding societal support for families, so that caring is shared, not carried by one person, might take a bit more, but still.

Without that commitment to change, when you look at it, when you really look at it, who wouldn’t be afraid?

 

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?

 

Powerless

I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher.  It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.”  It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again.  I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.

I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment.  For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent.  And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy.  Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.

And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave.  Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing.  You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas.  You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.

But. And here’s the thing.  I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story.  Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.

I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children.  I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world.  I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me –  making the year – or not.

And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth.  That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm.  That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.

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.