Inclusion - Part 3 - A tale of two schools
I sat in Reception thumbing through the prospectus hoping to find, amongst the student profiles, a student with SEND. Of course not. The insert showcased the exam results. Next, I whizzed through the mini Ofsted report. No mention of SEND either. Alarm bells ringing. But, I remembered, I had visited before and the SENDCo had seemed fine. It was a good school, perhaps this was just another misunderstanding.
‘Hello Mrs Smith, come through’, the Head Teacher shook my hand and led me into an empty office with an unsmiling SENDCo. Both had a copy of my son’s EHCP but had not thought to print one out for me. They had, just as I had suspected, attacked it with a highlighter and went full throttle into their objections. No smiles, no apologies, straight for the jugular.
After several minutes of interrogation, I suggested they might like to print me a copy so I could respond more effectively. I told them that I had been unable to prepare, as no one had given me a list of concerns in advance, but that I would be happy to answer their questions. Silence. The unsmiling SENDCo begrudgingly stood up and went to the office to print off a copy while the Head Teacher leaned back far in his chair and resumed the interview, asking deeply personal and irrelevant questions about the make-up of my family. I was being grilled.
There were giant highlighted sections on every page of the EHCP. I responded positively to every point but there were still no smiles and not flicker of enthusiasm. ‘We don’t offer that’, ‘we can’t do that’, ‘I cannot emphasise enough that we are not experts in this area’, ‘you have to understand that we would have to do everything in this plan and so I need to be absolutely clear that we don’t do….’ etc. ‘We wouldn’t want it not to work out here…’ Wow. They had actually managed to weaponise his EHCP. I had to understand and accept that some things were not going to be accommodated. Or else. Double wow.
I tried to lift the mood and told them a couple of funny stories, genius ways his previous schools and I had worked together to overcome challenges. I soon realised I was the only one smiling; it was like being the only drunk at a party. I looked directly at the SENDCo who put her head on one side, forced a smile onto her face and tried to look as though she was interested. ‘Oh’, she said, feigning empathy. It looked like it hurt her.
‘We think the school will be too big for him’. ‘It’ll be fine. It’s got 300 fewer pupils than the upper school he’d be going to in a year’s time where we currently live’. I asked how many children with autism attended their school. ‘Not many, as the Special Schools around here are so good’. ‘How odd’, I smiled, ‘considering Autism is so common I am absolutely staggered that any school in this day and age can claim to have very few autistic children as students. How has that happened?’. Silence. Head Teacher, ‘Have you considered a Special School place?’. I tried to remain polite. ‘No, as he doesn’t need one. All his needs have been and will continue to be met in mainstream education. Unless, of course, a school is unwilling’. They suggested another school. I looked again at the SENDCo. ‘My son would not qualify for a place in a Special School. He has thrived in mainstream education for the last 9 years.’ Dead silence. ‘Have you considered H******* School? They have an ASD unit there’. I lost my patience. ‘Goodness, it is almost as if you can’t hear me! IF HE NEEDED A PLACE IN A SPECIAL SCHOOL I WOULD HAVE DONE EVERYTHING IN MY POWER TO SECURE HIM ONE. HE DOES NOT NEED ONE.
How many children with EHCPs do you have in your school?’. ‘21’. ’21! In a school of nearly 1400 pupils?!’. ‘Yes, because the Special Schools around here are so good’. I stared at her. ‘So you are not an inclusive school then?’ The Head Teacher sat up in his chair. ‘We have some visually impaired students and one student with Down Syndrome. We are an inclusive school’.
I let that one hang in the air as I could not think of a thing to say other than telling him that he was a lying bastard and if he genuinely thought that those figures represented inclusion he was also, clearly, in need of serious medical intervention himself.
‘My daughter has a school visit booked for 4th July. I would be grateful if my son could come in on that day and meet his new form teacher.
‘That won’t be possible. It is a short day and we finish at 2.30’.
‘We’d only need an hour or so’.
‘We don’t know which teacher he will have yet’.
‘What about the TAs?’
‘We haven’t assigned them yet’.
‘The Head of Year then? Can he visit the classroom?’
‘We don’t offer that’.
‘I have answered every one of your objections and yet you still seem nervous about accommodating my son. I cannot understand why. He is absolutely flying at school at the moment and his needs are being managed well by his teachers who are extremely fond of him. You may say that you lack expertise but expertise can be gained by anyone who wants it’.
‘We are nervous about accommodating your son’.
‘Perhaps you would like to speak to some of his teachers – they will be able to reassure you’. The SENDCo shot me a look. ‘I have spoken to the SENDCo at his school, she is my contact’.
‘That’s great. However, his form teacher, his Head of Year and the Deputy Head Teacher are all more than happy to speak to you’.
She glared. ‘The SENDCo is my contact’. Triple wow.
‘I cannot send my son to a school that does not want him’. Absolute silence.
It was time to finish the meeting. The SENDCo stood up, shuffled her papers and failed to say goodbye. I marched out to reception while the Head tried to make small talk about the topography of the region. YOU CAN FUCK RIGHT OFF.
Out to the car park to wait for my sister. I was shaking with rage and trying desperately not to cry. What the hell was I going to tell my boy, my gorgeous boy who was waiting at home to hear about his new school.
‘How did it go?’ I told her. ‘How dare they. HOW DARE THEY! Over my dead body will he go to that school’.
I love my sister.
We raced back to her house. I had to find another school. But how? The alternative local school was linked to that one. I phoned my SENDCo to tell her that her instincts were right about this morning’s school and that I had got it badly wrong. I phoned the alternative school and left a message for their SENDCo, trying to keep an open mind and asking if he could call me back and try to find someone to show me around the school in the afternoon. A long shot, I know. He didn’t call back. Next I phoned the Head Teacher of my daughter’s new school and asked for any leads. I asked her about H*******. She said it was a good school, up and coming, with good teachers and a very diverse student population. They did have an ASD provision on site and the kids assigned to it spent most of the day in the mainstream classrooms. 15 minutes’ drive. I phoned them. Within 10 minutes a Head of Year phoned me back and said he would be happy to meet with my sister and I at 1.30pm and send us on a tour with two students. I apologised for the short notice. ‘I really thought I’d found a terrific school. I thought they were inclusive. I have just had the worst, most hostile grilling of my life and I absolutely cannot send my son there’. ‘Isn’t that always the way’, he said. I thanked him over-enthusiastically. Luckily, I am used to making a dick of myself.
At 1.30pm, with the remains of a chicken tikka sandwich stuck between my teeth, we screeched into the car park. Captain Fabulous was waiting for us in front of the school. Yes, you read that correctly. He was WAITING FOR US IN FRONT OF THE SCHOOL. I shook his hand and thanked him yet again, aware that I was beginning to appear infirm. The two students were 13, a year older than my son. Both smartly dressed, one with a considerable amount of accidental glue on his blazer. I liked them both immediately. We toured the school. We discussed the following: bullying, inclusion, autism, human rights, diversity, good subjects, what they REALLY thought of their school (they love love love it), whether the dance classes are embarrassing, whether the toilets stink, where you can eat your lunch, what they hated before they came and love now, what the teachers are like and why they both had respect badges. Several teachers came out of their classes to greet us. By the time we reached the speedy end of the tour we were euphoric, we could both see my son there.
A quick thanks to Captain Fabulous who produced his card and said he was delighted my son would be coming in September, they certainly had space for him. Yes of course he could come and visit – ‘Do contact me if you need any further assistance’.
My sister shepherded me towards the car before I lost control of myself.
It took me 3 hours to drive home. My boy, lying in bed in the agony of a 5 day ear infection, raised his head.
‘Did you see my school Mummy? What is it like?’
‘Yes I did love, and it is absolutely fabulous’.
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 children with additional needs to thrive in education.