Our faith in B’s proposed school has taken a knock this week. With six school days left before the end of term, followed by the September start, this is a bad time to be asking ‘are we sending him to the right school?’ Previously, I have written about how supportive the school has been. Certainly, for a period they were making all the right noises. But as we get closer to B starting, I feel less sure about their ability to provide what my son needs.
A previous meeting with the school left a lot riding on his induction days, which have taken place over the last two weeks. Their position in the previous meeting was that a ‘phased’ start would be best (for whom?). Autism Outreach strongly opposed this, as did we. We reminded them that, despite the extensively documented notes on his problems and difficulties, he would most likely cope well. At this stage they had not met him.
Since then, his teacher-to-be has met him four times (once at his nursery placement, once when he paid a quick visit to her classroom, and twice for induction sessions). As parents, we had mixed feelings about these meetings. On the one hand, we desperately wanted him to get on well. On the other hand, we felt it important that school get a realistic experience of his needs. If he kicked off, then at least they could consider what had triggered it and how they might deal with it.
The first induction went really well. B had three adults either directly in support or observing him. That’s not including the class teacher and her support teacher. That has to be some sort of record, surely? I don’t think anyone realised exactly how many would turn up, and as a result my son had the company of Autism Outreach, SEYS and his nursery key worker. It’s good to know he’s supported! All in all he coped well, thanks in part to the work done in advance by Autism Outreach. He certainly enjoyed himself; getting him out of the place and home was about the only difficulty.
The second induction was where problems started to surface, though not in the way expected. This time, B’s support would be Autism Outreach only. This left a gap in the care provision he needed- who would change his nappy? Previously, his nursery visitor had this covered. It is not the job of Autism Outreach to change nappies. No care plan has been put in place for B at the school (despite endless cajoling, phone calls and reminders). The Headteacher, however, had a plan. Why not have my wife go in as additional support? Then, if he needed changing, she could do it. Faced with this, or no induction, my wife reluctantly agreed.
When Parent Partnership and Autism Outreach got wind of this, they were not happy. Quite apart from the fact that it is probably illegal to expect a parent to go into a school to wipe their child’s backside, it was sending a confusing message to our autistic son. We do not need him thinking his mum is a part of what school is all about. But the school simply didn’t have a back up plan. It was, they implied, that or nothing. In the end, a compromise was reached- my wife would not go in, but she would be contactable, at home, five minutes away.
As it happened, there was no need for my wife to go in. Still, the experience left a bad taste in the mouth. Why didn’t the school step up and deal with this? Why did they leave it until the last-minute to come up with a solution? How many more times must my wife swap her working days before her employer starts getting really annoyed?
The induction itself went reasonably well, but he did give them a little demonstration of his ‘difficulties’. This came in the form of a screaming fit when he couldn’t play on the part of the playground he wanted to. Autism Outreach calmed him to a certain extent but it was B’s older brother (aged six) who took matters into his own hands and won his brother over. What a superstar. Still, it’s not his job to sort his brother out and not what I want either of their experiences of school to be. The exact details of what happened are unclear, but B came home with a significant graze on his elbow that had gone unreported.
So school got to see B coping well and also struggling to cope. On balance, I think they got an accurate picture of how he could cope (with support). I was hoping they would see what a delightful little boy he is and have a better sense of what they were dealing with. Autism Outreach were pleased with the sessions. They felt their strategies had worked and had more of an idea about other strategies that could be used. I felt enough had been done to end this silly talk of a ‘phased’ start.
I was wrong. Today, I sat in a meeting faced with a primary school who, I believe, were not acting in the best interests of my child. Their position on B’s start was unchanged. They did not want him to go in full-time. As a parent, this was hurtful. Why wouldn’t you want him full-time? What’s wrong with him? The objective reader will, of course, consider the school’s position and their concerns. Of course, we asked what the reasons were for this position. I have to say that the reasons given were pretty lame. In fact, I can’t even remember what the Head said, despite him being asked to clarify. Actually, that’s not true- one reason was that B might be very tired faced with a full school day. I pointed out that B does 8.30 til 5.00 three days a week at nursery. That’s longer than the school day. His other reasons were waffle and equally unconvincing.
I think I know what the real issue is here. B is going in with no support in place, and they do not know how to support him. The Head cannot employ someone on the off-chance that my child gets that elusive statement. But clearly he needs one to one support. At times, the class will have a teaching assistant who could intervene but this is far from adequate or frequent enough. I understand the Head’s concerns. I’m a teacher myself. However, the Head’s staffing problems are of no concern to me. The school has a duty of care to my son. They have had excellent input from a variety of sources, for some time, about B’s needs. This has not come out of the blue. I do not need the school to tell me that a ‘phased’ start would be best for him. This is dishonest. What they mean is ‘best for the school’. This week, I read the school’s disability policy. Its sentiments were not echoed in the meeting today.
I’ve probably made the meeting sound confrontational. In fact, it wasn’t. Parent Partnership took a very considered, professional and calm approach. At first I felt this softly, softly approach was wrong, but in retrospect it was spot on. It is important to maintain a good working relationship with the school, regardless of what they are saying. Parent Partnership have the advantage of being less emotionally subjective than I am and therefore better placed to deal with school. It’s their job, just as it’s my job to be pissed off that the school is not putting my child’s needs first. I did feel a little frustrated that we weren’t being more forceful with our views but ultimately it was the right approach.
Still, there is a part of me that wishes I’d said a few things. What I really wanted to say was, “I’m sorry my child doesn’t fit in with your ideal of the perfect school. Life’s like that sometimes!” I’ve just read that back and am glad I kept my mouth shut. The feeling of disappointment in the school remains, though. At the very time I needed to hear them being supportive, they were not. I needed to hear them say, “We are here for you and we will do our best to support your son.” But they didn’t, and as a result, my faith in them is shaken.
These despondent feelings are nothing compared to how my wife feels. The single most difficult part of today’s meeting was watching the effect it had on my wife. I watched as the hope, faith and fight drained from her. It was almost a physical reaction- she withdrew and I knew she had given up on these people. Already she has questioned our decision to send B to this school. It will take a great deal to change her mind after that meeting. I wish I could say something to make her feel better.
There is a happy ending, of sorts, to all this. Thanks to Autism Outreach we were able to win the school round. AO have offered to spend all day, every day for two weeks with B when he starts. Not only this, but they will provide ongoing feedback, strategies and support to staff throughout those two weeks. I think this is an exceptional level of support and hard to argue against. If B finds a particular activity difficult, AO are there not only to deal with him but to also provide advice on how such a problem could be tackled afterwards. It’s almost like two weeks CPD for the staff. The meeting ended with school saying they would ‘consider’ the matter. In fact, they had a meeting there and then. I received a phone call soon after confirming they would agree to a full-time start based on the support of Autism Outreach. The tone suggested this was agreed to very reluctantly.
I feel like telling them to stuff their school and sending him elsewhere. But at this stage it would be a bad idea to do so. Our support agencies feel confident we can make this work but for us, as parents, the damage has been done. I want it to work at this school. It’s not a particularly promising start though. Their attitude to my child and his needs seems wrong. Our faith in the school has been shaken. Let’s hope that, when September comes, things are different.