All children can achieve!
Almost one year ago today, I sat in a committee room at Holyrood and cried as I listened to Lucy McKee, Jan Savage and Theresa Shearer talk about hundreds of children all over Scotland who were missing out on so much of life at school.
That was the day we launched the #IncludED in the Main?! campaign at Parliament, and I was encouraged by the support we saw in the room from key politicians like the Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP and Jackie Baillie MSP. It felt like a turning point. Finally people were starting to listen.
As a mum whose child has complex needs, I’m no stranger to the idea of fighting to be heard. My son Calum started his educational journey in mainstream school with support in a learning support base. Until P5, he was doing great. Then he developed epilepsy and things changed. Every time we spoke to a doctor or teacher from that point on, conversations relating to Calum’s education focused on the management of risk. As we started the transition to high school, our local authority had no school with the necessary resources or expertise to support him.
Feeling under pressure to consider Calum’s medical needs, we moved our son to an Additional Support for Learning (ASL) School in a neighbouring local authority at the end of P6, and he spent the next three years there. This is my biggest regret. I allowed myself to be convinced that having a fully staffed medical unit on campus was more important than anything else. For a brief period it had felt reassuring, but just six weeks into his first term, I realised we had made a mistake.
After a serious incident involving the use of restraint for “behaviour”, Calum, who previously had the reading ability of a 14-year-old, and was a loving and sociable, became withdrawn and clingy. He lost his love for reading and writing. He was desperately unhappy. The school had seemed amazing, as it had en-suite classrooms, soft play, sensory rooms, a swimming pool and a therapy pool, but the focus was on life skills and bus trips out. There was nothing at all in the way of an education.
I felt that there was no expectation of academic achievement and that worried me a great deal. In S1 Calum’s timetable included just 20 minutes of language work each week, and 20 minutes of number work. I knew he was capable of a lot more and I told the school so, but we were told he had to work at the same level as his classmates, and most of them couldn’t read or write. I was also extremely concerned about my son’s wellbeing and mental health at the school. Calum’s epilepsy was also becoming much worse than it had been, but we knew it was exacerbated by stress.
Making the move
After a lot of talking as a family, we decided to move Calum back into our own local authority to a mainstream high school with a new learning support base. Our local authority was excellent and they assured us they could now support Calum. By then, we felt nothing could be worse than where we were. It was scary. I was worried sick to begin with. I didn’t know how he would fit into a mainstream classroom, if he would make friends and be accepted, or if the teachers could support him properly. Thankfully, it turned out to be the best decision we’ve ever made.
It took a few months of patience and nurturing to develop relationships, but Calum went on to gain SVQ National Certificates in Communication and Personal Development. He would never have had the chance to gain these SVQ Awards if he had stayed at the ASL school. He also made friends, real friends, not just people he was paired with because they had a similar ability level. He was happy, settled and he was achieving.
Despite having far fewer physical resources than Calum’s previous ASL school, things worked out better for him at his new mainstream high school because the teaching staff got it right in terms of attitude and culture. The staff were passionate about making sure all of the children had the same opportunities and were encouraged to succeed. They also spent a lot of time listening to me and getting to know Calum. There is no substitute for that level of understanding when you’re supporting a child who has complex needs.
One size doesn’t fit all
What happened with Calum proves that it is possible to get it right for every child if teachers have the correct attitude, knowledge and tools to support every pupil properly.
Getting to know the child, and understanding why they are behaving in a particular way, is the only way forward. Teachers must be given the opportunity to access comprehensive training that will provide them with the skills required to communicate with every child, no matter their needs.
I’m delighted with the progress #IncludED in the Main?! has made, and I’m encouraged to see the Scottish Government taking action by opening a consultation on the Presumption to Mainstream guidelines, but from my own experiences, and those of others, there is no overnight solution. Future progress must be about achieving systemic change. Campaigns like #IncludED in the Main?! are important, because this is how we will see change start to take shape, and the tide is turning, but we still have a long way to go.
The Scottish Government has an opportunity now to change the way we approach educating children who have additional support needs. I believe most children can be educated in a mainstream setting, but we must get the culture right, and that will be led by educators.
Calum is 19 now and left school in the summer of 2017. He is a confident, intelligent young man with a bright future ahead of him, and when I think back to early years I ask myself ‘what could I have done differently?’ The answer is I would never have sent him to an ASL school. In Calum’s case, that experience slowed him down. I realise that won’t be the case for everyone, but a mainstream school was the right place for Calum to thrive and he is proof of what’s possible with the right approach.
The journey to inclusion continues, be part of it: