Tania's note: Nancy Gedge is back with her views on the thorny subject of inclusion in schools for children with SEN. As both a teacher and a parent of a child with a disability, Nancy has an important and heart-felt perspective:
Yesterday, I was in London talking to a group of head teachers and SENCOs at the Bridge School in Islington at the Inclusion Conference, organised by the National Education Trust. I’ve written at length about our experiences as a family with both mainstream and special education; I’ve commented on some of the reasons why more and more children with SEND are moving to special schools, rather than staying in the mainstream sector.
As I am both a parent of a child with significant SEND (my son has Down’s syndrome) and a teacher (I teach children with SEND in a mainstream primary school), I have a pretty good idea of what life looks like from both side of the playground, and this is what I said:
I, like many teachers, and many parents of school age children, tend to think that Education-with-a-capital-E is the be-all and end-all of everything. It dominates almost every aspect of our lives – but, and this is, from my perspective as a teacher, a sad thing to admit, it does not hold all the answers. It can do a lot, but not everything. Outside of our Edu-Bubble there is a world of birthday parties and discos and scouts and brownies, and inclusive ideas need to be there too.
After that, I talked about lots of things that teachers might not be aware of. I spoke of how many people, me included, are afraid of special schools (or I was), of what it might mean for their children and for them. How many people worry that the school, rather than being what it is, which is a place of hope and joy and celebration, will resemble something more like the institutions of days gone by. We fear that our children will be shut away, hidden from public gaze; dirty little secrets.
I talked about that thing that we want: that our children are accepted and valued in society – and that they get to go to as many birthday parties as everyone else, and how we want mainstream education to help us in this aim.
The thing is, though, that there are considerable obstacles in our way, and the first of these is in the field of teacher training and knowledge about SEND in mainstream schools. SEND is still seen as a specialist field, the SENCO is often expected to be the fount of all SEND knowledge. Many teachers, as are many people outside of education, are scared and intimidated by SEND, especially significant and complex needs like my son’s. They feel they ought to be experts, and they know they aren’t.
This is compounded by the yearly nature of schooling. We, both parents and teachers, tend to grit our teeth and ‘get through the year’ if it isn’t going especially well – and we tend to forget all about it when we get on to the next stage. Lessons don’t seem to get learned.
I talked about TAs. I didn’t feel the need to go into the details, but Sam’s heart was well and truly broken when he lost his TA. We wanted him to go on to a school where he was expected to stand on his own two feet, but still. It was hard on him. It wasn’t fair on him, and it wasn’t fair on her. It wasn’t fair to tie her job to the needs of a child. It’s not fair to invest such interest.
And then I talked of the home-school relationship. I talked of how my expertise, as the parent of a child with an at-birth diagnosis, much involved in everything he did, wasn’t welcomed by many of his teachers. I reminded them that the biggest expert in my child was me, not them.
I told them how easily it could happen that I, and parents like me, were misinterpreted by schools. That out there, beyond the school gate, the world is scary, that our anxiety levels are higher. I told them some of the upsetting things that people have taken it upon themselves to say to me, to help them understand how things can be different to what they first appear – that what may seem as RARGH is actually HELP or even MEEP! For so many of us, the home-school relationship is defined by conflict.
And then we discussed how policy decisions and inspection systems don’t help, even when we have the best teacher, and the best home-school relationship in the world. We talked about how the results and competition agenda don’t exactly work with the inclusion one, and how children like mine, and the ones I teach, are the victims. I told them how, when you add it all up, it means one great big struggle.
And to be honest, parenting a child like mine, one with significant special need, is struggle enough. We get sicker, we are tireder, we are under more stress than typical families. We’re tired of constantly having to explain, we’re tired of having our voices disregarded. We don’t need the added stress, and so we fall into special education with a sigh of relief – here, at least, are people who understand.
I talked about where we might go from here. I talked about how the new Code of Practice, for all its faults, acts as a metaphor for special needs. It’s hard to pin down, it demands we see SEND for what it is – complicated, not neatly defined. I talked about how, once we have the labels we need to peel them off the children and put them back in their boxes. I talked about how, although it was hard going in mainstream, my son changed lives. He changed the lives of his teachers and of his classmates. They hug him when they see him.
But what we really need is more than this. What we need is for all of us to see beyond the labels, to see that, just like the crystal hedgehog that sits on my mantelshelf, people will see my son for who he is; just as multifaceted and complicated as the rest of us. That, as well as opening their hearts, they will open their minds.
Here’s to the future. It’s in our hands.
- What’s the point of the Down’s Syndrome Bill? One parent’s view, plus a legal opinion - December 13, 2021
- Nancy’s tips for writing an EHCP parental statement - January 22, 2018
- Removing the barriers to bedtime for children with disabilities - November 25, 2016