In March of last year I referred to a blog called Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy, written by the mother of a boy named Sam who has Down’s syndrome (No right of access to the “ordinary” world? March 16th 2014). Sam’s mother also happens to be a teacher. I regularly follow this blog which provides insights into both the pleasures and challenges of a parent, who is clearly very perceptive in respect of current educational initiatives, and also has strong opinions of the provision that should be making for children such as her son. There have been times when I have smiled at the successes shared, such as Sam’s achievements in making friends through riding his bicycle (something to which I can certainly relate), but sometimes the writing also has the opposite effect and makes me wonder at the obstacles put in the way of Sam and his mother.
Earlier today I read Sam’s mother’s latest offering, titled “Battle Weary” (January 3rd 2015). You can read this for yourself at http://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/. Far from being a piece that celebrated the many achievements of her son, this contribution left me wondering about the kind of educational uncertainty that has been created in the UK in recent years. On initial reading I found this latest article thoroughly depressing, but on re-reading it a couple of hours later my emotions have perhaps moved further in the direction of disappointment with the inadequacies displayed by those of us who have advocated for a more inclusive education system.
“Battle Weary” is indeed an apt title for the posting in question, because it begins with a reminder that parents were at the forefront of campaigns to achieve the right of all children, regardless of need or ability, to be educated alongside their peers in mainstream classrooms. However it concludes with a depressing assertion that many parents are now exhausted from their efforts to ensure that when children do enter mainstream schools, they receive the education that they need and the support of committed teachers. The implication is that seeking the rights of children to the most basic of educational needs has become an impossible mission, causing many parents to withdraw their children from mainstream schools and seek a special school placement.
Sam’s mother lists a number of factors that she sees as having contributed to the failure of schools to meet the needs of many children. Inadequate training of teachers, poor resourcing and the over emphasis upon academic attainment and narrowly focused assessment and testing procedures are all seen as inhibiting progress. These are certainly contributors to the difficulties with moving the inclusion agenda forward that are recognised by many teachers and families. However, one particular paragraph in the blog caused me particular despondency and makes me wonder about our failures as educators. Sam’s mother writes:-
“I can’t count the times I see the relationship between parents of children with special needs and the schools they attend characterised as a battle. As a parent I’ve been labelled as pushy, or fussy, and difficult; precious. I’ve alluded to the magnifying effect of Down’s syndrome, the way that everything is harder, slower, in sharper relief. Parents are under pressure. Teachers are under pressure. Add to that a challenging child, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, but what you have is a powder keg, a road crash waiting to happen, and one that echoes, continues to affect families and subsequent teachers, for years to come. It was a shock to realise that maybe I wasn’t as awkward as I was made to feel”.
This paragraph emphasises how easy it is for relationships between professionals and parents to break down. I suspect that many teachers might suggest that the lack of empathy described here is the result of the pressures that they are working under in schools. Certainly Sam’s mother, herself a teacher, acknowledges that these stresses are genuine, and is not suggesting that teaching children who are seen as more “challenging” or “less able” than their peers is a simple task. If truly inclusive schooling is to be achieved, gaps between the views and expectations of both teachers and parents are clearly going to have to be closed, and this will demand a lot more work on the part of schools.
If I was the parent of a child who was struggling at school, and for whom I felt inadequate provision was being made, I too would be “pushy”. It was largely as a result of the efforts made by parents, many of whom were perceived as being demanding and awkward, that a recognition of the marginalisation of children with special educational needs was achieved. Sadly, Sam’s mother, and many others like her, are now beginning to turn their backs on mainstream schools that they feel are not addressing the needs of their children. My greatest fear is that many education policy makers and some school managers will be happy to see these parents leave and will feel that their reservations about a more inclusive education system are fully justified.
I recall that throughout the 1980s and 1990s many parents and professionals stood together to fight for the right of children such as Sam to attend mainstream schools. Perhaps having largely achieved this aim, too many of those professionals felt that the battle was won. It is evident from the expressions of frustration expressed not only by Sam’s mother, but by many others in similar situations, that this is far from the case. I do hope that there are parents who may still have enough faith left in those teachers who remain committed to a more just approach to education, to join with them to see the journey that they commenced together through to a more satisfactory conclusion. A failure to do so will result in yet further generations of children being pushed to the margins.