Inclusion - Part 2 - One down...
Updated: Apr 6, 2019
Yesterday I made the 200 mile round trip to visit two schools for my daughter – the same two schools that I had been told had ‘raised concerns about meeting need’. On the strength of the objections I had been asked whether I would like to try other schools.
I had asked the new Local Authority for a list of the objections in order that I could answer them/check their legality but they had refused to do so as they felt it would compromise the schools. Poor old schools, eh? Mentioning both the Code of Practice and the Children and Families Act 2014 in my subsequent email seemed to have a dramatic effect on the bowels of my contact in the SEND team who was either away from her desk or in the toilet every time I phoned. Any correspondence was, henceforth, vague, woolly emails. The one time I did catch her, at 9.01am, the conversation was defensive and unsatisfactory. I asked how she could expect to answer the objections having never met my children or spoken to their schools. I suggested it might be a good idea to discuss them with me.
The first school was the catchment area school that I had not applied to but to which the LA had felt the need to send over, without my permission, my daughter’s highly sensitive information. I learned that their response had been a flat no due to their own capacity issues. The school itself was tiny, the Head Teacher stressed and losing key staff due to budget cuts and we had a frank conversation. The majority of the conversation was about their inability to handle another child in that year group (they were already 3 over the maximum allowed) and all their financial and staffing difficulties. I interjected with information about my daughter, when possible, and in the end, we could both appreciate each other’s point of view. She had heard nothing from the Local Authority since sending back her response to their application. I left, certain that despite it being a lovely school, it was not the right setting for my daughter.
The school that I had previously thought I had secured, was next. This was the school I loved, whose SENDCo I felt I had connected with and whose rejection came as a tremendous blow. The LA had told me that I should communicate with them directly and take my daughter there first in order to secure a place. When I booked the appointment, the school said that they would not need to see her.
I was ready, massively wound up and dressed smartly with violently assertive lipstick. I was determined not to blow it. My sister was adamant, ‘You can do this. You know it’s the right place for her. You can make them see it’.
I was greeted in the office by the Deputy Head/SENDCo who was beaming. This was disarming. I beamed back. ‘Lovely to see you again. Please come through’. Into the Head’s office to shake hands with the other SENDCo (yes, you heard me, the OTHER SENDCo), also beaming. My violently assertive lipstick was beginning to stick my lips to my teeth. I sat down, notepad in hand. ‘I understand that you have some concerns about offering my daughter a place and I would really like to discuss them and work with you to overcome them. This school remains my first and only choice of placement and I sincerely hope that you can accommodate her’.
Three people simultaneously un-beamed. They had heard nothing from the local SEND team since sending in their concerns which were, in their view, absolutely no barrier to offering her a place. Catchment was irrelevant. They had made a provisional offer to a Teaching Assistant that they thought would be terrific and wanted to discuss her suitability with me so that we had first dibs. They were only sorry that they would only have my daughter for a short time before she would move on and up with her cohort. If I had the skill, and did not have a backside the size of a hot-air balloon, I might have done cart-wheels around the office.
They were astonished to learn that the LA had suggested I take my daughter in to the school in order to secure a place. They had never expected children to be checked out first and have never, ever, turned down a child with SEND. The school had been waiting to hear a response to their concerns in order to move forward and had heard nothing in the weeks that followed. All the stress, all the worry, the fear, the anger, everything had been caused by poor communication and a total lack of care by the people who were supposed to be helping secure an appropriate place for my child. Cheers for that.
The Head Teacher printed off the form that they had sent in and we discussed each point. They had already made plans. The OTHER SENDCo understood everything that I said and almost finished my sentences for me. All of them had been trained to handle my daughter’s specific issues and were completely un-phased. They recognised the importance of EVERY member of staff receiving the same training; lunch-time supervisors, playground staff, EVERYONE. This programme was already underway.
We discussed transition visits and they asked what I felt would be helpful. We finished the meeting. They apologised once more for the distress that had been caused and looked forward to our next visit. I moon-walked out through reception. Well, almost.
The relief, when I walked out of that school, was almost over-whelming. My little girl will be going to the right place after all.
I could so easily have buggered this up by doing what was suggested and looking for a different school. There was absolutely no need. Whilst this whole episode has caused me to doubt my own sanity, I have, at least, the proof of a few mis-guided and mis-informed emails to reassure me that the lunacy does not lie with me. So, thanks awfully to those responsible for the weeks of unbearable stress. For the feeling of injustice and impotence. For the nights spent researching the law and the panicked phone-calls to colleagues. For all those mornings with a 4am start and the extra pounds that I have stuffed onto myself as my usual coping strategy. I am absolutely LOVING the feeling of my biggest clothes restricting my breathing. What larks.
So, to those responsible – both the school and I followed the procedures that were in place and have, by sheer chance, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. May I suggest you crawl out of your mythical toilet, pick up the bloody telephone and actually SPEAK to families like mine who you are supposed to assist. What a ridiculous waste of time and energy. This is on you, folks. Do better.
I have still got to secure a school for my son. One down, one to go. On on…
Martha Smith Parent Advocate is a supportive blog focusing on the challenges and wins of parenting children with additional needs. Based in Hampshire Martha runs workshops for schools and other education providers in Surrey, London & Hampshire on how to encourage empathy between school staff and parents.