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.