End Of Year Thoughts

Another school year has come to an end. Over the past couple of weeks my newsfeed has been full of posts about Sports Days, leavers’ assemblies and prom nights, and end-of-year reports and concerts. Bittersweet moments have been shared, of children ‘growing up too quickly’ as they pass through the milestone moments of their education, moving onwards from one stage to the next, inexorably towards adulthood. A good many of these posts have shown children with additional needs and disabilities fully included and participating in mainstream school life. Inclusion is the ideal – where the school is willing and able to fully meet a child’s needs, and where the child is able, with appropriate support, to cope in a mainstream school environment, it benefits the whole school community, and society, as it teaches tolerance, and ‘normalises’ disability by allowing non-disabled and disabled children to interact as peers, on a day-to-day basis. However, for some children it is not the best option.

There are many children with additional needs who struggle in the mainstream school environment. There are many mainstream schools who struggle to meet the needs of SEND pupils. Often the situation is an unhappy mix of the two. For the parents of children in this unenviable position, the suggestion that their child’s needs would be better met in a Special, or SEND, school may come as a crushing blow. And no wonder – inclusion in mainstream is held up as the gold standard; having your child end up in a SEND school is seen as Failure.

Parents often express feelings of grief, guilt, despair, or anger when it becomes apparent that their childs needs can really only be met at a Special school, and some refuse point-blank to even consider it, preferring instead the idea of fighting to keep their child in a school that is manifestly unsuitable. I believe the reason for this is because the common perception is that they will be somehow selling their child short, or letting them down, if they choose Special school. No parent wants to do that.

This is a very sad situation for everyone involved. 

I can tell you from personal experience that SEND school is not the bottom-of-the-barrel option. It is not about failure, or giving up on children, or just ‘babysitting’ them for the day, and it is not about segregating disabled children away from Mainstream. Special Education, properly done, is about appropriate and accessible education. 

It is about acknowledging and accepting difference, and the fact that different people need different things. Inclsuion in Mainstream is all very well when it works: when the school can meet the child’s needs, and the child can cope in a mainstream environment, but this does not always happen. Of course there are good and not-so-good schools in both sectors, but Mainstream and SEND are, in a sense, two different animals, and one is not less than the other.

My own son goes to a Special School. Freddie is in a class of ten pupils and three staff (plus one extra to assist a visually-impaired pupil). He gets a much bigger share of attention than he would in a class of thirty. Yes, in mainstream he would have one-to-one, but there is no guarantee that his one-to-one would have any special training or knowledge. With a pupil/staff ratio of roughly 3:1 he does at least have to learn to stand on his own two feet a bit, but in a very safe environment.

All the staff in Freddie’s school are specialists in SEND and are aware that our children may need to learn and be taught in different ways. They seem to be able to be much more flexible and creative in the way they work than mainstream would allow, it means they can be very responsive to individual need and circumstance 

I don’t have to fight for anything, and I don’t have to be constantly going into school to sort out problems. The expertise we need is all in place.

All the staff have a great deal of experience in dealing with challenging behaviours in a calm and constructive manner. All the staff know how to discipline children with additional needs effectively, and they have certain expectations of the children, and know how to communicate them in a way the children can understand.

Acheivement is measured on an individual level at Freddie’s school; each child is encouraged to improve upon their personal best, and when they do so this is celebrated, no matter what others in the class have done. This is only fair because, as the school recognises, their children come with widely differing needs and abilities.

Freddie certainly isn’t just being ‘babysat’ for the day. And he doesn’t spend the whole day just singing silly songs and doing bits of craft. Yes, art and craft are on the curriculum, but so is literacy and numeracy, or English and Maths as he calls them now that he is in Year 3. They do Phonics. They do topic work on Science subjects, History and Geography. They do use songs as a learning tool sometimes, because it helps the children to remember things. I still sing a little rhyme I learned in school when I want to remember which months only have 30 days in them. 

They do cover life skills and skills for independence, which has taken some of the pressure off me at home. In fact I’ve learned a lot of helpful tips from the teachers which I’ve been able to use at home. Consistency of approach between home and school has improved Freddie’s behaviour. 

I’m certain he’s getting far more out of the curriculum at Special school, because it’s differentiated to meet his needs, than he would at Mainstream school. To insist that he be taught exactly the same as typically developing pupils would be to deny his difficulties, and, therefore, limit his opportunity for learning. Many of the things that pupils do in Mainstream can be adapted for Special School. In September Freddie will be doing Forest School. In another year or two he will get to go on a residential, if I can bear to let him!

So, if you’re one of those parents who’s feeling gutted because Mainstream school is not working out for your child, please believe me when I say this isn’t the end of your child’s education, and you’re certainly not failing them, letting them down, or selling them short by sending them to a (good) Special School. You might just be unlocking a door for them.

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19/12/16 Cinderella at the Regent.

I think I was judged yesterday – we were judged I should say. I was in a cafe with Freddie, and he was acting up as he often does at mealtimes, but I was dealing with it in the way I find works best, which is quite low-key. 

I heard a voice somewhere in the cafe declaiming (obviously to a child), rather louder than seemed necessary: “… but you’ve been good enough to get presents from Santa, haven’t you?”

Probably I was just being paranoid – so I’m glad I disobeyed my first instinct, which was to stand up and say: “Good job Santa’s not a judgemental ******* like some, then!” 

Santa takes individual circumstances into account. Which is what I have to do; so, although with my older children, if they had acted up, I would have threatened to cancel that afternoon’s visit to the Panto if they didn’t behave, I didn’t do that with Freddie.

Freddie wouldn’t be in the least concerned with that. If anything he’d be quite happy to be taken home; he’s a proper home- body and, if anything, needs to be gently encouraged out of his comfort zone to try new things. 

As it happened, once we were out of the cafe he was as good as gold. He walked really well from there to the theatre, he didn’t flop and drop once. 

We were on our to the first ever ‘relaxed’ matinee performance of the Regent Theatre’s annual pantomime, in Stoke-on-Trent.

During a ‘relaxed’ performance, the house lights are left on low, strobe lighting can be removed, loud noises are reduced or removed, and making noise or moving about during the performance is not discouraged. There was even a notice in the toilets said that the hand-dryers had been switched off for the duration of that performance. 

Before Cinderella got properly underway, Ugly Sister Beyoncé (Christian Patterson) came on stage to explain to the audience the special effects that would be used during the performance: each one was demonstrated, and the crew responsible for them introduced. He explained the cast understood that some people might need to get up and leave, and come back, and that was OK, they wouldn’t be offended; and if some people needed to watch through iPads or phones that would be OK too, provided they weren’t recording. Then a screen came down, and there was a countdown to the start of the show. 

There was, perhaps, slightly less audience participation, and the pyrotechnics were toned down a little, but apart from that the experience differed little from the traditional Panto experience. There was visual humour and slapstick galore, and, as always, some jokes that worked on a second level for the grown-ups. Certainly the magic and that distinctive pantomime ‘feel’ were maintained throughout (my favourite bit was the flying horse that pulled Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage into the air above the stage).

It’s the magic moments like this, the Christmas pantomime, that new parents look forward sharing with their children, and these are the kind of things that ‘special needs’ parents can feel cheated out of. Being able to go to the theatre might seem trivial to grieve over in the grand scheme of things, especially compared to the challenges that the families of people with additional needs and disabilities can face; but sometimes, when a child’s life is made tougher by those needs, such things, positive quality experiences, take on an added significance. Everyone enjoys the magic, of course. But we need it.

The audience wasn’t made up entirely of children and their ‘carers’, though. There were adults, too, for whom the ‘relaxed’ performance was more comfortable. Among these adults were some very elderly people. I saw a group of them later, being assisted into a minibus outside the theatre. It struck me that perhaps they were residents of a facility caring for those affected by dementia. This called to mind a talk I attended recently as part of the LiveAge festival, on literature and ageing, and how traditional, well-known poetry and song, the rhymes and tales of childhood learned by heart, can be therapeutic for elders whose memories of long-ago are sharper than their grasp on present-day reality. Panto falls well within this catergory – although they are reworked and updated to include topical matters, the basic details , the tropes and traditions, remain, and may recall those memories carried in the heart, long after the mind has unravelled.

There may well be sound economic reasons why not every performance can be conducted in this way, but I do hope that it will become standard practice to conduct some performances from each run in this way. 

Panto is a form that both reaches back into the past and forward to the future. And is perhaps the great theatrical leveller – it has something for everyone, and therefore, should be accessible to all. So I’d like to say a very big ‘Thank you’ to the Regent Theatre, and to the cast of Cinderella, for making the magic of pantomime accessible to more families this Christmas.

Freddie was as good as gold throughout; what’s more, it held his attention – no mean feat in itself. We both enjoyed the Panto immensely , and I particularly enjoyed the feeling that our outing was ultimately a success – Freddie had tried something new and loved it, and I had been able to relax with no fear of being judged by others, and if I’m relaxed, Freddie is more likely to be relaxed and reasonably well behaved. 

I think the fact that I didn’t witness any disruptive behaviour is significant – the whole atmosphere was designed toto minimize the causes of such behaviour. And that makes a neat point about how society itself is equally as disabling as any ‘condition’ or ‘disability’.