One of Freddie’s older siblings went through mainstream school with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Condition.
Their schooldays were a difficult time.
In the whole of their time at school there were, hand on heart, only three teachers who truly understood my child, their needs, and how they might, should, be met.
Of these three, one was the parent of a child with a similar diagnosis, and the other two had both previously worked in Special Schools.
Our local Infants School made it quite clear that I had presented them with a problem: a headache that got in the way of their real work – that of providing education.
Thank goodness – if it were not for them I do not think my child would have remained in Local Authority education (and I am ill-equipped to home-school).
There were, of course, some teachers who tried very hard to support my child and to understand, but who never truly ‘got it’.
At some point along the way there was always a fundamental disconnect.
So often they seemed fixated on getting my child to change to meet the school’s needs, rather than making changes to the way they did things with my child in order to suit their learning profile.
Often my child would be present in a lesson, but de facto excluded from it, because the information was presented in a way, or under conditions, that made it difficult for them to process it.
Because of this, when the time came for Freddie, who has Down’s Syndrome (with associated learning difficulties and developmental delay), to start school I felt physically sick at the thought of sending him, especially once it became clear that, for a variety of reasons, our local mainstream primary schools would struggle to meet his needs and the maximum level of support on offer from the L.A. was inadequate.
The two schools nearest to us made it clear, in not so many words, that they really did not want to have to accommodate him.
Of course, they were legally obliged to, and if I had insisted they would have had no choice.
Instead I enrolled him in a nearby Special School. It had a good reputation, good links to the wider community, and a really nice atmosphere. Happily, it turned out to be a very good decision.
Here was a school that was already equipped to give Freddie all the support he needed without me having to beg or fight the L.A. for it; and whose staff already had a close working relationship with many of the professionals we were involved with. Here was a whole school-full of teachers who ‘got it’.
They don’t see my son as a ‘problem’, but simply as a child to be educated. They don’t view me as an adversary, but as a potential ally with a common aim.
They understand that my child might learn best if taught in a particular way, and are open-minded and creative in coming up with strategies to help him; they see his strengths and teach to them, and know how to utilise them to help with his areas of difficulty.
They understand that behaviour is a form of communication, not a manifestation of a naughty or malicious personality. They take a positive, constructive approach to encouraging ‘good’ or desirable behaviour.
Here are teachers who are both willing and able to support us with things like eating and toileting, issues that many SEND families struggle with, but which teachers are not usually required to get involved in.
Here are teachers who have spent many years teaching children with special needs and disabilities and have acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience in that particular field.
I have taken some flack for my decision to place Freddie in a Special School.
I have been accused of giving up on him, of not wanting the best for him, even of wanting to segregate him from society out of shame.
If you, or a member of your family was ill, and your G.P. could not provide the answers, or the care, or treatment that you needed, you would glad, would you not, if they referred you to a specialist, a doctor with additional training in a particular field, and experience in dealing with the sort of complex and difficult cases that a general practitioner only rarely encounters.
Indeed, you would probably expect them to refer you on, and demand it if they did not do so.
You would not complain that they were giving up on you, or that they did not want the best treatment for you.
You would not accuse them of shovelling you off to hospital in order to hide you away, or segregate you from society.
We do not view specialist doctors and consultants as second best, not quite good enough to make the cut in general medicine.
So, on Teacher’s Day let’s applaud the Special Needs teachers: people who have chosen to enter an arm of the profession that is so often viewed by the public as ‘less than’.
These dedicated professionals work with some of the most vulnerable, complex, and educationally disadvantaged children, and strive to give them the best education possible: one that is appropriate and accessible to each individual pupil, tailored to their needs.
And let’s accord them their proper title: Specialist Teachers.
Post script: One of my older child’s mainstream teachers who had previously worked in a Special School told me that they believed the experience had made them a better teacher.
I think there’s a lesson in that.
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