Are Special Schools Fit for Purpose?

For some, this is a daft question. Of course, they are fit for purpose! Of course, we need them! This is the place for young people with severe and complex needs; this is where they are provided with specialist equipment and specialist teachers that you might never find in mainstream. In special schools, these young people feel they belong, they are included. If you take the time to watch them, chatting away to their peers, an adult or alone, you will see how happy they are. How safe!

But are they fit for purpose?

In a sense, yes. For those students with severe cognitive impairment, who will not progress beyond P Scales throughout the duration of their time in education, I would say, yes. If these same students with severe cognitive difficulty are also violent, non verbal, require specialist IT equipment to communicate, then once again, yes.

However, as with any organisation or group, special schools possess a rainbow of students. There are those who began their journey with little language, poor social skills and progress that did not go past P Scales but with great teaching or maturity or their own thirst to improve, they have broken through those barriers. There are those, who with time, perform as well or even better than their peers without SEND. There are those, who with time, have come to show that they are capable of accessing the same subjects and curricula as the latter students. So the question is clear:

For these learners, is it necessary for them to go to special schools?

The answer is simple, absolutely not. Special schools are only fit for purpose if they are able to provide the curriculum which allows their students to progress to their best self. If the students, who perform as well as their non SEND peers are in a system that is stuck on P Scales, it is possible that such school are not adequately meeting the need of their students.

Yet, even in this case, there are those who would argue that regardless of the academic possibilities of the child, the young person’s  ability to participate socially takes precedence. And it is in special schools that the social skills of SEND learners are often fostered and brought to the fore.  This is the place where they are given copious opportunities to interact and communicate with others without judgment or too much fear. And so, they would argue, that even though special schools might not challenge these learners academically, at least socially that child would be able to interact with the world.

Special schools, as with all schools, should be able to meet the needs of a learner both socially and academically. In both areas, it should allow the learner to progress and achieve to the best of their ability. If it not able to cater to these areas, then it is not functioning as it should. I admit that for some special schools, with a high number of both able and less able students, it is an extremely challenging situation.  How do they effectively provide a curriculum that caters to those on P Scales and those on national curriculum levels, especially if they are mixed across classes and key stages?

In a situation like this, I think schools should create two streams of pupils within the school, one for those who are able and one for those who are less able. Doing this would mean that subjects like Maths, English and Science at the very least, are taught at the appropriate level to challenge all learners. It would also mean that teachers would not have to struggle to teach students at P Scales and at Level / Stage 3 or above in the same lesson. This of course, might be an unrealistic suggestion as special schools often struggle to recruit staff and so may not have the manpower or monetary resources to make this type of streaming possible.

Could there be another way?

I suspect, there might be an even more difficult solution. In cases where special schools have come to realise that there are students who with time, are performing far above what their schools provide, parents should be contacted and alternative arrangements made. This could be by linking the student to a main stream school to pursue interests to a higher level or it could be by transitioning the learner to a mainstream school with a SEN Unit. The impact of funding on special schools if this is to be done could be vast, in some cases catastrophic if many students fit this category. However, isn’t it a part of any educational establishment’s duty of care to ensure that their students are able to be their best?

But luckily…

…the winds are changing in special education and the government’s changes now mean that more students with SEND are able to attend mainstream schools. In this way, those students who with time can perform as well as their non SEND peers, have the opportunity to experience a vaster range of subjects. They have greater opportunity to discover their innate talents and gifts, the areas for which they have a flair. It is possible that in these environments, these students can see that the sky is the limit but they just have to take their own time to get there. I believe that mainstream schools are also awakening to the reality that for these students, it is important to balance the social and the academic for these students. Therefore, more emphasis is being placed on both the social and the academic to ensure that these students are given the opportunity to develop independence and resilience.

So, are special schools fit for purpose?

Of course they are! But only if the curriculum is right.

 

 

 

 

Teaching Jekyll Junior

66850206-iceberg-wallpapers

A Teacher’s Reflection on a post by @GwynneMiriam

It is so self satisfying to believe that he is having meltdowns at home because we [teachers] give him something better at school. It deifies us, allows us to have the stage that we are so often swept off of by celebrity politicians. Suddenly, we can shine and claim to the world that we have the healing stuff. But the illusion must stop! When faced with children who are radically different at home and school, children who are violent and aggressive depending on which environment they are in, no one should be seeking glorification. Instead, we should be seeking to understand why. We should be seeking to help!

It is true, teachers are not social workers. We are not therapists! We can not fix every conceivable human issue by the wave of a hand and the mumble of a few words. We are there to teach, to instruct, to lead our young people into a new horizon of academic excellence. Yet, this journey is not in isolation. While leading our young into new realities and visions of a better self, we will interact with myriad other agencies. Therefore, it is wise that we work with these agencies effectively and efficiently because it is the only way we can help in the development of the best possible human beings. This will never be the case, if we educate them to an A* yet never help them to see the value in treating their families and friends well.

So, who is Jekyll? He is the charming young man who turns up neat and ready to learn each day. In class, he works ardently never wavering in his attention or goal. His answers are on point and it’s a pleasure to have him in the room. And you wouldn’t have guessed that his parents had had to drag him kicking and screaming to the car in order to get him in to school. You wouldn’t have dreamt that the night before, his parents had to restrain him so that he didn’t hurt them or possibly himself.

As a teacher, working alongside Jekyll Junior, we have no experience of the rage or the meltdowns. We have no experience of the violence that mars the face of the angel; we never see when they fall. So it’s easy to ignore the parents’ pleas for help or surmise that the trouble must be with them. However, we must consider the possibility that if Hyde exists and if he continues to rail unchecked, there might be a time when he is no longer confined to home but becomes the everyday reality. An everyday reality not just in school but into the future.

So, how do we help little Mr Hyde? I think the first step is to have an integrated approach to supporting the parent. This could be done by having a meeting with the teacher/school representative (SENCO), parents or carers and a family support worker. I believe that the parent should have a safe space to share their reality and their concerns. Parents should understand that it’s not about patronising them or judging them but enabling them to better support their child in these times. It is possible that having a Parent Support Group where confidentiality is emphasised could help to alleviate parents’ concerns about being viewed negatively. Within this setting, strategies should be suggested, acted on and reviewed. Where parents feel uncomfortable with a group setting, a more individualised approach could be taken.

In schools, we are encouraged to use social stories and comic strip conversations to help children to understand how to respond in social situations or to process their feelings within situations. Parents must also be equipped with these strategies or have access to individuals to help in the creation of these to support their children. Parents need to understand more than just medicating their children. They need proven strategies that will help them to reduce the levels of anxieties in their homes.

When students are violent in school, staff members are trained in using methods to deescalate and where necessary restrain a child. When this is used, the dignity of the child is kept to the forefront and so it is done in as positive a way as possible. Have we considered what happens when a parent who isn’t trained suddenly have to restrain their child? The mental and physical agony that both parent and child might experience is perhaps unfathomable. Therefore, it is clear that parents of violent children should be taught to use specific methods to restrain and maintain safety whilst also prizing their child’s dignity and self respect. When restraint methods are used correctly, there is no doubt that the aftermath is less fraught with emotions and bitterness. This is necessary if positive and healthy family relationships are going to be maintained. This should be the outcome that we seek.

Support Workers /School Representatives (SENCOs) should also be encouraged to visit the homes of these students so that they too can be witnesses of these behaviours. It is important here to stress that  a coherent and corroborated view of the child should be made. It wasn’t long ago that a parent lied about a child’s state of health, had the child operated on and tried to stunt their growth because of their lust for money. So, it’s important for these agencies to gain a fully rounded view of the child. If enough trust is build with these bodies and the parents, it is possible that that parent will be less defensive about letting these agencies into their homes. This could lead to more opportunities for outside agencies and the school representatives to witness the behaviour of the child through videos or home visits.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the mental health of young people. CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) appears to be under a lot of pressure, with waiting lists that seem to be a mile long. These services are extremely important in providing support for parents and helping them to cope with children who display challenging behaviour. In these cases, time is of the essence. If help isn’t given quickly enough, then the challenging behaviour could become a part of the routine and then by the time they get seen it might very well be too late. It is therefore crucial that parents are made aware of these services and provided with details of how to access them.

So yes, it’s been lovely teaching Jekyll Junior. However, it is important to remember that if Hyde is left unchecked, he might just be the future. This should not be left to chance.

 

 

A Hope and A Future

206779_10150151591156307_7172188_n-copy

My baby brother is 16. He is autistic and yes, there is a future for him. It took some time for my mum and I to see the signs but when he was diagnosed, it all became clear. Through it all, we have never once thought that this limits him. Instead, we believe that given time, he will be better than he was before.

Working in special education doesn’t mean that we are teaching students who are underachieving. It means that we are teaching students who might need more processing time. Therefore, as teachers and leaders within SEN, it is important that our expectations remain high, that classwork remains personalised and challenging.

I understand perfectly that some students with Aspergers or ASD might be non verbal. For these students, progress might mean being able to use PECs (Pupil Exchange Communication System) effectively to communicate their wants or needs. However, regardless of need, we must find a way to push them one step further in their journey.

At the heart of this journey is the knowledge of who these young people are. What are their likes / dislikes? What do they repeatedly talk about? At the sound of which word, do they begin stimming with excitement? These are the signifiers. They are a sign of their motivators and something that we should take to heart. Who would have thought that my little brother’s fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine or our repeated journeys on DLR trains would ever be more than that? For many years, it seemed a game, an amusement. To this day, his lists of presents are usually started with another request for a Hornby Train to add to his collection. When he was old enough and thoughtful enough to answer what he wanted to be, his answers would be simple and quick: train driver! So many of my students today have the same answer. Regardless of skill, many of them are so fascinated with the tracks and how they can make this a profession. Yet, so often teachers can dismiss the dream because they seem to come from some place of automaticity rather than careful thought.

When the time came for my brother to start to apply for sixth form, he didn’t quibble or dance about. He knew instinctively that he wanted to study BTEC Engineering because he would get to work on trains. My elation and pride was undeniable not only because he knew what he wanted but because in one way or another, he had been getting ready for this his whole life. When we went with him to tour a possible Sixth Form, he was naming the equipments he saw and telling my mum about their uses. He could easily reference old DT classes and his experience of the equipments. It was in this moment that the last two gifts he requested also made sense. He had wanted Snap Circuits so that he could experiment with creating light and sound in his room. No game, no experience seemed a coincidence and once again, I felt the magic in High Functioning Autism; that almost evolutionary quality of focus that can bring about extraordinary things.

Consequently, my belief once again that every Autistic student should be challenged was reinforced. Although there are many students who might not be able to complete the 5 or 8 GCSEs that are so prized, it is incumbent on how as educators to ensure that students are able to access as wide and as broad a curriculum that is possible. If they are passionate about ICT and Computing, give them the avenue to prepare for this. Even if they are not as strong in Maths and or English, these subjects must be priority as it prepares for a life beyond school and so the level at which this is taught must be appropriate and with sufficient challenge. Beyond this, having access to quality vocational teaching from KS3 must be a priority for all schools because if these students are given the opportunity to produce their Magnum Opus, their potential will be unleashed! They will fly!

I had a conversation with a colleague recently about our Autistic Learners. We agreed that if we said “they can’t, then they won’t”. Therefore, we must make sure that we identify how our learners need to improve and then provide the scaffolding and the steps to get them there. By doing this, we’ll be able to see our learners grow and find the hope and the future that is waiting for them.

Tourettes – A School Teacher’s Guide

1 child in every 100 is affected by Tourettes so it is likely that at some point or another, a child with Tourettes may have sat in your classroom. It is a condition where students move and make sounds involuntarily and uncontrollably. The organisation Tourettes’ Action says “Educationally – TS can make it impossible for students to follow what is going on in class”. Of course, Tourettes can be mild so in mainstream education, we may barely notice it. When it becomes extreme, we do what we can and transition these students into special education where we believe they will be a little bit safer and a lot more accepted. Yet, due to the fact that extreme cases are rare they are still a minority within some special education schools. Consequently, even there, students may face “ridicule, bullying and social exclusion”. As a result, schools and teachers must create an approach to caring for young people with Tourettes that builds their confidence and reduce any aspect of social exclusion and bullying.

Schools can of course raise the profile of this disorder by:

  1. incorporating information about disorders such as Tourettes in the curriculum through PSHE lessons
  2. creating assemblies which raises awareness of the disorder
  3. having facilities and systems which enables students to exercise everyday
  4. having a zero tolerance for bullying and make sure that students who bully or ridicule these students are effectively dealt with

Within the classroom, class teachers are often swamped with a sense of urgency. Whether a student has Tourettes or not, we are compelled to push them to secure progress. However, when you ask this child to cut a piece of paper or write a few sentences, she is reduced to a meltdown or uncontrollable rage as they find this task somewhere beyond difficult. Other times when you might ask her to begin an age old activity, she may descend into despair thinking she’s useless and good for nothing and therefore feels unable to complete the task before her. Therefore, as class teachers we must act to build self confidence and to provide the support which will allow these learners to blossom and fulfil their potential. So the question remains: how?

As a class teacher you should:

  1. seat the student close to the door so that they can make a quick exit if  necessary
  2. provide students with a time out card to use if needed
  3. use lots and lots of praise to reinforce positive behaviours
  4. create a book with positive self talk and positive choices
  5. find out what this student is good at and give them ample opportunities to do this
  6. buddy them up with an understanding student to reduce effects of social exclusion
  7. use a bit of humour to help your student to smile and escape feelings of anxiety and stress
  8. never penalise the student for a behaviour that they can’t help

Of course there’s no one size fits all but I’m hoping that whether as a school or a teacher, you will be able to implement a few of these tips that will help your student to feel right at home.

 

a4e00bfa54d0227e9ed75c4e36467759