Choosing a mainstream school for my disabled child

The issue of the type of placement for a child with special educational needs or disabilities can be a thorny one. For many, including my own sons with Asperger's, a specialist school was the right setting to enable them to thrive. For others, particularly if your child has a physical but not an intellectual learning disability, mainstream school is the right place, with reasonable adjustments.
Inclusion into a mainstream setting is one of the things the government likes to talk about as being their 'preferred' route but many parents have found that mainstream schools, especially academies, are far from welcoming places for their children.
Lucy Bartley is the parent of three children, one of whom is disabled and who attends a mainstream academy with their siblings. She's written some advice for parents who do want their disabled children to attend a mainstream school.
Choosing mainstream school disabled child

My advice for parents wanting a mainstream school for their disabled child

As we see our world becoming more divided and people segregated, the need for tolerant, diverse and inclusive schools is greater than ever. Yet you may, like me, be wondering if there are any truly inclusive schools out there that are willing and able to provide a meaningful education for all.
As a parent of three children, one of whom is disabled, as a school governor and as an education advocate, I wear a number of hats giving me more than my fair share of school experiences – both good and not so good…
I have gleaned a few things along the way which I hope might be useful to you whether you are a parent, an ally, or a practitioner which I am going to  explore here.

What is a good school?

I have often been asked the question in relation to my children’s school, "Is it a good school?"
My response has always been, "It depends on what you think is a good school?" If ‘good’ means the top academic results then it isn’t, but if  by ‘good’ you are looking for school that will try its best to educate well and meet the needs of a diverse group of children – then it is a good school.
I believe a good school is an inclusive school, one that welcomes all children, values each and every one of them as individuals and also enables them to be part of a supportive community.

Lucy
Lucy

Some hallmarks of a good school are: a diverse intake, tolerant values, robust equality policies and evidence that they work hard to never exclude any child. It is a school that wants to work with you as a parent or practitioner and values your partnership. A school that makes sure its students have a meaningful role and voice within the school. And most of all, it is a school where my children and all children can be happy and achieve in the way that they want. Looking at these hallmarks – a ‘good’ school’ is a far cry from the Ofsted outstanding benchmark!

Holding this view of ‘Good’ a governor in this education climate is hard

Schools are increasingly being forced to conform to tougher and tougher attainment measures which, by their very nature, are exclusive. I see it every day, where the children that are unable to conform are at risk of exclusion. I often feel there is little I can do. I am the one parent governor at the school and am part of a dying breed, as academies are not required to have any parent governors at all! I am a minority in a governing body that does not govern in any meaningful way. We really simply rubber stamp what the head teacher has already decided!
You may well ask why I am continuing to be a governor? Well, it does give me insights into the challenges schools face, it also allows me to understand what my children’s school are doing and where they are going and it helps me to build relationships with key people at the school – and relationships are very important.

So what can you positively do as a parent in this climate?

My first piece of advice for parents of children who are perceived as different or difficult – terms which I reject - would be to intentionally and proactively build relationships with staff at your children’s school.
I would also advise that you become an ally to your child and realise that you know them best; you are the expert in them! Remember too, that the school needs to work with you in a child-centred way, the law requires it. You can remind the school of your expertise, offer your support and of course promote your child. Indeed schools generally want to work with parents, Ofsted requires them too and where schools involve parents well, the children do better and are happier.
Also be very clear that as a parent of a child that has been 'labelled', you have been oppressed and isolated by the prejudice which says your child is the problem.
My advice would be to reject this assumption and remember it is the barriers that prevent your child from being included that are the problems – it maybe the environment, or it maybe attitudes but it is never your child that is the problem.

To conclude

  • Become that ally to your child. Identify and celebrate their amazing gifts and strengths and ensure that the school does too.
  • Try to understand your child’s rights under the law, educate yourself about the school, the education climate and the legislation.
  • Always communicate with the school in a positive way and introduce you child focusing on their gifts and strengths.
  • Try to choose a school that has inclusive values, is diverse and appears less obsessed with league table and results.
  • Join the parents' group, go along to events, meetings anything that you can attend at the school.
  • Build connections with the school, create positive relationships, try to adopt a conciliatory approach and remember the climate that schools are operating in.
  • Finally, remember and remind the school that you on the same side, wanting the very best for our children, for all children.

Do you agree with these points by Lucy? DO you have other points you'd like to add? Please include them in the blog comments below this article (Facebook comments do not stay with the article)

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Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome. Trustee, Genetic Alliance UK.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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  • simone aspis

    Tania please do not make the assumption that mainstream education is consistency the right placement for disabled children with physical impairments. ALLFIE has many great examples of how disabled children with autism and significant “global” learning difficulties can be included in mainstream education – it takes a political will of the school rather than the type or severity of impairment,

    • simone aspis

      Tania please do not make the assumption that mainstream education is consistency the right placement for only disabled children with physical impairments. ALLFIE has many great examples of how disabled children with autism and significant “global” learning difficulties can be included in mainstream education – it takes a political will of the school rather than the type or severity of impairment that child has.

    • Thanks for your comment, Simone, although this article is not by me, it’s a guest post and the views are that of the writer, Lucie

  • Planet Autism

    “academies are not required to have any parent governors at all”

    Well that’ll have been deliberate.

    However well-meaning, this advice:

    “Always communicate with the school in a positive way and introduce you child focusing on their gifts and strengths.

    Join the parents’ group, go along to events, meetings anything that you can attend at the school.
    Build
    connections with the school, create positive relationships, try to
    adopt a conciliatory approach and remember the climate that schools are
    operating in.”

    Are unrealistic and unattainable for many parents who are on the autistic spectrum. Autistic children often have autistic parents. Autistic parents are forthright, straight to the point and do not succumb to social heirarchies or find it easy to know what constitutes ‘a positive way’ (or at least our definition of ‘positive’ differs probably considerably from a NT definition of it) and would find it challenging and perhaps impossible to go along to meetings and social events, or to force themselves to think in a way that produces the communication you label ‘conciliatory’.

    Just to finally point out that you talk about what is a good school, but it’s not necessarily about what the parent thinks is a good school, it is what the child experiences to be a good school an they might not be the same things.

  • Lisa Dunleavy

    I would add that the parent should be completely open and honest with the school. My daughter has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome along with a number of its associated conditions and having been to talk to the SENCO and the head of year before she looked round, we were all able to answer her questions. They have been outstanding and being there rather than the local mainstream school (much larger, didn’t feel as open to supporting her) made the transition to secondary school massively easier. She’s been included in everything – even y7 camp and they are fabulous, can’t fault them!