Still more battles to be fought and won.

Having made so  uch progress to wards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

Having made so much progress towards a more inclusive education system, now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

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 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.

A tour de force for learning

The shopkeepers of York were inspired by the Tour de France which visited the city this weekend. Can such inspiration be harnessed for teaching and learning?

The shopkeepers of York were inspired by the Tour de France which visited the city this weekend. Can such inspiration be harnessed for teaching and learning?

Sara and I have just returned from watching the first two stages of the Tour de France – in Yorkshire. If you are baffled by the reason we went to the north of England to watch this quintessentially French event I should perhaps explain that “La Grande Boucle”, the world’s most spectacular annual sporting event, often visits other countries in order to provide cycle racing fans with an opportunity to feel that they are a part of the spectacle. I have, like many in this country, been riding a bicycle since I was a child and trying to ride quite fast around the local lanes, often with friends from my club the Rockingham Forest Wheelers, has become a source of both exercise and relaxation. I should warn you in advance that in common with many who pursue this particular sporting pastime, should you ever find yourself in conversation with me about cycling I can bore you for hours with discussion of gear ratios, the records of Eddy Merckx or the comparative merits of shimano or campagnolo (campag every time for me – no competition there really!).

I had not intended mentioning the Tour de France on this blog, as it seems far removed from the usual topics under discussion on these pages. However, first thing this morning I read Nancy Gedge’s  blog “The Diary of a Not So Ordinary Boy” through which Nancy gives regular accounts of her life with Sam her son who has Down’s syndrome. I have written about this blog before (March 16th 2014), and regularly read Nancy’s page as it provides positive insights into aspects of parenting of a young man with special educational needs.

In her most recent blog piece “Tour de Town” Nancy Gedge describes how Sam has suddenly found a new passion for riding his bicycle and has increased his confidence and competence as a cyclist. She describes how for some time cycling with Sam was a somewhat laboured occupation as he moved so slowly that at times he almost ground to a halt. This has obviously been a source of some frustration to Nancy who recounts how she is often anxious about getting to places on time and reluctantly resorts to using a car (a far inferior form of transport to the bicycle many of us believe) in order to get around efficiently. However, Nancy’s worries are at an end, whilst it is unlikely that Sam will ever emulate the performances of Mark Cavendish or Bradley Wiggins, he is now speeding along at a pace that may even challenge his mother and has a new found zest for two wheeled propulsion to be admired.

The most interesting aspect of Sam’s transformation from a cycling tortoise to a two wheeled hare is the source of inspiration that has enabled him to make this significant progress. Nancy Gedge speculates on the reason for this sudden change and asks the rhetorical questions:-

“Had we taken him on training runs?  Did we practice with him in the evenings?  Take him to a cycling club?  Buy him a yellow jersey or show him video footage of Bradley Wiggins?”

Apparently none of these tactics had been used. The source of this transformative process had been much more simple and one that we often witness in children, namely the influence of a friend and role model. Nancy describes how a young man, often employed as a “babysitter” for Sam, who is an enthusiastic cyclist had proven to be an inspiration for her son who now wants to be just like this lad and ride at a similar speed and with the same confidence.

Reading Nancy’s blog I was not surprised by this heartening tale. It would be foolish for those of us who work in education not to give full credit to the teaching which is provided by peers. Children are often far more impressed by those who are slightly older than themselves than they are by the adults in their lives. This applies to both parents and teachers, who may often be seen as authoritative figures with aspirations that do not totally equate to those of the children in their care. However, the influence of a young role model can often inspire learning as children attempt to imitate the behaviours and demeanour of their near contemporaries. Such has clearly been the case with Sam as it has with many others before him. As teachers we need to harness opportunities like these. Learning often comes from the inspiration of the moment and with encouragement can lead to surges in competence and a new enthusiasm for learning. I suspect that the recent events at the football world cup in Brazil will have encouraged many youngsters to go out and hone their skills or join a football club, just as I anticipate that the numbers of new cyclists on the roads of Yorkshire this weekend, inspired by the professionals who raced through the county, will be considerable.

Teachers need to get their inspiration for enabling their pupils to progress wherever they can. Sam’s source of learning was another young man for whom he clearly holds some admiration. Others will be moved to participate by a great sporting event. As educators we must grasp these opportunities, build upon them and enable our students to recognise such sources of learning as valuable in their lives.

Speeding cyclists pass in an instant, but the inspiration that they provide can make a difference.

Speeding cyclists pass in an instant, but the inspiration that they provide can make a difference.