I have been tweeting pretty much non-stop since first posting a blog on Tuesday on my views on inclusion. Of all the feedback and comments the ones from parents are currently ruminating somewhere inside me. One parent, Guy Eames (@semaeyug), rightly commented, “Don’t mean to be rude. Most of your followers are teachers. Parents views, as we have found, are largely ignored.”
Since then I have been thinking about how much I actually appreciate the parental viewpoint. I attach a lot of importance to the views, feelings and experiences of parents. This does not mean that we always agree or that our meetings, chats and discussions are one giant hugathon, because they’re not. There is, however, mutual respect and equal importance attached to our views.
I have had the merest and briefest of brushes with this as a parent. A combination of factors mean that any children of my wife and I have a greater chance of being born with spina bifida. This was an ever-present thought throughout my wife’s second pregnancy (a deep-vein thrombosis in her first uncovered the issue). As it turned out my daughter wasn’t born with spina bifida but was born with another congenital condition and diagnosed early on in life after some unnerving tests involving EEGs, stroboscopes and ultrasounds. When the consultant informed us what was wrong with our daughter he was unable to finish the sentence before I rudely and nervously dived in with “Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?” The very next day at school I cornered the specialist teacher for visual impairment. She patiently and repeatedly explained to me, although I still don’t fully understand this, that to be blind in one eye means that you do not have a visual impairment. Mere and brief.
The most important part of my job is when I meet parents who are looking at a secondary school for their child. They are usually vulnerable and struggling with the almost impenetrable system of statutory assessment and statementing (EHCPing?). I only do individual tours. Groups are impersonal and don’t give parents the space they need to talk about their child and, quite often, the struggle they’ve been through. I always ask parents if they’ve visited a special school before and, unsurprisingly, most haven’t. I also make clear to parents that I am not a salesman. My role is to show them the school from top to bottom to give them the best chance of making an informed decision. They are there to see if their child and my school fit.
Tours give great insight into what parents are looking for in a school for their child. When I worked in a school with children with the full range of special needs parents were sometimes shocked at the severity of some of the needs. There was a chance that we may witness a child having an epileptic seizure or exhibiting some very challenging behaviour, for example. During one tour the air ambulance arrived on the school field for a boy with a heart condition. Parents of children with moderate learning difficulties would sometimes comment that their child couldn’t possibly have a peer group or be academically challenged in such a school. Others were reassured at the level of expertise in the multi-disciplinary aspects of our work such as speech therapy and occupational therapy or our ability to care for children with significant health problems.
In my current school feedback is remarkable in its consistency. Students are described as confident and articulate (no accident that they form part of our school vision); engagement is always noticed as is the behaviour of our students. Typically parents will say “You’re just like a normal school.” Parents are always keen to avoid offence but it is the best way they can usually articulate what they see. It helps to explain differences in the proportions of students attending special schools in different parts of the country. Nationally 60% of students with statements or EHCPs attend mainstream schools, but in the county in which I work it is only 40%. The fact that this county has 23 state special schools, with seven special schools for students with moderate learning difficulties, is partly responsible. They present parents with an option that appears to be a close approximation to a mainstream school but has all the advantages of small class sizes, staff expertise across the school, a peer group, subject specialist teaching and a vocational curriculum with time spent in workplaces and FE colleges and independent travel training. We even have one MLD school where girls can stay past Year 6 but the boys have to leave. Girls only, MLD only provision is rare, but its presence creates its own demand.
Other LAs in which I have worked do not have exclusive provision for students with moderate difficulties. The special schools tend to be large,2-19 and cater for the full range of special needs. The distance between the choices that parents in those LAs are presented with feels much larger to them. This generally results in more inclusive mainstream schools as this can become the preferable choice if children are at the moderate end of the learning difficulties spectrum.
Parents also feature heavily in governance. We have a superb group of parent governors who are experienced, passionate and intelligent. They are also very challenging in exactly the right kind of way. When I took up the headship I was warned by the outgoing Headteacher about two of them – they weren’t governors then. They’d fought for their children’s entitlement from an early age and I guess this marked them out to him as potential troublemakers. They are some of the school’s strongest advocates now and I’m a fool if I don’t listen to them and learn from them.
Nancy Gedge (@nancygedge) blogs passionately about her experiences as a parent – Who’s Afraid of the Special School? (http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/01/02/whos-afraid-of-the-special-school/) – as has @bjpren on more than one occasion (https://bjpren.wordpress.com/).
Parents are entrusting their children, often with complex conditions, to us and need to be reassured that we can take care of them, teach them well and give them all that they are entitled to. My experience began and ended with a conversation with a doctor. For most of our parents that was just the beginning. Ignore them at your peril.