Two Children, One School?

Both my children currently attend mainstream primary school where in theory they both access the same educational opportunities. My daughter is neurotypical with no additional support needs and my son is autistic and has benefitted from additional support. I value their equitable access to school, and I have worked with the school to ensure my son’s needs are met within the same school as his sister and his peers. Did I make it sound simple?

Scotland’s journey towards inclusion is a work in progress.

Well, there are funding choices being made that may make the presumption of mainstreaming impossible to achieve for many disabled children. Please be in no doubt a failure to provide adequate support in mainstream schools for children with additional support needs is to choose to discriminate against disabled children. Underfunding risks creating a situation where constructive exclusion can occur meaning children are confined to special schools or home education. There is a need for quality, mandatory training so head teachers, class teachers and teaching assistants are not overwhelmed, unsupported or lacking in confidence. This lack of knowledge can lead to a lack of empathy allowing discrimination to occur for example, I have been asked to understand “how busy they are” and to remember that “these children often get off to a slow start in school”. The lack of knowledge around autistic communication is also an issue leading to instances of unnecessary physical handling of my son. Communication between schools and families can be difficult, overwhelming and often family’s voices are not heard. These negative experiences can create an adversarial relationship between families and schools and leave families isolated in school communities. There is a real need for schools to find ways to communicate with families in an open and mutually respectful way that allows space for families to be able to share knowledge based on their own lived experience. There are difficulties in the present system but working towards inclusion is still achievable.

When it works it’s worth it!

OK so, friends don’t need funding or special training. A school can help promote inclusion by making sure all the children are involved with their peers which means happier and more confident children across the classroom. As soon as my son had support to help make friends, he was much happier. And some teachers just seem to get it. They simply teach to my son’s strengths and I’m glad to say his teacher this year is great. My son is confident with her and when children feel happy, they are learning. It’s particularly noticeable when a school staff member has personal experience of disability and then they seem to have a great relationship with him quite naturally. This highlights the importance of recruiting people with lived experience of disability into the school system and of forming relationships with families who have lived experience of disability. Good quality training is still necessary of course and the most progressive and insightful training comes from disabled or autistic people’s organisations who have first-hand knowledge and skills. I imagine that teachers were once the kids that loved school and thrived there, so maybe that’s why they sometimes struggle to relate to kids that don’t experience that environment in the same way. In fact, most teachers probably didn’t have the opportunity to attend a school where they knowingly shared a classroom with a disabled classmate; it’s so important schools now break that cycle and work towards inclusion. ​

A24 Scotland’s Future

I am a member of A24, a new organisation in Scotland which works to achieve inclusive education for all children and young people in Scotland’s schools. We are a group of parents of disabled children, disabled people, practitioners and researchers. I support the aims of A24 because I want both my children to continue to belong in our local school community and because all children do better in inclusive education systems. Children with disabilities who experience mainstream education are healthier, happier and will be more likely to participate in their communities. They have an improved outcome in terms of employment and independent living after school which ultimately saves money. They learn academics plus develop socially and emotionally. In fact, all the students in mainstream settings have daily opportunities to practice social skills like acceptance, patience and empathy when disabled children are present. All the children experience how to live, learn and play together. Growing up you learn who you are from the influences around you. School education systems can help set your expectations for life. I want to ensure that my son is as welcomed and valued as my daughter is in a mainstream setting and he is not regarded as a guest who can be uninvited at any time. He deserves equity in his experience of education. Most importantly he has the right to be in the same school as his sister and his friends and he wants to be included with them.

The start of a journey

Photo of a pair of child's purple Piedro boots on a children's car play mat placed as though choosing which road to go along.

I am often asked what school my son will attend when he starts next year. When my daughter was at the same stage he is now, there was no question that she would go to our local primary school.

This time around there is a question and it’s a loaded one. It relates to whether he will attend mainstream or special school. He is a very bright and capable boy who has cerebral palsy, which simply means he has very little control over his body. In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that he will go to the same local primary school that his big sister attends.

That sentiment is reinforced by his speech and language therapist. When he was about two years old, before I even knew the relevance, she told me that there’s a presumption of mainstream education in Scotland. 

Although that presumption has stuck with me and has been reiterated by other professionals working with us, I now realise that the system as it stands is more complicated. There are a number of exceptions to the presumption of mainstream. Those exceptions have the potential to affect a number of peers that we met through early intervention support groups. 

Even though we are in no doubt that mainstream is for our son those peers are now at the point of having to make a decision about placement. Should they choose mainstream? It has the convenience of the local primary school along with siblings and friends but may lack much needed resources and expertise. Or should they choose the area’s special school which has great facilities and specialist teachers but with the inconvenience of additional travel and segregation from peers and local community? The choice is not an easy one. 

Through A24 I now understand that not only is there a presumption to mainstream but also that there is a right to education as stated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Just last week the Scottish Government announced its intention to incorporate it fully and directly into law. That means my son has the same right as everyone else to an education. The same right as his sister. The same right as his friends and peers. 

Of course, his right to education can be fulfilled in either a mainstream or a special school. As the system stands we have a choice to make for our son that we didn’t need to make for his sister. It’s a choice where neither option is perfect. Each option only offers a compromise. 

However over and above that stands the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 24 recognises ‘the right of persons with disabilities to education…Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning…’

So not only does my son have a right to education he also has a right to education along with his friends. He’s not special, he’s just like everyone else except that he needs a bit more support than most. He has every right to be in the same classroom as everyone else his age. 

As he finishes the first term of his pre-school nursery year, preparations for his transition to primary one are about to begin. We are embarking on a journey, along with a full raft of supporting professionals, through an education system that doesn’t necessarily fit as well as it could. I feel sure that we’ve made the right choice but surely there must be a way to build an inclusive education system which enables full recognition of everyone’s rights and ensures that children with disabilities are included in their communities from the very beginning?

Harry’s story

Photo of a young man in a green t-shirt hiding behind a pile of books (only his arms are visible) that are sitting on a wooden table.

A child’s right to an inclusive, appropriate, efficient education is agreed in international and national policy. In practice, though, what does it mean to have all local children born within the same year in the same classroom? And why does this still not always happen?

My child, let’s call him Harry, does not attend any school at the moment. For him, school is a place not of belonging, but of feeling different. He is very able and bright, and finds learning ideas, concepts and facts very straightforward. He easily makes connections between aspects of his knowledge, bringing interesting observations and questions to family conversations daily. However, producing responses is very challenging for Harry. Written work is a bedrock of school activity, and as a result school quickly becomes a place of failure and stress when he attends. 

A focus on minute detail makes him very good at many aspects of academic work. The same focus creates huge discomfort when faced with eating at a desk with crumbs. Inflexible attention to rules makes his behaviour very reliable. The same inflexibility is affronted when teachers alter timetables or use reward systems without consistency. 

A diagnosis of autism explains these challenges, and others. It is not easy to create an environment in which these needs can be met in conjunction with so many other classroom demands: curricular, social, emotional. It’s also not easy to be the person who feels that they are receiving disproportionate attention and being singled out. It isn’t easy being the child who can’t finish writing a learning objective, let alone the task, in the time given. 

I do not have the answers to the perfect classroom. The right of all children to attend their local school is only realised when all aspects of school life are allowed to be scrutinised and adapted according to the needs of all the children. For some children this is an extremely time-consuming process. We didn’t know Harry’s fear of lunchtimes in P1 until P3. It took a while to understand how it felt to be placed in a small class with other autistic children, the only commonality being their diagnosis, to be taught ‘social skills’ in an environment of low academic expectations. We may never fully know how he felt in P7 when his self-esteem and mental health plummeted and we brainstormed other educational arrangements.

Now he is safe, well and learning. He is happy. He is involved in his community. I don’t know if he is as aware as I am of his peers having easy relationships with each other, borne through common experiences at school. The right to an education is being met, but the right to inclusion at a local school isn’t. Inclusion isn’t easy, but it is right.

Why A24?

A24 is a new organisation in Scotland. A24 or Article 24 is named after the section of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities that aims to secure inclusive education.

A24 wants to achieve inclusive education for all children and young people in Scotland’s schools. Inclusive education is a human rights issue. All children and young people learn better in inclusive schools; schools that take full account of difference.  

We are a group of parents of disabled children, disabled people, practitioners and researchers. We want Scottish education to keep moving forward on its journey with inclusive education.

Scotland generally does well in inclusive ways. However it can do better. Almost all disabled children and disabled young people attend their local school with their friends. We are concerned that in Scotland now there are plans to reduce that very high level by failing to plan for inclusive education and looking to increase the uptake in segregated special schooling.

We want to build on the successes of Scottish education, not turn back the clock and institutionalise our disabled children and young people. We think inclusive education should be the aim of our national policy and legislation framework. 

In Scotland seven authorities don’t have segregated special schools. Several only have one. We want every education authority to be inclusive and plan and resource inclusive education rather leave schools to struggle.

The resources are available right now to achieve these aims. For instance the Scottish Parliament have debated inclusion several times but never considered how to plan for inclusive education. They have never taken account of international conventions such as UNCRPD and the General Comment No.4.

As a result of this lack of political leadership from politicians Scotland is now being left behind by countries like Italy and Portugal. They placed human rights and planning and resourcing inclusive education at the centre of policy. We should do the same.

We want to see every education authority having a legal duty to provide inclusive education without exception. We want to have specialist support being available to all schools rather than segregated provision and hoarding of resources in special schools.

We want every school to plan and identify ways to improve their approach to including all children. We need teachers and support staff in every classroom confident and competent in the range of practice for inclusive education. We want all children to be supportive of each other in their school community.

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