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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What I Love About SEN school.

I have noticed that there are some very negative perceptions about Special (SEN) School among some parents in the Down’s syndrome community. Inclusion in mainstream is held up as the gold standard; having your child end up in a SEN school is seen as Failure; I have seen parents become bitterly disillusioned when it becomes apparent that their childs needs can really only be met at a Special school, and this saddens me. Other parents can find themselves guilt-tripped out of even considering it by the feeling that they will be somehow selling their child short, or letting them down, if they choose Special school.

I’ve been doing the school run for fifteen years now, and in that time I’ve had two children in mainstream school and one in SEN school, and if there is one thing I have learnt it is that SEN 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. It 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 SEN are, in a sense, two different animals, and one is not less than the other.

I love that 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.

I love that all the staff in his school are specialists in SEN, and are aware that our children may need to be learn and be taught in different ways. I love that 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 when neccessary.

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Everything’s more fun with a friend – Freddie does some shared reading activities with another pupil in his class. Their complement each other in their abilities, and encourage one another.

I love that 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.

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

I love  that 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. Likewise,  I love that Freddie gets certificates for things like ‘giving his seat to a friend’ or ‘being helpful’, or ‘joining in’. I love that they gave him a  ‘Kindness Award’. I love that they acknowledge the children’s positive personal qualities. You might think that this is to be expected in a school where all the pupils have some degree of learning difficulty and are not expected to acheive academically, but wouldn’t this be a good thing in all schools?  You see, THIS is where I have deep misgivings about mainstream school, not just in regards to inclusion for disabled pupils, but in general.

My older children and their classmates were pressured relentlessly to acheive particular, very specific, results – latterly this pressure was to acheive A* at GCSE and A’ level. No other result was considered an acheivement worthy of note. My elder son was told by his Maths teacher that if he ‘only’ got an A he would be made to resit until he got an A* Maths was not, and never had been, his particular forte, and yet he was being expected to perform at the same level as pupils who’d been mathematical whizz-kids since the day they started school. Because, of course, all typically-developing children have been popped out of the same typical mould and are all exactly alike. Aren’t they?

Believe it or not, there are some young people in mainstream, some typically-developing young people, who do not pass any GCSEs. In a system that only recognises academic acheivement (and then only within a narrow definition) how can such young people have any idea of the personal qualities they possess that might carry them forward in life? In my day they would have at least got a reference from the Headteacher; a letter detailing the positive attributes they had that might make them a good employee. What do they get from the current system, apart from an abiding sense of having failed before they’ve even started?  I do think that school ethos is one area where SEN schools like the one Freddie attends are getting it right, and mainstream schools are often falling far short of the mark.

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Forget underpants – no pirate is complete without his treasure map (I may have given him a teeny bit of help with this).

There is one complaint I have about Freddie’s school though: while I love that they strive to make learning not just accessible, but also fun, by having ‘themed’ activities, I do wish they would teach their pupils, in advance of being allowed to go to school dressed up as a pirate, that pirates DID wear underclothes. I had the devil’s own job persuading Fredie that he had to put pants on before he could put his dressing-up clothes on. They nearly got a commando pirate!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cross Pirate (who lived in a bubble).

Today, Mummy is a cross pirate, and a sad pirate. Today, Mummy cannot figure out whether she is a homicidal pirate, a suicidal pirate, or is just really, really sick of all your shit. What the hell am I talking about? Well, it’s like this …

Freddie’s teacher has introduced a ‘Feelings Board’ to the classroom wall, to help the children learn about emotions. This term’s topic is ‘Pirates’, so everything has a pirate theme. The board has a number of pirate faces, each one with an expression corresponding to an emotion. The children can choose which one best fits how they are feeling that day/moment. But I doubt if the board offers anything that corresponds with the way I’m feeling today, because I’m struggling to put a name, or an expression to it myself.

Jean Paul Satre was right, you know: Hell really is other people. And the seventh, most torturous circle of hell is family. Except, of course, for my children, who are a little slice of heaven that I would never want to change or be without. But today, and on many other days, the rest of them can happily sod off to blaze (or Bentilee at the very least, that’ll learn ’em).

Yesterday, Daddy Bear teetered on the brink of a panic attack (yes, I really DO mean an actual, clinical panic attack) because someone had moved his porridge and he couldn’t find it and he was in a hurry because he was going to be lateandhecan’tgotoworkwithoutbreakfastandwherethehellisit. Mummy bear has simply taken it out of the microwave, and placed it on the worktop right next to the microwave, because it was done, and she needed to put something else in. An incident like that is bound to leave a mark even deeper than the bite marks on Mummy’s arm inflicted by Freddie because he sensed the suddenly and inexplicably fraught atmosphere and got into a bit of a flap himself. I won’t mention that he also headbutted me so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t hurt himself,because it was on my chest, and a lady doesn’t talk about that area (except when purchasing chicken from the butcher, when it is permissable to ask for ‘chicken bosom’ provided you don’t linger over the words).

He is also anxious (Daddy, that is), along with the rest of the family that I am planning to ‘waste my degree’. It has become quite a cause for concern, as I graduated way back in May, but I am not a millionaire yet, nor even installed behind a desk earning enough that my poor husband can retire.It is not envisaged that his retirement will involve him becoming a house husband – he will be doing a bit of consultancy work  and the like. When I mention childcare, the fact that it has to be paid for, and that in most childcare settings Freddie will require additonal one-to-one support, I get ‘that’s not my problem, that’s your department, you sort it out.’ Does stacking shelves in Lidl, largely just to pay the before/after school club fees, constitute a waste of a Creative Writing degree? Apparently not. Does working from home as a freelance writer , so that I don’t have to pay childcare fees? Very much so – because that’s not really work and you won’t earn enough (however, since I charge very reasonable rates for childcare, with free housework thrown in, anything I do earn can go straight into the family pot).

Of course, what is seen to be done is much more important than what is actually done. Why should I sit on my arse at home, having a whale of a time, while everybody else has to go out to work? I will admit that it has been both a pleasure and a priviledge to be able to spend so long at home with my children, bringing them up myself, helping them navigate the road to adulthood. I can see why they get pissed off about that, even a little jealous perhaps, because while they’ve been slaving away, I’ve been having a ball, didn’t even know I was born. It’s hilarious being the mum who’s shunned at the school gate because their kid is ‘weird (so you must be a very, very, bad parent). It’s a laugh a minute, going to pick your child up from school mid-morning, yet again, because the school can’t cope with his Autism, or the complaints from other parents that he frightens their little darlings with his oddness. I can’t tell you how many times I had tears rolling down my cheeks as I tried to calm him down and counsel him out of the terrible state that some other pupil had got him into, but who wasn’t in the leaast to blame because they were ‘normal’. The day when a group of parents planned to appraoch me, en masse, at the school gate, with the intention of ‘persuading’me to remove him from the school would have been an absolute hoot, if the headteacher hadn’t found out and put the kibosh on it. What? You didn’t know about that? No, you didn’t, because I dealt with it – no need for any of you to worry your pretty heads about it.

And when they’re not plagued with worry about all that, they’re fretting about how much time I waste writing a rubbish blog that nobody will want to read because there’s no struggle, no drama, everything is just too normal and ordinary. If my blog was a work of fiction I would agree – it needs far more conflict and struggle to make it a ripping yarn. But it isn’t fiction, it’s fact. And the fact is we haven’t faced many extra challenges because of Freddie’s Down’s syndrome. So far we have been fortunate to avoid the need for surgery, or the frequent bouts of ill health and hospital treatment that many others in our position face. I’m not going to invent hardships to make it more exciting. When Freddie was born, his diagnosis was enough excitement for me. What I wanted more than anything else was to cling to the comforting familiarity of the life I knew, which seemed in danger of disappearing over the horizon with it’s bum on fire. Luckily, for me it didn’t. And that’s the point. that’s why I write – not to prove what a fantastic mum I – believe me, I’ve been left under no illusion about what a shitty and use;ess mum and human being I am, but to reassure others. I write for the new parents sitting on a hospital bed, clutching their new baby, but looking forward with fear instead of hope. I write for the expectant mum sitting in a doctor’s office, hearing the message that her cherished foetus is defective, best doen away with now, so that she can try again, for a ‘proper’ baby, not the life-stealing monster the doctor thinks she is carrying. I write for all the parents to be who will join their number today, to let them know that, in all likelihood,  things will turn out much better than the physician’s doom-laden predictionswould have the world believe. I write to them know that you don’t have to be heroic, intrepid, or inspirational to give your child with Down’s Syndrome a good life; it’s perfectly possible to go on being an ordianry Joe and still do that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and knock a story into shape so that I can submit it to some journal that will give me a few quid for it. Or to enter it into a competition promising a decent cash prize. Then, if, when, it doesn’t win, I’ll just submit it to a journal that’ll giove me a few quid for it.

Or I might run away to sea, ntaking my three children with me, the only crew mates I want at the moment. We’ll procure ourselves a boat and set a course for the Seven Seas of Freedom from All Your Shit, where we can be happy pirates, ever after. The End.

 

 

School Report.

It’s that time of year again – school report time. With my older children, I always joked that I would go through the report with my red editing pen, pick out all the typos and grammatical errors, and send it back marked out of ten. I often had a sneaking suspicion that some of the teachers hadn’t the vaguest notion who my child was, so they just wrote something non-commital, and open to interpretation, in the hope that it would sound approximately realistic. 

I know most parents take school reports very seriously, and indeed they are meant to be a taken seriously, as an informed guide to your child’s progress, aptitudes, and ‘weaknesses’ that need addressing, but I always had a (possibly unhealthy) disrespect for teachers in my school days which does not seem to have abated in adulthood. But when it comes to Freddie’s school report, I can’t help chuckling at some of the comments, so much so that I’ve put the red pen away. 

He attends a SEND school: it’s small, barely a hundred pupils in total, with only nine in Freddie’s class (and three staff). The focus is very much on individual progress. Reports are personal – you can tell that the teacher really knows your child, and all their quirks and funniosities.

Here are my favourite remarks from this year’s report:

I can almost hear him squealing with delight at digging up and handling wriggly worms.

You are such a little grub, Freddie (I’d live to be a minibeast in the wall witnessing that).

That’s a very tactful way of putting it!


But my best favourite has got to be this one:


Once again his school have made a point of noticing positive personal qualities that have nothing to do with academic achievement , but are very important in everyday life. Often people have a very negative preconception of SEND schools, but I think mainstream schools could learn a lot from the ethos of schools like Merryfields. Not all pupils are academic, but all have positive qualities, skills and aptitudes if you take the time to notice: and we should.

I will be resharing an old post about why I chose SEND school:

And the Award for the Best Award goes to …

It’s always great when your child’s achievements are recognised and acknowledged by their school. I’m extra super pleased with the certificate that Freddie brought home today. I’m always saying to his big sister that many of her best qualities are ones which school does not assess or measure in any way. It seems Freddie’s school does celebrate and reward these qualities, though. Well done, Lovely Lad.