Many years ago I studied at university to get a degree in primary school teaching.
Much of the course was practical and in my four years I had placements in nursery schools, a high school and lots of different primary schools.
Never once did I, or any of my fellow students that I recall, ever have a placement in a special needs school. I always wondered what they were really like.
Those were the schools that seemed different.
The children were transported in to them, often travelling many miles, and the parents stayed away.
Communication was mostly through written format in communication diaries and they never had a school tie.
I kind of saw them as pretty sad places full of children who were lost in the system, who would never sit exams or live independently and who had very complex needs. As students none of us inspired to work in one so no-one questioned why there were no placements in them during our years of studying.
We had the odd lecture on 'additional support needs' and that was kind of as far as it went.
It was assumed we wanted to teach children who wanted to learn , had a bright further and for whom we could make a huge difference too. In fact all of those are equally true of children in a special educational setting too! I just never realised that until many years later.
I am now the proud parent of a child who attends a special needs school. For those of you who do not have the privilege of getting to see inside one of these schools or who are perhaps wondering if such a school is right for your child let me tell you what a special needs school, or school for those with complex support needs is actually like.
Firstly they are very happy places.
The children (and staff) have challenges but everytime I go into my sons school there are staff smiling, laughing, even dancing! The children giggle, play and have so much fun.
The children learn.
So many people seem to view special education as simply babysitting complex children until the day they enter adult services and receive care in the community. Despite having children with significant learning difficulties these schools still follow the national curriculum, the children still do work and progress is still made.
Your child will be respected and looked after.
Support staff go above and beyond. They do tasks that many others would not wish to do like see to personal needs of children. They feed children through tubes, feed others by spoon and change nappies. They wipe faces, give hand over hand support and lie on the floor with children to comfort them. There is nothing too much for them and they get to know your child quickly.
Your child will be celebrated.
I am not sure what I thought would go on when my son began special education four years ago but I never really thought he would come home, like his mainstream sister, with awards for things like star of the week or head teachers award! With small classes and inventive teaching strategies your child will be celebrated for the smallest of things they achieve.
At one school assembly my child was involved in, I remember another child receiving star of the week for 'opening his eyes'. That, I remember thinking, was something major to celebrate for that family and put my problems right into perspective.
They have a typical school day like any other school.
My son has play time, lunch time, PE, religious education and science like any other school. The means by which these are carried out may be different; more practical or more supported, but they are all done just like any other school. He has school trips, assembly, Christmas parties and every year there is a Christmas show.
They are part of the community just like any other school.
My son schools has a choir (some sign as they are non verbal) and every year they go to different places in the community to perform. The children go for walks in the community and they are often in local shops or the library or out on trips. They are not isolated or shut inside in any way.
The school may physically be in a different town to where many of the children live but within the town the school is pupils are seen and part of the community. The children have photos taken when they raise money for things or when they go to local sports events. Many of the schools are now linked closely (in my sons case a joint campus) to a mainstream school and the children work together on things. It is beautiful.
Children who attend special needs schools DO have a bright future.
At a recent parents' evening for my son it was briefly mentioned that within a few years we will need to start looking at high school provision. While much of this process will be out with our hands (the education authority will decide) and there are a few 'feeder' high schools for his school it is not impossible for a child to go into mainstream education from a special needs school.
In fact I know of a few children who have moved from my sons school to other schools as they have excelled so much in the special needs setting and are now able to access a more mainstream education.
For my son it is likely he will require specialist support even as an adult but the right education now still allows him to have a bright future, and a level of independence he might never have been able to achieve had he not had the intensive learning environment of his special needs school.
As a student I truly wish I had had the opportunity years ago to see into these magical places society calls special needs schools.
There is a high chance my heart would have been stolen by them long before I ever had a child attend one.
What are special needs schools really like:
They are magical, beautiful, colourful, cheerful places full of the most incredible staff and adorable children who stretch your mind and your heart to see potential and love beyond what you ever thought imaginable.
Don't ever be scared to visit one. I know if you do you will leave with only happy tears.