While watching A Special School a documentary following pupils and teachers in Britain’s biggest special school I wanted to tell everyone I knew to watch it. My initial reaction was to tell people so they could meet the children. The characters; the cheese eater, the teller of dirty jokes, the musician. Them all. The children are everything.
But the more thought I give to the situation the more I hesitate to tell people about it. The thing is I don’t agree with the setup of a super special school because it fails those children. Yes it meets their rights to an education but it falls short of the right to an inclusive education.
Don’t get me wrong the school has the best facilities. I can understand why any parent would want their child to go there and access exactly what their child needs. The staff are brilliant. They ‘get it’. The entire ethos to focus on what the children can do and not what they can’t is exactly my feeling for my own son.
So then why wouldn’t I want to send my son there? There are warning bells when they say the children need a physical activity first thing to get them ready to learn. I have nothing against using up energy in order to settle active children but the reason? Some of them have been sitting in a taxi for an hour just to get there. For a start that means each day they spend two hours in isolation in the back of a taxi. It also means that most of their week is spent an hour away from the community they live in. Their communities don’t have an opportunity to get to know these children and they don’t learn to value them as contributors to society.
That takes us to the cliff edge. One of the teachers admitted that despite everything they do to help realise potential, once the children leave the protection of the school they often fall off a cliff edge. They are not known in their own communities. They don’t have friends there. They can’t get jobs.
While at school these children most often dream of having their own front door and a job. Just like everyone else they need a purpose in life but I worry that the dreams are already limited. We often dream for our son. Will he be a tech wizard? He’s only five and is already proficient at operating a computer using only his eyes. Will he be flying helicopters? He sits in his wheelchair and points them out to us in the sky.
Right from the start of my journey with my son I’ve said there are people who ‘get it’ and people who don’t. Usually the reason people have got it is they know someone with additional needs. They have a family member who has down syndrome or they’ve worked with someone with cerebral palsy. Without that exposure how can we expect people to understand and not be scared. I’m sure I was in the beginning.
On the programme one parent had fought hard to get her daughter into this Special School. She had a tear in her eye watching the school’s nativity. Finally she’d found somewhere that her daughter fitted in. One of the problems she cited with the previous school was that the other children struggled with her daughter. So rather than teach these children from early on about coping strategies and ways to help this girl instead they removed her so that they could all get on with living their lives oblivious to the ways their school doesn’t welcome everyone. Where does that leave any of them when she leaves school and returns to that community looking for work and connection?
One classroom in the school had eight autistic boys. The teacher explained that there were four teachers in order to cope with ‘the domino effect’. If one gets distressed or upset it most likely would affect others in some way and so the entire classroom would break down. I know that it’s good to know people who are the same and to see others with similar diagnoses (Crip Camp on Netflix is a perfect example of how well that can work) but it surely doesn’t make sense to lump everyone with the same condition together.
I’d love for my son to meet other eye gaze users and have an opportunity to communicate with them but for the everyday and in order to learn he really needs someone who’s not using AAC to model for him and to interpret. My favourite photo from school is his new friend holding up his yes/no cards for him to choose. She was asking him about weird concoctions for a picnic they were planning. He had the ultimate say and therefore some power in that relationship.
It’s not an opportunity for her to learn from him or for him to learn from her but for them both to learn together. I’m well aware that the early years are easier and may get harder as he moves up the school but we need to push through and keep hanging onto children’s acceptance despite our own adult discomfort. The more we and our communities learn about and accept these children the less likely they are to face a cliff edge.
I wish every child could attend a school as special as A Special School where the can do attitude goes along with the creativity to adapt the resources for every child no matter their needs. A place for all children together to be a part of their own communities where they will learn and be valued.