New beginnings

I wonder what life is like behind these doors?

I wonder what life is like behind these doors?

A couple of mornings ago, cycling along the last stretch of road approaching the university I passed small groups of young children with their parents and clusters of teenagers making their way to school. It was the first day of a new academic year and it was evident that for some it was to be the beginning of life at a new school. Shining in their new uniforms these children made their way with a mixture of excitement and apprehension towards the school gates, some looking anxiously towards “old lags” for whom this journey is already well established and wondering if they too would soon be crossing the school threshold with such confidence.

Starting a new school is a rite of passage in the lives of most of us at some point, and I well recall my own feelings on starting secondary school in Gloucester. I did so with a mixture of excited anticipation about a school where I would play rugby and have opportunities to learn French and work in science laboratories, but I also recall a few apprehensions, mainly related to the mythological horror stories concerning the ways in which older students sometimes bullied newcomers, and the austere demeanour that seemed to characterise some secondary school teachers. These feelings probably lasted no more than a few days and before long I felt that I was part of a community and my time in the primary school simply faded into memory.

These recollections are particularly to the forefront of my mind at present following a conversation I had last week with a colleague whose daughter was about to begin her secondary education at a new school this Wednesday. Like others, this girl was filled with mixed emotions of anticipation and worries and had spent a few weeks asking her parents and friends hundreds of questions about what lay ahead. Being at least outwardly calm my colleague and her husband had remained positive, providing lots of reassurance and encouraging their daughter to see this new adventure as a positive move forward in her life. However, at the back of their minds were anxieties which whilst hidden, were equally strong as those openly expressed by their daughter. Theirs were feelings that they suppressed in order to lower levels of apprehension and ensure a positive approach to the days ahead.

You see Mary (not her real name) has Down’s syndrome. She has up to this point enjoyed the experience of a small mainstream primary school, where she has made friends and worked well alongside her established classmates, making reasonable progress in learning and demonstrating her many strengths as an individual. It took her some time to settle into the school that she has attended for the past six years, but overall the experience has been positive and she has been happy throughout the first half of her formal schooling. But now she is going to the “big school” and rather than working in one classroom and having one teacher each year who knows her well, and has learned about her little foibles and idiosyncrasies, she will have to find her way around many rooms and get to know a different teacher for each subject.

Mary’s way of dealing with this is to reassure herself by asking questions, many of them repeated each day, of those most likely to give her a positive response. Her anxieties have been palpable and her parents and friends have been conscious of the need to make positive responses. But at the back of their mind were a range of concerns about how Mary would adjust, whether she would make new friends and how teachers would address her individual needs. I am sure that across the country many other parents have been going through a similar range of emotions and have had equally sleepless nights.

When Wednesday dawned and Mary stood in her new uniform ready for the short journey to school her mother suggests she had difficulty holding back a few tears. However, she had to “put on a brave face” as she told me, in order that Mary went to school as full of confidence as they could manage. Throughout the day Mary’s mother could not settle to work and each time the telephone rang she anticipated that it just might be a call from the school. But thankfully the call never came.

On Wednesday evening Mary arrived home full of news. She began by reeling off a list of her new friends and followed this with an account of the school meals (of which she apparently approves) and a report of a maths lesson where the teacher made the whole class laugh. Over her evening meal Mary talked incessantly about Thursday’s timetable and the experiences she was anticipating in the days ahead – and by the way, could they go and buy a hockey stick on Saturday?

The school had made Mary welcome and both she and her parents are greatly relieved. It is early days yet and doubtless, as with any other student, there will be challenges ahead. But what is evident is that the school in which Mary has enrolled has fulfilled the first obligation of being inclusive. They have made Mary feel welcome and wanted. Already in her first few days Mary feels that she is a part of this school and is keen to attend and do her best. Her mother tells me:-

“I always knew it would be alright. I don’t really know why I got myself so wound up about it!”  

I hope that in years to come Mary and her parents will look back on these early days of secondary education and laugh at the thought that was in the back of their minds that she may have not become a part of this local school community. I also hope and feel quietly confident, that the school staff will continue to value Mary’s presence as a student in their community and recognise the contribution that she can make alongside her new friends.