Well, what interesting week it’s been. After being shared by the National Autistic Society and Mencap, my last blog post went viral! I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of messages of support about our choice to send James to a SEN school. Writing this blog is hugely therapeutic for me, and helps me to process my thoughts- but getting so much positive feedback is a simply amazing feeling. Thank you to everyone that commented.
On a sadder note, its clear from the response that there are huge numbers of parents in the same position as me. Overwhelmingly, there is a sense of confusion about how to go about securing the right support for our children. The process is not transparent; the different LEA departments pass the buck between each other, and parents are pushed from pillar to post. Am I dealing with the SEN department, the Vulnerable Learners’ Service, the Disabled Children’s Team, or all three? Plus, every time I think I’m close to making a breakthrough, there’s another panel of faceless experts who have never met me or my son, seemingly hell-bent on thwarting us.
I had been led to believe that getting James a statement of educational needs was the major hurdle to securing him a place at a special school, and believe me, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Back in September ’13, our initial request for a statutory assessment (i.e. the first step in getting a statement) was turned down, much to my amazement and distress. It then emerged, after a lot of badgering, that the ‘experts’ on the panel hadn’t even looked at James’ diagnosis report, so they didn’t even know he had autism. This is the type of incompetence our taxes are funding, people.
To cut a long story short, we have finally managed to get James a statement, and I mistakenly thought this was his golden ticket to SEN school. Not so. There was- you guessed it- another panel to overcome. Yesterday, we discovered that they have refused our special school request. In other words, our views and wishes have been ignored completely.
This will not be the end of our fight by any stretch, but I’m bitterly disappointed that there are still more battles to come. More than anything, I feel helpless. Since James was born I have made every decision on his behalf; that’s my job as his mother! But suddenly, this control has been taken out of my hands and James’ fate is being decided by strangers. All I want is to protect him, but for the first time ever I feel like I can’t; like he’s a lamb to the slaughter.
So this morning, I woke at 6am with renewed vigour. I sat down at the computer and started to write a letter to North Somerset Council. For anyone who cares to read it, here it is.
Dear Ms P
I am emailing further to our conversations yesterday to express our extreme unhappiness and disappointment at the panel’s recent decision rejecting a special school placement for our son James Gaunt. We fully intend to appeal this decision as we firmly believe that it is not in James’ best interests.
I have explained to professionals, time and time again, that their argument that James needs to be surrounded by typically developing peers, and that he is likely to pick up ‘adverse behaviours’ in a special school, is completely flawed and misses the point entirely.
To clarify this absolutely, I need to state that James’ social, communication and sensory difficulties mean that he does not observe or emulate the behaviours of other children. In a mainstream environment, in fact, the opposite is true. Being surrounded by large groups of children results in intense sensory overstimulation for James, inducing anxiety and ultimately bringing out the worst in him. His reaction is to become withdrawn and difficult to engage; he retreats into himself and carries out ‘stimming’ behaviours which are soothing for him. Ultimately his coping mechanism is to tune out other children and stimuli, meaning that he is less likely to learn appropriate social behaviours and furthermore, his ability to access the curriculum is severely hampered.
His other well-documented reaction to being placed in a mainstream situation is that his behaviour becomes unpredictable and aggressive towards others. His inability to empathise or predict consequences leaves me in no doubt that he presents a safety risk to other children as well as himself. Moreover, it flies in the face of the argument that James will benefit socially from being placed in a mainstream environment. I have already witnessed James’ peers express their unhappiness at having to spend time with him because they are subjected to his regular outbursts; one parent at his nursery has already approached me to tell me that she was removing her child from the nursery as he was ‘frightened’ of James. It is my firm opinion that James’ social difficulties in a mainstream environment will ultimately lead to him being rejected and bullied by his peers.
James has been very fortunate this academic year in that Springboard have been able to offer him three pre-school sessions per week. In June of last year, I had to leave my job due to the disastrous effect being placed in a mainstream nursery from 8am-6pm was having on him. In short, the nursery simply could not cope with him. The difference in James this academic year – his ability to engage and learn, his behaviour towards others, his overall happiness in these environments – is plain to see. He is able to participate fully in Springboard sessions because he is at ease and because the staff and the classroom environment cater to his needs. Visual supports which help James communicate, i.e. Makaton and PECS, are utilised by every staff member so there is a consistency in provision that I simply do not believe can be reproduced in a mainstream environment. His behaviour is far easier to manage, due to a) knowledgeable staff being able to identify both triggers for his violent episodes, and coping strategies for James when they do occur and b) the fact that his outbursts are less likely anyway, because the environment is calmer, with fewer children. Basically, the progress James has made since September can be attributed to the fact he is a specialist learning environment which is right for his needs.
We came to our decision about where we wanted James to be educated on the basis of intensive research of others’ experiences of ASD children in mainstream school. We have spoken with several parents, teachers and governors, who have expressed to us that training for teachers in autism is ‘woeful’ and that essentially these children are a headache for mainstream schools because they lack the skills, experience and resources to cope with them. They fully applauded our decision to request special school for James.
Additionally, I visited the three mainstream schools to which we have considered sending James, and spoken at length with the head teachers and SENCOs. I can report the following feedback:
1) At the first school I was informed that the SENCO was unable to discuss James’ specific needs with me until such time that he had been offered a place at that school;
2) At the second, I was told that children with needs similar to James tend to cope through the reception year, but that this then falls apart in year one when the expectations for formal learning become stricter. The head also started discussing their budget with me, which I found frustrating because school budgets are an area in which I have no input;
3) At the third, I was told in no uncertain terms that the current staff were not adequately experienced to cope with a child like James, and if I chose to send him there it would be a ‘steep learning curve’ for them.
As I am sure you can therefore appreciate, my confidence that any of these schools will be able to meet James’ needs is very low indeed.
Our experience of dealing with the professionals assessing James – most notably educational psychologists – is that from the word go, they have rigidly stuck to an agenda which purports that mainstream school is best for every child. We firmly believe that mainstream school is not the right environment for James, but that our views, the people who know him best, are not being listened to. It seems to us that North Somerset are convinced that James must ‘try’ mainstream school and that special school can only be considered if he flounders and fails. The idea of putting James through this upheaval is devastating for us when we believe all the evidence points to him thriving in a specialist environment.
We intend to challenge this appalling decision every step of the way and ask that this email be forwarded to the chair of the panel, along with a request to disclose the names of those on the panel. As an elected and publicly funded body those on the panel are personally accountable for the decisions they make. Any failure to disclose this information calls into question the impartiality and integrity of the panel members. The decision making process so far has had a worrying lack of transparency.
In addition, we wish to make to make the following requests under the Freedom of Information Act:
1) What percentage of children considered for statutory assessment are refused at the first hearing.
2) What percentage of children whose parents request special schooling for their children have their request accepted.
I believe you are obliged to provide this information within 20 days.