Saturday, 23 May 2015

That elephant in the room? It has a right to be here too.

It's Saturday morning.

Upstairs the teenagers are still in bed. Downstairs, my youngest child - tangle-haired and barefoot - draws at the kitchen table. Outside, the birds are singing and bouncing on the blossom-fat branches of the apple tree. Inside, the rolling burble of the boiling kettle rises.

I spoon coffee from a jar, and close my eyes and breathe. And smile.

The half-term holiday is here. Thank God. 

Grace has got through another term. Last week we went to parents' evening. Teacher after teacher smiled to see my beautiful girl - who has grown now to stand shoulder to shoulder with me - and teacher after teacher shook my hand enthusiastically. We went home beaming. Grace's report card had 'excellent' on every line.

She is exhausted. Pale with the strain. She will no doubt sleep until lunchtime if I let her. But she has done it. She has overcome real hurdles. There has been hurt and difficulty, again. Young people are often not kind. Adolescence is not kind. A learning environment tailored to other people's strengths is not kind.

But she has done it.

I make breakfast and chat with Betty. When she has finished, and slipped off her chair to go and potter upstairs, I pick up my phone and start to flip through the newspapers.

One of the first articles I read begins: "Keeping children with special educational needs in mainstream schooling can deprive them of expert care - and their classmates of a decent education."

Don't read it, I think. Don't read it. You don't need to read it.

I read it.

The article is written anonymously. (Of course it is. These are the rules of social media now. Be daring, be divergent, but above all be undetectable. God forbid you should take responsibility for your own shitstorm.)

The unnamed author is a teacher. The teacher writes that our country's insistence on 'inclusion' in schools means that we are turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room, which is (I am summarising) that we're not actually including children with special educational needs because their needs mean that they are not undergoing the same experience as everyone else on the premises.

Furthermore, the 'normal' children on the premises are at best disadvantaged and at worst scarred by having to share their education thus.

I feel like I've been punched in the stomach. But then I get to the comments at the end of the article.

There is a lot of praise for it.

"How many parents of SEN children are actually deluded or just plain ignorant of the pros and cons of 'inclusion' and insist on a right which may suit their own prejudices rather than the wellbeing of their child?" is one comment.

Another asks: "Why are we investing in a full time staff member to control the behaviour of a child who is basically uneducatable?"

That prompts helpful advice from another quarter: "Being able to remove the troublemakers and have them educated in specialist units better suited to them would make a vast difference."

I can't bear it, and I write an online contribution saying how sad I am to see parents and teachers at loggerheads again instead of supporting each other in a system that puts both sides under intolerable strain.

I get an answer back explaining the teachers are fine, it's the parents that are "ignorant, self-entitled and pushy." 

I sit back in my chair and exhale, a bit shakily. I wonder what to do. I should walk away. Put down my phone and go and shower and move the day along from this. But walking away isn't an option for Grace. She will attract this crap her whole life. So I can't walk away either.

The problem is that inclusivity requires three things: money, training and tolerance.

Right now the education system is thin on all of those.

I sympathise with teachers who are struggling to teach classes of 30 children or more with limited resources and little appreciation. I sympathise with parents whose children feel uncomfortable around or frustrated by the child in their class who is not like the rest of them.

But what, exactly, is it that Grace and I are supposed to do?

Are we supposed to just shuffle off?

Do any of these people think we enjoy feeling forced upon the system?

Do they think we're just brazening it out for the hell of it? That I greet Grace at the door every night with a high-five and a "you go girl, how many people did you piss off today?"

I'm not ignorant, or self-entitled. (I'll admit to pushy, but needs must.) I had to learn a lot about autism, fast, when Grace was diagnosed. I had to give up all expectations of the life to which I had thought myself entitled, and learn instead to go what I'd been given.

I work hard with my daughter to teach her to cope in a world that frequently overwhelms her. I work hard to help her to control her anxiety, try to make eye contact, think of appropriate conversational responses. I have taught her about considering other people's feelings. She works harder than I do. She tries and tries and tries. The onus seems permanently to be on her to fit in with the rest of the world, while the cruelty and impatience of the other children (and some of the teachers) is accepted as just the way things are.

Talk to most parents of a child with SEN struggling in a mainstream school and they will tell you that too often the teachers are at best overworked and at worst untrained yet convinced they know better, while the parents are not listened to and their child blamed for class distractions and turned upon by their peers. 

Thousands of parents choose to home school rather than go through all that. Others manage to get their child into a specialist unit. But most of us struggle on, because we have to pay the mortgage, so opting out of the world of work is not an option any more than finding a different school when getting a statement of educational needs is like panning for gold and the specialist units are few and full anyway.

People may write that mainstream education is not the best option for my daughter. 

But what if it's the only option there is?

If mainstream education, as messy and difficult as it is, really is the only option for most of us, then perhaps we need to consider it differently, while we campaign for more money and more training? (We shouldn't need to campaign for tolerance. But many of us do.) 

Inclusivity isn't easy. We all talk about it as though it is, but sometimes it really isn't. It can be hard to welcome all, and embrace difference. That's ok. We just have to keep doing it until it doesn't feel uncomfortable. 

Because teaching children to pass exams is not the only reason for them to go to school.

Children also go to school to learn about the world.

And the world is diverse.

Society flourishes when it embraces the diverse. Society is fairer when it listens to the people within it who think differently.

So let's think differently, and flourish. 


My book Grace Under Pressure: Going the Distance as an Asperger's Mum, is published by Piatkus and available here.

In November I will be running the New York Marathon to raise funds for The National Autistic Society, which campaigns for better understanding and support for people with autism and their families.  These days there are lots of voices calling for charitable funding, and many people running, cycling and swimming to show their dedication to a cause. Grace and I would be most grateful if you would pick us out among that worthy crowd and show us your support here.