Dear Secret Teacher…

Does anyone else read Secret Teacher in The Guardian? I think as a parent it’s always interesting to read – to see inside the classroom if you like.

Yesterday’s had this somewhat emotive headline:

“Either he goes, or I’m taking my daughter out of the school.”

The secret teacher on why they think mainstream inclusion for children with special educational needs is not always best for the child or their classmates.

And my heart did that sinking thing.

Reading it, it’s a broadly balanced piece. It talks about the issues faced when SEN children possibly shouldn’t be in mainstream school, that if they have extreme behaviour then this can be detrimental to everyone’s learning process and if they are simply being ‘managed’ then how is that ‘inclusive’? And I would agree that, given that set of circumstances, no-one is gaining anything from the experience.

I take issue however because no solutions are offered and the gateway is opened for people to tell us – us, the parents of children with SEN – that our children have no place in mainstream, that they should reside wholly in SEN schools, that their needs can be better met in these schools – thereby allowing the neuro-typical children to get on and, let’s face it, learn in peace. The underlying message there is this: we don’t want them here, they’re hard work, they detract from everyone else’s school experience and really, what are they adding? Let’s pack them off to different schools where we don’t have to see them or worry about them again.

And right here is a mixed message to the next generation: we talk about tolerance, we talk about inclusivity – but those children don’t count?

So I commented on the article on Facebook. I don’t usually. But I just said here was how inclusion worked for Alex: that he accessed specific lessons at his mainstream school from his SEN school and this seemed to work well both for him and the pupils in his mainstream classroom. And people engaged with my post. Many many stories of other schools where inclusion had worked, had been approached differently both now and in the past and the lasting memories this had created for both them and the mainstream children they had been alongside. I felt heartened.

Perhaps this school – every school – should take a look at the bigger picture, take a more holistic approach… do some thinking. I can’t be the only parent that, when sat in parents evening, I don’t only want to hear about my typically developing daughter’s academic achievements, I want to hear: is she making friends, is she learning empathy, to listen to the views of others – is she growing as a person? Helping all our children to grow up together would surely help to achieve this.

As a society we’ve – thank God – decided that children with disabilities, additional needs, special needs – call it what you will – are worth saving. They are no longer fed to the wolves, left outside doors, given away to institutions never to be thought of again. We keep them in our families, these beautiful children of ours, and we bring them up the best we can.

What I’ve learnt through Alex is that our family is no longer an island. We need a broad base of support and goodwill to keep us going. We need people to connect us to the world. Not to ignore us. And these children of ours will be dependent on society for the rest of their lives. They are the ‘vulnerable’ people we so often see spoken of in the news [accompanied by that head just cocked to the right to show sympathy].

They will always need help, compassion, support. They will require empathy on a grand scale as they often cannot speak up for themselves. And this has to start from the ground up. With children. Through schools. They don’t have to always sit at desks together, but that’s not all school life is. They can take art lessons together, play instruments together. Eat in the same lunch hall. Play in the same playground. Learn from each other. SEN children have much to share and teach to anyone who engages with them. Just like all children.

My son attends an SEN school, but he has inclusion for an hour most days at the mainstream school nearby. I’m so glad because the schools have found a way to include him which makes it work for all the children. We wanted to do this – for as long as it’s feasible – not to benefit him academically, but for socialisation. To keep him involved in the world. A world which is mainstream after all.

His SEN school is brilliant, I love it. They have hydrotherapy and sensory rooms and take them horse-riding… it is nurturing. The staff are so reassuringly dedicated. It has done wonders for his development.

I love his mainstream class because it is full of boisterous children. Children who say ‘Hello Alex!’ as we walk home. Children whose parents smile at him. Recognise us in the street. Make us feel part of the town. Having a child who is ‘different’ can be isolating for the whole family. Inclusion… well, it stops that from happening.

Alex loves being around other people. He finds them fascinating, and he finds them funny. Once children have got over the fact that he is different to them – that he doesn’t walk, but is in a wheelchair, that he doesn’t talk, but can communicate his needs in other very effective ways – they accept him and either play alongside him, ignore him totally or try to engage him on some level. Crucially they accept him.

The more this happens, the more – when these children are grown, and making government policy – they will remember the humanity of these children; of my child. And they will include them and they will support them. Because there isn’t – as one woman commented on the Facebook thread that followed the article – an SEN adulthood; at that point everyone comes together into the community. So those formative years – showing that these children aren’t ‘other’, aren’t ‘scary’, they’re just a little different and, if you’d just give them a chance, have a tremendous amount to offer in terms of love and sheer enjoyment of life – are critical.

When I’m no longer around to advocate for Alex I’d like to think that society – not just his sister – will have his back. A creative, sensible approach to this at school has to be where it starts.

You can see the article here:

I can’t share a link to the Facebook page. Which is annoying. Or I’m just not technical enough…

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4 Responses to Dear Secret Teacher…

  1. Jennifer Denholm says:

    I went to a primary school that in my last year or 2 turned one of the wings into a special needs school. There was classes for different things like music, art and a sensory room. The children would join us during assembly and the more able ones would, like your son, spend some time in their age appropriate classes. As a school we got to learn about what their special needs were, how it affected them, and how to include them. We also got to learn that there was nothing to be scared of (I’m 33 and had heard all sort of horrible comments and names about disabled people) I went on to become a support worker with people with learning disabilities and mental health issues, because of what my school had shown me. As a mother of 3, my youngest who’s 3 has just been diagnosed with autism, I’ve seen it from both sides. My older 2 have been in classrooms with kids with behavioural problems, and I’ve saw the teachers struggle to find a happy balance. It’s a shame. I don’t think main stream is working, not as a majority, and it’s having a detrimental effect on how people are viewing special needs children. And special needs children are being made to feel bad for things out of their control. There needs to be a happy medium. Teachers didn’t train to handle the issues that some children have, I’ve heard of one teacher doing a 2 day course and then having 3 kids with adhd. I have a couple of years yet, but it’s been an issue that has had me worried for the last year. Get the school years right and it can set our children up for adulthood, mess it up and who knows how it will effect them.

    • Absolutely. And there has to be a balance for everyone as otherwise untold harm can be done to everyone’s perceptions of both other children and themselves. And training has to be part of that otherwise there’s just lip service paid to inclusion. I love that your school experience influenced your career choice. Thank you for sharing x

  2. I’m glad you responded to the article you read. I’m a teacher and It’s helpful reading about responses to education issues from different angles. I think it’s important to get the balance right for everyone and it seems your son’s school have achieved that. I’m definitely for the mixture of experiences; where SEN students get the specialised care they need whilst learning within ‘mainstream’ in the areas that works for them. Otherwise, some students on ‘both’ sides don’t make the progress they can.

    I think we need to remember in society, that anyone can be SEN and to reflect on how we’d like to be treated if we were. So lovely that your Alex has you to advocate for him; and let’s hope that society rises to the challenge too. #PoCoLo

    • This is such a lovely reply – thank you! And I think what you say is correct – anyone can be SEN and we should think how we’d like to be treated. Thank you again x

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