One of our biggest concerns at the moment is B starting school. I remember feeling anxious about his brother starting school a couple of years ago, and asking questions like ‘Will he like his teacher?’, ‘How will he cope with long days?’ and ‘Will he make friends?’. I remember my wife’s sadness at losing her little baby and the fear of missing him. I suppose all of those same thoughts and feelings are there this time, but are overshadowed by much greater and more pressing concerns related to his autism. As a result of these concerns, we requested that a proposed meeting with the school be brought forward and we went in this week.
Ahead of the meeting we made a list of questions, which we printed out and passed to everyone there. They were as follows:
- Will there be a transfer of all the information from SEYS, nursery etc to school? How and when will this happen?
- What sort of programme of transition can be put in place and who will be involved in this?
- What sort of settling in sessions can be accommodated and what sort of support will be available for these? Who is going to support him?
- What will happen with B’s IEP?
- What is the proposed support for B while the statement is under consideration and ‘going through’?
- What is the extent of the TA/Teacher’s ASD training?
- What is the role of Autism Outreach in school?
- How do school see him settling in?
- What sort of liaison between his class teacher, SENCO and parents can be accommodated and how often can this take place?
- How will B’s toileting needs be met?
- What Supervision at lunchtime/breaktime will be necessary or available?
- What help with dressing/undressing/shoes etc will be available?
- What is the process for creating a Care Plan for, amongst other things, his Epi Pen?
- What, as parents, can we do to support the school in their provision for B?
Present at the meeting, apart from B’s mom and I, were the Headteacher, class teacher, SENCO, Autism Outreach, Specialist Early Year’s Service and Parent Partnership. That makes eight in total.
Before going in and in the run up to the meeting we were both quite anxious. In our jobs we attend meetings all the time, often with parents and often involving needs that children have. Being on the other side of the table is a very different experience though. Apart from anything else, discussing our son’s needs is still a difficult and emotional experience for us. I knew my wife would have to work hard to keep it together. And being in a room full of ‘experts’ is really intimidating. We’re not experts on anything, not even parenting (having an autistic child ‘unlearns’ you of what you know about being a parent). We weren’t really sure what to expect of the meeting but we did know the questions we wanted answers to. Parent Partnership, ahead of the meeting, had said they would be there to ‘ask the awkward questions’, which sort of suggests that there might be some areas of difficulty. Up until now the school have been very supportive and accomodating so this put things in a different light.
Writing and printing the questions was a good move, as it effectively meant that the agenda and the course of the meeting was set and dictated by us. This felt quite empowering and, I think, helped us seem informed, organised and very much involved with our child’s education. It gave me the confidence to make the right points, ask the right questions and reach the right conclusions (I’m usually very quiet!). Not that it wasn’t a little intimidating- an awkward moment of silence started the meeting, as each person sat there wondering who would talk first. As it was really our meeting, we produced the list and off we went.
I would say that overall it was a successful meeting but not without some points of contention. I’m not going to address each point because that would be boring, but in many cases the school were able to answer our questions and explain how particular needs and issues could be addressed. Special mention should be made of the role of Autism Outreach. They have arranged all sorts of training for staff and are very much involved in the transition from nursery to Reception. They are also undertaking visits to B in nursery and at home. They are making a photo book and social stories to help his understanding. They have visited school already to ‘audit’ the classroom and will carry out further visits. This, we feel, is fantastic support. It feels good having them on side. Already I can see how valuable this service is and expect they will be very important in all our lives in the future.
A whole host of visits and meetings has been planned. Induction days, visits to nursery by school, visits to school by nursery, care plan meetings, follow up meetings. You have to smile at the trouble caused by one child! When I think of the hours already spent by these organisations on supporting B, it’s amazing. We’ve provided school with plenty of information about B and obviously they have spent time discussing him with each other. And the child isn’t even on roll yet!
But the meeting was not completely to our satisfaction. Parent Partnership’s offer to ‘fight our corner’ was very necessary when it came to the issue of B’s timetable for starting school. The school’s stance was that B should start school on a part time basis. They suggested a staggered start in the first instance, and a build up to full time. They felt that going straight in would be too much and the Head feared we would be ‘setting him up to fail’ if he did five full days from the off. School have never actually met B, so everything they know is based on information we have provided them with. Their picture of him and his needs has been painted by us, so I suppose we are responsible for how they feel. I myself have said many times that I fear he won’t last a week without the right support. This last bit is crucial to what I feel is at the heart of the matter.
Our stance was that we did not want B to start part time. We’ve talked a little about it but for a number of reasons do not consider it to be the best option for him. There is also a practical consideration in that we both have full time jobs and would be unable to get the leave required to support this. Mostly though, the reason it is not the right solution is that B needs consistency in his life. Too much change is unsettling and, let’s face it, starting school is unsettling enough. If he starts part time and gets used to that, he will be unsettled again when his hours change. There is also the issue of inclusion. B might have some difficulties that make him different from his peers but as far as possible I want him to lead a normal life. I want him to go to school, as normal, and be with other children, as normal. Thankfully we were supported in this by strong support from Parent Partnership and Autism Outreach. The latter, in particular, felt that part time was not the best option for my son.
The school’s concerns are understandable enough. Based on what they’ve read, you would have to question whether he is equipped to cope. I explained that a lot of what we’ve described are worst case scenarios. As the parent I feel it is my responsibility to make the school fully aware of the potential difficulties, but they are just that- potential. In everything we have ever been asked to write about B, we have had to focus on his difficulties. As such, we are experts in painting a bleak picture of him. I do it here on the blog too, forgetting all the wonderful things about him. It is very easy to forget and overlook all the things he is good at and, most significantly, all the progress he has made. So I found myself back tracking slightly on what I’d said!
I believe there is an underlying reason why the school wants him to start part time- the availability of support. The process of statementing is under way but, if it goes through, will not be finalised until November. The school will then need to recruit based on the hours of support granted (if any). That takes us well into the second half term before the right sort of support for B can be properly funded. In the meantime, the school will have to rely on any general support it already has in place. At present that amounts to an extra TA in the classroom (as general support) on two full days and three half days. In other words, the school is unable to provide B with any one to one support or specific, directed support from a person employed specifically in that role. Clearly they are worried that they cannot meet his needs at present. I don’t blame them for feeling like this and obviously they are not going to gamble on support being granted by a statement.
Along with our two new best friends (Parent Partnership and Autism Outreach) we tried to reassure school that he could well surprise us all and, in fact, he might settle and cope very well. It was agreed to see how his induction days go and make a decision on the matter in a following meeting.
It’s a tense time.