Special Free Schools – is it worth it?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a conference about the formation of special free schools. I couldn’t make it myself as I had other meetings, but Claire Louise, from the popular and award-winning, A Boy With Asperger’s blog, kindly agreed to step in and attend for SNJ. Here’s her report:

**

Is it worth the hassle (a 100+ page bid and one hell of a load of work) that comes with starting a Special Free School?

There are many factors that need careful consideration, as well as a number of different circumstances each need applying to. For example, Is the school already up and running, therefore requiring just “Free School” status? This could apply to any school (independent & non-maintained) this excludes that of state schools who can instead apply to become academies.
Maybe you are considering starting up a Special Free School from scratch. It may only exisit on paper or an idea in your head. Maybe its because there is a gap in SEN provision that needs filling, therefore an idea of a Special Free school makes sense.

So as not to confuse anybody (as we all know these things can be mind boggling) I’ll therefore take this one step at a time and will try to be a clear as possible as I do.

Firstly, What is a Special Free School?

A Special Free School is one that is funded by the Government yet run independently. So, you may ask how these are any different from independent schools? Independent schools are not reliant on the government for funding, instead these schools are funded by a combination of tuition fees, gifts, fundraising or in some cases income investments (for profit organisations). Non-maintained schools are normally run by not-for-profit charities, approved by the secretary of state to take children with statements of SEN.

So, What must a Special Free School Provide & how must it be run?

  • Provide education for children assessed as needing statements of SEN between the ages of 5-19 years of age.
  • Provide education to a minimum of 5 children
  • Only teach children with SEN or those being assessed as having SEN
  • Have regard to the SEN Code of Practice
  • Provide a curriculum that is one tailored to an individuals needs
  • Run by an acedemy trust (Charitable trust/not for profit)

Admissions to Special Free Schools will continue to be made via the LEA who retain responsibility for assessing a childs SEN

Important factors…

Applications must only be made by those schools that are new (meaning ones not already funded by the state as already mentioned above)

So… Who can set up a Special Free School?

Well, I should really rephrase the above question to, “Who can apply to set up a Special Free School?” Because the answer is just about anybody can, but this doesn’t mean to say your application will be approved.

This isn’t just a case of knowing that there is a gap in SEN provision (though it helps) groups of parents, charity groups etc,will struggle unless they have a member of their group who has strong knowledge of the education system (basically how to run a school on a senior level) Head teachers and board of governors make a good starting block. From what I have heard, many parent groups have formed wanting to start Special Free Schools but due to their lack of knowledge on the running of a school (including costs) they have therefore fallen at the first hurdle. This isn’t just a case of coming together, forming a group and filling in an application.

Parents/groups/charity groups looking to apply to open Special Free Schools need to do their homework and should realise this isn’t the only option (setting up fully independent schools may be a better, if not slightly easier, process). To set up a Special Free School, groups should appoint a director(s) and as mentioned, preferably someone who has some inside senior knowledge on the running of a school and importantly the likely cost that comes with it.

Writing the bid is also a far from easy task, this normally exceeds a 100 pages and no stone should be left unturned! Only then is there a chance you will make it to the “Interview Stage” The Governement has set up the New Schools Network which is there to help groups throughout the process and should really be your first port of call.
Understandably, given the state of the SEN system at present (the fact that there just aren’t enough special schools in most areas and there are huge gaps in provision) many groups, especially those consisting of parents of children diagnosed with SEN, will be looking into Special Free Schools. However, I feel that when looking more closely, they may well discover things are much more complicated then identifying the need for a school, finding a site and opening one. I’m not saying people assume its easy, just that it seems much harder than I first thought, plus it may not be all its cracked up to be (just read on to see where I’m going with this.)

So, what about existing independent schools? WOuld it be beneficial for them to apply for SFS status? It sounds so considering these will continue to be ran independently yet receive state funding to do so! What’s the catch? Of course like everything there is one!

Special schools that are already setup and established will not be provided with the start-up funding However, there are some exceptions, such as expanding pupil capacity -but there are still no guarantees.

The next big factor is admissions. Once Special Free School status is granted to those independent schools, the LEA will have the right to make them take children with varying needs, even ones the school does not cater for. Therefore this means that independent schools that for example only provide education for children on the autism spectrum, will have to take children with other needs, social, emotional, more complexed SEN or varying disabilities. For me, this is a massive issue, one that would make me consider such a change much more carefully if I was making such a decision about an independent school.

My son is in an independent special school just for children with autism and Asperger’s. The school teaches in small groups and have a high pupil-teacher ratio. I would honestly worry if it was to convert to that of Special Free School status. I’m not being selfish, I just feel that by admitting children outside this status of SEN may result in all children not having their needs met, not mentioning the school reaching over-capacity. I also worry that dependent on how many independent schools within my postcode convert to Special Free School Status, the local LEA may try to move my child in order to save money (his at an independent out-of-borough school).

So… with the bad points out of the way, are there any good ones? The only ones I can actually think of is that of the reduction in tribunal cases. It’s quite simple really…if independent special schools convert to Special Free Schools, then the number of parents bringing cases to the SEN tribunal will fall. LEAs will be much more willing to send a child to the school as it won’t be charging the independent fees it once was. This would also mean that more children would possibly be educated within their borough. For me, neither outweigh the issue of admissions (this for me just creates worry).

Whoever you are, if a Special Free School is something you are seriously considering, there are important issues to consider. One of the biggest is that of the pending SEN reforms. With the future of SEN provision still up in the air, is now the right time to be making such huge decisions? The Green Paper will mean a complete SEN overhaul. This includes the scrapping of the SEN Statement and replacement with the Education, Health and Care plan taking its place. Other factors include everything from the way a child with SEN is assessed, the funding a school will receive and the possibility of a personal budget. We don’t even know what the new EHCP will look like and if the social care part will hold any legal and statutory duty whatsoever.

Can’t this government do one thing at a time? It makes no sense to me to open Special Free schools when the way such children are provided for remains so unclear.

Okay, so heres the nitty gritty on the issue of Special Free School funding:
As far as I can make out, there is no set capital – this is therefore allocated on a project by project basis. The secretary of state must take into account the estimated or “potential” costs of each individual group’s bid. As already stated, there is no start up funding for existing schools, only new schools (special circumstances will be given consideration.)

Do your homework, this is a government-funded scheme which will mean that they want to see low costs and good value for money!
Remember, the government is still consulting on long term funding for special schools. As it stands, the interim funding arrangements put in place is to receive base-funding level funding of £10k per place (note there may be additional funding from some LEAs dependent on an individual’s needs. Well, let’s be honest, 10k isn’t much, especially for a child with complex needs who requires a number of high-level provisions put in place like SLT and OT.

Lastly, Special Free Schools, like other free schools, should receive a standard grant to compensate for services that state maintained schools recive from the LA.

If considering a Special Free School, remember these only cater for children aged 5-19. This is regardless of the pending EHCP, which covers children aged 0-25.

So, there you have it! I hope I didn’t confuse you!

Thanks to Tania  at Special Needs Jungle for asking me to attend the New Schools Network forum which enabled me to write this report. Please visit the New Schools Network for detailed information and advice on Special Free Schools and Free Schools

Claire Louise (A boy With Asperger’s)

I’m up for most inspiring blog in the Mad blog Awards 2012
Please vote for me (A boy with Aspergers) at http://www.the-mads.com/vote.htm

Find me on twitter @clairelouise82

Rose Dyslexia report – will it be enough?

Government adviser Sir Jim Rose’s report on dyslexia has been widely reported today. BBC News said, “More teachers will be trained to identify and support children in England with dyslexia, as a report says greater expertise is needed in schools. Sir Jim Rose, who recently reviewed the English primary school curriculum, said parents needed guidance on the help available.  The government says 4,000 teachers will be trained, and online courses provided to help them support dyslexic pupils.Charity Dyslexia Action called it a “landmark report” and a “great step forward” to have a definition of dyslexia which those affected could recognise and accept.

boyworkingIn his report, Sir Jim defines dyslexia as a “learning difficulty which primarily affects skills involved in accurate and fluent word-reading and spelling”.  The report will say dyslexia should not be treated as a distinct category of people, but as a continuum, like other disorders. He is also expected to reiterate that good quality teaching in children’s early years is vital.”

The link to the full BBC report is at the bottom of this post but what strikes me is that it has taken this long for a report to be done. Dyslexia is not new and the fact that it is only now being ‘officially’ recognised is a scandal. Whole generations of people have had their lives blighted because they have had unrecognised and untreated dyslexia. Instead, they have been branded ‘thick’ and have not been able to develop the life chances they should have.

I sincerely hope that this report’s recommendations will be acted upon so that teachers can learn not only how to identify children with forms of dyslexia but know how to do something about it. As I have said before, if the government wants ‘inclusion’ then mainstream teachers cannot just teach the mainstream. If teachers don’t have the access to the funding or training to make their teaching truly inclusive, then once a child is recognised as having a problem, they should be given access to teachers that can help them.

Ten million pounds doesn’t actually seem that much to provide all the help that is required, but it is a start and should be recognised as such.

I am no expert, however, I am of the opinion that some children with ‘continuum’ difficulties such as dyslexia and ASD need a different teaching style altogether that can only be delivered in a specialist environment. I have helped various parents with their statementing battles and have seen quite a few Educational Psychology reports. What seems to be a theme is that the working memory and non-verbal skills of these children is almost always poor, sometimes dramatically so, compared to their basic level of intelligence. This means they have difficulty remembering instructions and sequences, problems with attention and with organisation. These are in addition (though connected)  to the problems they have with making sense of reading or writing or both.

This group of issues will be difficult for a teacher with thirty other pupils adequately to address, however much training they have. They are, after all, only one person and are not superhuman, unless there are government plans to provide funding for that too. Isn’t it better that these children learn together and are taught in the way they learn best? It is great that teachers will be trained to spot Dyslexia – they should also be trained to spot and act when they believe a child is on the autistic spectrum as well. But my concerns are that we are simply asking too much of teachers when they have so many children of all varieties to deal with.

The answer could be in smaller class sizes so each child can get individualised learning, or grouping children according to learning styles. In our school, dyslexic, dyspraxic, dyscalculic and Aspergic children learn alongside each other in small groups because their learning styles are more similar and the class sizes are small enough that where differences exist, they can be catered for. Eight children may need things explained eight different ways, but that’s feasible in such a small class. I question whether that’s possible in a class of thirty.

It should be possible in a junior school of children with three-class intake per year to be sensitively placed so that the teacher has a fighting chance of helping everyone. When my younger son was in mainstream, he was made to go into the remedial English group because he had problems writing, even though his reading was top of the whole year. He was angry, frustrated and sometimes had to be dragged to the lesson because he knew he was in the wrong group. Now in his specialist school, he is supported in his areas of difficulties while still doing work that is at the correct level for his intelligence. We had to move him into the independent sector to get this but this kind of teaching should be available to every child whether or not they have the parents who are willing and able to fight battles to get them what they need.

This report looks like a good marker for future practice if the recommendations are acted upon. We await other reports that are ongoing such as the Lamb Inquiry and the other autism bills that are going through parliament to see whether a real difference can be made and the future of another generation of children is not lost to the vagaries of government policy.

BBC report here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8109554.stm

Share

Sports Day at More House School

We’ve just come home from Sports Day. This always used to be a day of tears, upset and general not wanting to go to school. That is, until they started at More House.

Although our eldest has always been a capable sportsman, last year we were all amazed when our youngest son won his race, largely down to the thoughtful way the PE staff had grouped the boys so that each boy had a real chance of winning. He had never won a race before, was not well coordinated, pretty dyspraxic and hated anything to do with sports, but this win, encouraged by the wonderful members of staff had spurred him on.

This year when Sports Day dawned, he was excited, a bit nervous and most of all, ready to win.

It’s amazing how the right encouragement and instilling self-belief can give a child a complete turnaround. Actually, it’s not amazing at all, it’s common sense, but it had never happened before for my son. When his PE teacher told him last year that he was really impressed with him in hockey, he held on to it all year as validation that someone (other than us, of course) believed that he could do well in sports.

During the year he has gradually gained confidence and competitive spirit. He has moved up the ability groups from bottom to top in a couple of terms and now believes that he is fast and able to win if he puts his mind to it. Now he wants to take part in sports and he wants to be picked for teams whereas before, he would do anything to avoid it.

Here is a short video of him and of his brother Luca, both winning their races. The mad woman shouting is me (who never won anything at sports and so am doubly proud)!

To cap it all, Giorgio won Most Improved Athlete of Year 5, something that I do not think he will ever forget. Tonight he is truly a happy child (for once!)

I wanted to write this post to thank the PE gods that are Messers Williams, Roddis, Faasen & of course Mr Williamson..(who could forget him?) for their dedication and enthusiasm to our boys. I’m not sure you realise how much we parents of  boys with challenges appreciate your efforts. Sports Day was inspirational and so are you.

Well said, Mr Bercow!

I’ve just read in full the House of Commons debate on the second reading of the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Support) bill last Friday. I must highlight one particular section of the bill, introduced by John Bercow MP:

John Bercow: “Hon. Members have referred to the phenomenon of children suffering from autism. We know that children on the autistic spectrum vary greatly, but they all tend to suffer from what is commonly known in the trade as the triad of impairments—lack of social imagination, social interaction and social communication. It is important that we train staff so that we do not continue to experience the problem whereby innocently enough, but very damagingly, professionals in the education sector mistake a disabled child for a disobedient child. When we talk about people on the autistic spectrum being more likely to be excluded from school, let us be clear: that is what is taking place in so many cases. The professionals do not understand that the child is not in any sense a conventionally badly behaved child.

The understanding even of autism, which is a relatively high-profile condition, is too limited. We have to try to stimulate awareness. I was with my young son in a park in central London only a week or two ago. My son has phobias about a number of things, as children often do, and perhaps autistic children do in particular. He is anxious about hand dryers. I have always explained that they cannot do him any harm and are not dangerous, but he hates the sound that they make. When we went to take him to the loo, I said to the park-keeper, who quite properly, has to turn the key and open the loo, “Would it be okay if my son went into the disabled loo?” because I happened to know that it had no hand dryer whereas in the ordinary loo there was one. She looked completely uncomprehendingly at me and at him—I make no personal gibe at her; I am simply making a wider point—and I repeated the question. She said, “But he’s not disabled.” Again, I put it to colleagues that there is an issue of understanding. People often think that to be disabled, someone has to sit in a wheelchair, lack a limb or have a demonstrable and immediately apparent impairment, such as blindness, but children with problems on the autistic spectrum or with speech, language and communication impairments—there is often a close link between the two—can, in some cases, be disabled.”

From one parent of an ASD child to another, well said, Mr Bercow!

Read the whole debate here: Read the minutes from the second reading here

Source: Hansard,

Update on Special Educational Needs and Disability (Support) Bill

Source: Epolitix: Conservative MP John Bercow makes the case for his Special Educational Needs and Disability (Support) Bill, which has its second reading in the Commons.

Through my work conducting a review into children’s speech, language and communication services for the government, I already knew that children with special educational needs (SEN) were frequently being let down.

But the degree to which this vulnerable group of children are being failed by the school system was brought into stark reality when I saw the government’s scandalous exclusion figures. Children with SEN are nine times more likely to be excluded than any other children. So when I was drawn out of the private members’ ballot back in December it was a compelling opportunity to try to do something about the devastating lack of support that is leaving this vulnerable group of children unable to reach their full potential.

Far too few education professionals and schools have the appropriate skills, expertise and training to give the one in five children with an SEN the right support. There is no mandatory training for teachers in SEN issues, and despite their crucial role only new special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) will be expected to demonstrate their SEN knowledge from September this year.

This step forward is due to campaigning by the National Autistic Society (NAS) and others, but, even so, many SENCOs will not be covered by the requirement. My SEN Bill is drafted by the NAS and backed by the Special Educational Consortium. It has its second reading in Parliament on Friday May 15 and it aims to improve training for teaching staff, introduce a new requirement that inspections should consider how well schools meet the needs of pupils with SEN and disabilities such as autism and reduce inappropriate exclusions of children with SEN.

The profound difficulties which children with SEN experience at school frequently go unheard and unrecognised, because their support is not reviewed and Ofsted inspections often ignore whether schools are meeting their responsibilities towards them. This is simply unacceptable, and schools and education authorities must be made accountable for the support that they provide. As a result of pressure from the Bill, children’s secretary Ed Balls has already committed to look at how Ofsted inspections can have a greater focus on SEN, so my Bill aims to ensure this becomes a reality.

I urge as many of my colleagues as possible to join me in Parliament on Friday to ensure vulnerable children get the support they need to reach their full potential, because when the right help is in place at the right time, children with SEN can and do flourish in school.

Source: Epolitix

Read the minutes from the second reading here

See also: Well said, Br Bercow!

Government Supports Autism Bill (UK)

The Government has, for the first time, declared its support for what could be England’s first Autism Bill. The National Autistic Society (NAS) celebrated the move as a vital development for people with autism as Care Services Minister Phil Hope committed to enshrining in law a raft of new measures, via the Autism Bill, which could drive a dramatic improvement in local authority and NHS services for people with the condition

On 13th May, MPs voted yes to the Government’s proposed blueprint and time scales to improve support and in a major development the Care Services Minister gave the forthcoming national adult autism strategy extra force by adding it to the Autism Bill. The Bill now awaits its third reading, scheduled for 19th June, and with the support of the Government is likely to pass to the House of Lords.

Mark Lever, chief executive of the NAS said; “We are absolutely delighted that the Government is prepared to take decisive action to tackle the shocking lack of help which leaves people affected by autism feeling isolated, ignored and often at breaking point. The Autism Bill has passed a major and crucial hurdle on the road to becoming law but there’s still some way to go. Autism is a serious, lifelong and disabling condition, and without the right support it can have a profound and sometimes devastating effect on individuals and families, so we will keep working with the Government to ensure the Autism Bill can deliver where it is really needed.”

The Autism Bill is being championed through Parliament as a Private Member’s Bill led by Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan and was drafted by the NAS on behalf of a coalition of 15 other autism charities. She said; “I commend the Government on their commitment to transforming the lives of children and adults with autism via the support of Schools and Learners Minister, Sarah McCarthy-Fry and Care Services Minister, Phil Hope. Today is a real turning point for the thousands of people affected by autism who have been unable to get the help they desperately need and I look forward to working with the Government to make this vitally important Bill a reality.”

The Government’s measures come as our I Exist campaign found that at least 1 in 3 adults with autism are experiencing serious mental health difficulties due to a lack of help. Under the Autism Bill, the national adult autism strategy, due at the end of this year, will hold local authorities and NHS services legally responsible for providing support for adults with the condition and ensure they have clear routes to diagnosis, assessment and support. The NAS is urging as many people affected by autism as possible to take part in the consultation for the strategy which closes on the 15th September.

This boost for adults with autism builds on a previous commitment by Sarah McCarthy-Fry MP to fulfil the Autism Bill’s original demands for better support for children via new regulations for Children and Young Peoples Plans. In an important win for the wider disabled community, these would legally require local authorities to collate and share data and information on children with disabilities with other agencies, which could see a huge sea change in disabled children’s services and ensure they get the support they need to fulfil their potential in adulthood.

Source: National Autistic Society

Read more on this subject

Autism Assistance Dogs

Leo, our own Autism Companion.

Leo, our own Autism Companion.

As you may know, we recently got a puppy because we had read that dogs are good for children on the autistic spectrum.

Leo is still a puppy and has just started training with the scariest dog handler ever, but already he has bonded with our eldest son. Despite instructions from the trainer to ‘ignore the dog’, our eldest always has to say good morning and good night to the pup and to be quite honest, this makes him so happy I am disregarding the trainer (at the risk of being told off and made to lie down submissively at his feet..).

Our eldest takes him for a walk sometimes before school, always after it, and has already taught him to sit. Because he is very sensorily sensitive and volatile, I had imagined having a dog would provide comfort for him when his is angry with the rest of the family or feels unfairly treated (which is quite often, to his mind). To my great joy, this seems to be the case already. The dog has given him something to care about that isn’t himself and this is quite amazing.

However, training is a long process and having a dog is a large and long-lasting undertaking, however beneficial it might be for the children. I have just found a site that offers Autism Assistance Dogs that might be worth considering if you have autistic children between 3 & 10 and are thinking of having a dog.

The site, at http://www.support-dogs.org.uk/AADogs.htm says, “Our Autism Assistance Dog programme is designed to improve the quality of life of families with autistic children. It is based on the principle of providing a fully trained dog to the parents and the autistic child along with the correct training and support to ensure that the dog works to the maximum of its abilities.”

This kind of dog would not be not be necessary for our family, for example, as our boys are high-functioning, although our youngest has a nasty habit of walking out in front of cars. But I can see how useful one could be for more severely affected children. Disability Support dogs aren’t just for autistic children, but for those with other disabilities, especially epilepsy.

Take a look at their site – it’s a cause well worth supporting. Donate if you can.

Great News – A Statement!

Got the news we had been waiting for today – Son1 has got the Statement of Special Educational Needs we had applied for. Don’t have all the details yet and we still have to sort out placement (which if I have anything to do with it will be his current school).

This time last year the head of our school’s Learning Support department told me I should apply for a statement for Son1. I thought she was mad, because he is achieving well although his educational profile is uneven and his progress is affected by his social and communication difficulties caused by his Asperger Syndrome. Still, I thought, she wouldn’t say it if she didn’t mean it. We had been through the process before withour younger son and he is now funded at their independent special school by the Local Education Authority and I didn’t relish another trip down the same road. Still, I reminded myself, it’s not for you, it’s for my boy, took a deep breath and plunged in.

I started out by applying for an assessment, which was initially turned down (see earlier post). After they reversed the decision and carried out an assessment, it went to the area special needs panel yesterday and the news came through that he had been given a statement.

It does beg the question, why was he refused an assessment and then is given a statement and I think this is largely down to the ‘new broom’ approach at the local LEA.

I now have to convince them that paying for him to attend his current independent specialist school is the right thing to do, so no time to waste! It does show however, that if you do your research, persevere (like I said, I started this path a year ago) and you are sure of your case, then you can come out with the result you believe your child should have.

It may take longer than a year for some, depending on whether you need to appeal, but I was originally told neither of my sons would get a statement and now they have one each. I used the methods I have described on this website (see links at the top of the page) both times. So, anyone reading this who is onthe same road, take heart and don’t give up!

See the outcome here

Surrey to review SEN Assessments

I recently attended a Partnership with Parents workshop in Surrey. The subject matters were an explanation of the new SEND rules given by one of the co-chairmen,an update on the Lamb inquiry and a presentation from the new Head of Surrey SEN, Debbie Johnson, asking ‘Why do so many parents appeal against Surrey’s ‘Refusal to Assess’ decisions’.

I was particularly looking forward to the latter, as although my younger son is statemented, my eldest son had recently been refused an assessment by Surrey. Ms Johnson was a very impressive speaker and was concerned about Surrey’s position at the top of the charts for councils that have appeals registered against it. Much to the surprise of many in the room, she said that what should be happening is that if Surrey LEA was not going to defend its decision at the SEND Tribunal or thought it might give way if an appeal was launched, then it should actually not be refusing to assess in the first place. This was new! Someone with common sense! We all sat up a little straighter.

Ms Johnson said there was a lot to be done in Surrey and the feedback she was getting was that parents weren’t being listened to, the process wasn’t helpful and she was going to change that. She said the changes had to ‘unbend the system’ and make statements ‘fit for purpose’. She would be disbanding panels that took parents around in circles and stop decisions being made that were not clear for either the parents not the authority.

It also appeared from figures she presented that, that in line with the large number of refusals to assess was an equally large number of pupils in Surrey diagnosed with ASD. Could these stats be related? Could it be that a lack of expertise within county provision in the field of high-functioning Autism and Asperger’s, coupled with an increasing number of parents unwilling to go down without a fight is at the root of Surrey’s large number of appeals? As Hong Kong Phooey would say .. ‘Could be!’

Ms Johnson then described the difficulties faced by a highly intelligent child with Asperger’s in a mainstream setting. She described my son to a tee. Afterwards, I spoke individually to her and she agreed to visit my son’s case again.

And guess what? True to her word, this week I heard that the decision has been reversed, my son is now going to be assessed and I am so relieved that this part of the application is now resolved. There was also additional evidence I presented to them as part of the reconsideration and I am sure this made some difference; having been turned down I had sprung into action and prepared an fulsome appeal so I was able to send it to them to see if we could avoid the necessity of going to Tribunal and it seems this has had an effect. The lesson is, if you believe strongly in your case, DO NOT give up! Those who make the decisions are only human, just like you, errors can be made or minds can be changed if you provide a convincing enough case. But you have to put the effort in – don’t ask and you don’t get.

Back at the workshop, in spite of her ‘new broom’ presentation, Ms Johnson wasn’t let entirely off the hook – many parents had serious grievances about the LEA’s past practices, including one family who had been threatened with costs (illegally) if they went ahead with a Tribunal hearing the next day. To her credit, Ms Johnson tackled the issues head on and took the particular case mentioned extremely seriously. I might pity the hapless LEA employee who made the threat if it hadn’t been such an unethical thing to do in the first place.

I left feeling vaguely cheered, though it remains to be seen how much difference Ms Johnson’s new broom makes to the way Surrey carries out its practices. I, and parents like me, will be watching closely.

See the next post ‘The SENDIST Tribunal’ for information on that part of the workshop.

It’s all about the school.

Yesterday, my son was discharged from regular check ups with his nurse practitioner at his specialist clinic, a cause for celebration. She has been a wonderful support to us along the way to getting the best we can for him but now he has started at an appropriate school for his needs, he no longer needs medication to help him focus because there are only nine boys in a class and he is taught in the way he learns best (imagine!).

His nurse said there’s nothing she can now offer that he isn’t getting at school and she’s right; it’s all about the school. A paediatrician at the centre said the same thing: one size doesn’t fit all and the right school can make the difference between a life of underachievement and a fighting chance of success.

What chance does an ASD child, even with TA support, have in a class of thirty (several of whom probably have behavioural difficulties or other issues) when that child has sensory integration problems and needs a quiet environment to be able to put pen to paper at all? What chance for success does a bright child have who reads several years ahead of his age but can barely write, when he’s left to fester in a remedial English group where he refuses to work because he feels his intelligence is being insulted?

This is the conundrum faced by mainstream schools when trying to educate children with complex needs. It’s just not possible to put him in a group with his intellectual peers because he thinks so differently and can’t keep up with writing speed. But putting him in a group with children who write as slowly as he does means he’s frustrated and not challenged. The same is true for many bright dyslexic children; where do you put them if they’re clever enough to be in the ‘top’ stream, but whose reading or writing difficulties mean they can’t present their work as well or whose thought processes don’t follow ‘the norm’?

Can mainstream provide sufficient expertise and support for these children? Politicians pushing the ‘inclusive’ agenda say it is perfectly possible and perhaps in a very few schools that have sufficient specialist staff and resources, this may be the case but for the majority, it just isn’t.

I was told when my son was in mainstream that there were five accepted methods for doing maths at his level. My son had his own, sixth, very complicated method and even though he would get the right answer, I was told he had to conform to one of the methods laid out in the national curriculum. Good luck with that, I thought, because you’ll have a job on your hands.

I have spoken to many highly experienced teachers, special needs Teaching Assistants, Outreach staff and Clinicians in the past few years. NOT A SINGLE ONE believes inclusion for children with complex learning styles or difficulties in the answer. Not one. Why are their views being ignored in the relentless push for everyone to be taught in one setting? Please, if you know, make a comment and enlighten me. It’s possible that I and they are all misguided souls. But somehow, I don’t think so.