Guerrillamum's Blog


So how’s it been going…..?

Peter has now completed his first term at sixth form on his A level course.  For him, sixth form and A levels were the only choice really, he is still in a mainstream school, but has a place in the school’s Asperger’s Unit, which started the year he did at the school, and has now extended into the sixth form to continue to support those of its students who have progressed  there.  

He still has a similar package of support to that he had in the lower school, only TAs now perform the task of note takers.  They are on hand to help with organisation and planning of work and to help Peter manage his private study time.  In reality, much of the private study work lands with us at home in the form of homework.  This is because I think that Peter is really enjoying the social side of being at a sixth form, in a way that he didn’t in the lower school.  Out of necessity, the Aspergers Unit had its own place in the school, as children who have AS can cope poorly with the social aspects of being in a big school during break and lunch time.  This is when friendships are forged and Peter missed out.  He is really enjoying the fact that there is no separate social area for the young people with AS to go, (even if they need a refuge from the racket and noise) and he has had to learn to make friends.  This was very difficult and stressful to begin with and to be honest, I really missed the AS unit on his behalf, but he has actually made more friends than he ever did in the lower school.  I am very happy about that, and I know how lucky we are that he has been able to cope.  I know some  young people with AS struggle to make the transition.

In terms of work, he has kept up pretty well.  He has kept up with the essay type of work, and the practical side of his courses pretty well.  However, he is struggling with some aspects of the extended coursework in terms of planning and organisation, but is developing (with help) some strategies to cope with this, so I am optimistic that he will catch up.  He is also enjoying the enrichment courses.  These are things like rock climbing, football, business courses and Music.  He came home very happy today as he is now involved in music group and has been singing and playing music all afternoon.  

We are tremendously lucky that Peter has a place in a sixth form with the continued support from the AS unit.  His AS level predictions are optimistic and if he manages to keep up with the work load and to adapt to the unexpected demands it is making on him (lots of extended course work), I am hopeful that he will get some reasonable A levels.

We can only take things one step at a time, but I think it is fair to say that we are cautiously optimistic for the future.

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GuerrillaMum – Missing in Action

It has been a good few weeks since my last blog. I must confess to feeling somewhat battle fatigued due to the escapades of the new government and their effects on my children’s schooling and haven’t wanted to write as much as before. I have found it very stressful, watching the effects of the cuts and the changes to our education legislation take shape. My own children’s school recently became an academy, with only the sketchiest of consultation processes. The school’s defence to this when questioned was that they never arranged any meetings because they thought a consultation event would be poorly attended… we never stood a chance. The Local Authority has been trying to save money by messing with transport arrangements for statemented children, and have sent out some confusing letters for parents to worry about. Cuts to therapy services and educational psychology services are starting to have a bigger effect. SENCOs are walking around school looking increasingly stressed, and William is now finding himself ‘buddied’ up with other children to share teaching assistant support. We are watching this carefully but it is hard to object to this knowing that in doing so, another child may simply not get help at all. It is fair to say that some of the services our children rely on are simply not what they were.

In response to this I have found myself taking refuge in my garden more and more. My potatoes and raspberries have been very demanding as have my hens who still have not recovered from the effects the issuing of the Green Paper had on them. See here: https://guerrillamum.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/in-which-guerrilla-mums-hens-suffer-because-of-michael-gove/

; (wink)

I have not been entirely idle however. The people at the BBC Learning Parents blog have asked me to write a piece for them which can be seen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/parents/ You can also see posts from other writers/bloggers/parents with similar interests in special educational needs and parenting.

I’m hoping that I can shake off this coalition inspired malaise and get back to blogging soon. Normal service will I trust, be resumed shortly



In Which Guerrilla Mum’s hens suffer because of Michael Gove

In our house the Guerrilla Dad got up having listened to the 6.00 news on Radio 4 and went to let the hens out. Being a cheery chap he usually speaks to all the hens kindly and gently however, this morning he had heard the Green Paper on SEN & Disability was proposing to scrap statements and was proposing statutory mediation in a process which would be managed by the voluntary sector. ‘Big Society, Big &^%(*£”!! said GD as he grumpily put out the hens’ food. We later heard on Radio 4 a report suggesting that hens have empathy. Being empathetic they retreated to their hen house.

We are still checking the DfE website, and the hens are still hoping the GD’s mood improves because they do miss their little chats. It will not improve if the news does not very soon get better than what is touted by the Tory press.

GD is proposing that our William’s hen Queen Latifah should be seconded to the Dept of Education as an advisor, as he has seen precious little evidence of the government demonstrating empathy for children with SEN and disability. We think she could teach the government a lot…

I drove two unhappy children to school today who were worried that they would lose their places at school and their help because of what they had heard on the news.

More later. For the record, this is not my response to the Green Paper because I am waiting until I have actually read it – unlike some!



Spending on Special Needs faces cuts…

Over the past months I have watched the campaign to discredit children with special educational needs unfold with increasing alarm. I have listened as the spin doctors eased into the public consciousness words and phrases such as ‘over diagnosed’, ‘sharp elbowed parents’, ‘too many children have statements’, and (a real corker this one) ‘SEN is simply bad behaviour’. In terms of schools, Toby Young and others like him want something better than what is currently offered to all children in their local areas. Rather than improve or expand these schools for the benefit of all, the government is handing extremely large amounts of money over so they can set up Free Schools for the few that are more to their liking. Suddenly, it appears that the children of already well off and motivated parents are deserving of government money to boost their educational opportunities, and those who are disadvantaged either by economics or special educational needs are no longer deserving of the investment of public money. I predicted that children with SEN and disabilities would soon become the ‘benefit cheats’ of education, and here they are, apparently ensconced in schools that are ‘playing the system’ so they can gain extra funds for their schools.

In today’s Education Guardian Fran Abrams writes: ‘A green paper is expected to set out the future of special needs education this month – and there have been suggestions that ministers could use Ofsted’s findings to justify cutting the numbers classified as needing extra help.’ See the article here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/08/special-needs-spending-cuts?commentpage=last#end-of-comments

If this were to happen, as I worry it will, simply brushing students with special needs under the carpet is a very poor strategy indeed. They will still be there, and they will go through the education system unrecognised and un-helped, and a whole cohort of our youth will under achieve in their education. As if that wasn’t bad enough, vocational courses and newly ‘non-humanities’ subjects such as Music that suit some children are being simply rubbed out of existence due to the requirements of the English Baccalaureate. In Academyworld, all routes of redress that parents could previously take when they felt their children’s needs were not being met have been eliminated: the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal can no longer deal with appeals from parents of children who go to academies and parents can no longer complain to the council about admissions. All routes of redress for children attending academies lead to Gove. There is something very wrong about placing so much power with one person.

When I look at the narrowed curriculum so suddenly in vogue at the Dept for Education, I worry about our most vulnerable children and I wonder what the future holds for them. I hope that one day this government will be consigned to history as an administration which shaped and paid for education for a narrow elite and consigned the rest to second best. The nature of this is very short term, as children with special needs will not take their place as wage earners but will become dependent on health, social services and benefits, their potential and prospects for fulfilment untapped. It doesn’t have to be this way.



NHS told that autism diagnosis in children must improve!

The NHS has been told by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) that autism diagnosis in children must improve. You can see the Guardian’s article on the matter here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jan/27/autism-diagnosis-children-nhs-guidance

According to The Guardian, the NICE guidance ‘calls for every child with an autism spectrum disorder to be assigned a case co-ordinator to act as a single point of contact, and to have an individual profile created that sets out their needs.’

Surely they are missing a point? The new guidelines only call for children already diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to have a case co-ordinator. Don’t get me wrong! I welcome the introduction of case co-ordinators to work with children with ASDs but what about all the other children with equally difficult special needs? I do not think access to a case co-ordinator should be dependent on the child being formally diagnosed, or on any specific diagnosis.

Furthermore the article says that NICE has decreed ‘NHS staff need to liaise more and to engage better with schools, social care providers and voluntary sector organisations.’ They do, but surely they also need to liaise more with parents and families who know their children the best?

A case co-ordinator could be of so much help to families right from the time that concerns are first raised about a child’s condition when they first engage with NHS services. This would result in a diagnosis being made more quickly and in needs being met more effectively. Most parents of children with special needs have to go through a huge learning curve before they can be effective advocates for their children and this process can take years. A case co-ordinator who has experience of how the system works could be such a help to parents and children if they are brought in at a much earlier stage as soon as concerns are raised about a child’s development or condition. This is the time when families most need this help and when they are the most vulnerable. A case co-ordinator could pave the way for a child to access early intervention services. Early intervention is the key to children overcoming special needs at school and in life.

So I say to the new NICE guidelines on autism diagnosis, ‘Yes Please!’, but please don’t discriminate against those children with special needs who do not happen to have an autism spectrum condition, and please bring in case co-ordinators much earlier in the process of the identification and meeting of special needs. It is a fact that most children who have their special needs effectively met have motivated parents who learn to navigate the system for identifying and meeting SEN. Case co-ordinators for all children with special needs who access NHS or special education services would have the effect of levelling the playing field and – (I’m going to use a coalition buzz word here) would also make things much fairer.

If we had been presented with a case co-ordinator when Peter was nine years old, had received his diagnosis and also his statement (that came along straight after the diagnosis), we would have had no use for them. However, the early involvement of a case co-ordinator in Peter’s case would have been invaluable to us and would have saved Peter so much time, distress, sadness and despair and many wasted years at primary school.



How can we remove barriers to learning?

This is my third post for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust blog, in which I considered how we can remove barriers to learning. It is worth noting that there can be many barriers to learning in the classroom such as social deprivation and behaviour. I was asked to consider this question from the perspective of children with special educational needs.

HOW CAN WE REMOVE BARRIERS TO LEARNING?

IDENTIFY SEN AND MAKE PROVISION TO MEET THESE NEEDS
Teachers, if you have a child in your class who needs support for special educational needs (SEN), please say so! This does not always happen and the system for identifying a child with SEN is not always straightforward. Children can easily slip through the net. Many parents assume to their cost that no news is good news, even if they have some concerns about their child themselves. If their child’s teacher isn’t saying anything, then they assume all is well. It often isn’t, so please be open with parents if you think a child might have SEN!

HANDWRITING
A certain proportion of children will never develop functional handwriting. For these children it is important to look at other options for recording their work: for example, a Dictaphone, word recognition software on a laptop, a scribe or typing on a laptop. These children often have to learn complex skills such as typing and scribing skills in order to make use of alternative recording methods. They need plenty of time to work on these skills so they are ready for the demands of recording KS3 & KS4 work later on. Indeed, information technology (IT) is already part of a broad and balanced curriculum, and I believe that it would be hugely beneficial for all children to learn typing skills from an early age at school.

DIFFERENTIATION, MIXED ABILITY TEACHING AND LOWER ABILITY TEACHING GROUPS
Effective differentiation can mean that a child who has special educational needs might not necessarily need to spend so much of their time at school in lower – achieving groups. There are many problems associated with being identified consistently with these groups. They are often associated with poor behaviour which can hamper the progress of those children who do wish to work. Highly skilled teachers who can differentiate effectively within mixed ability groups will achieve our aim for true equality of opportunity and excellence for all in our schools.

USE YOUR SPECIAL NEEDS BASE/QUIET STUDY AREA
Sometimes children with SEN need to leave their classes either due to noise, stress or their learning needs. If this happens, learning must continue with the lesson simply being relocated to a quieter place.

STAYING ON TASK AND REMAINING ENGAGED
Many children with SEN struggle to stay on task. TAs can act as a prompt. This is very different from having a ‘velcroed on’ TA that ‘does the work for them’. There is often a tendency for children who are struggling in class to sit at the back where they are at risk of staying disengaged. Place these children near the front, and ask them to contribute in ways you know they can, rather than asking them to showcase the things they find difficult.

BULLYING
Bullying can be a very damaging experience and can prevent learning. Children with SEN or a disability are much more likely to experience bullying – 60% of children with SEN and/or disabilities have been bullied. Schools must develop more effective anti-bullying policies and implement them. If schools get this right, the rewards are tremendous.

CONCLUSION
Children with SEN and disabilities and their families have the same hopes and dreams for the future as anyone else. With the right help in place, it becomes more possible for everyone to achieve excellence at school, and more possible for these children to be able to live independently as adults.



Excellence for All – How should students learn?

This is my second of three blog posts written for the Specialist Schools and Academjes Trust conference.

There has been much debate about how students should learn. Many suggestions focus on using innovative high tech ideas in the classroom and alternative curricula are being explored by a number of groups. For children with special educational needs (SEN), however, the answer to the above question is much more basic – we must ensure that all children with SEN have their needs met through a system that is fit for this purpose.

All too often the current system for meeting SEN fails. This is because it works only for those with very mild needs at one end of the spectrum, who don’t need a statement to have their needs met, and those children with the most severe needs and who do have statements, at the other end of the scale. There are a lot of SEN children in between these polar opposites who do have significant needs who need provision that can only be provided by having a statement, but can’t have one because these are severely limited.

This is unfair and children who slip through the net at school and do not have articulate parents who can advocate for them can miss out. We should be aiming to extend the security that statements can offer to children and it is unacceptable that so many children with SEN have needs that remain unmet. If all children with SEN who attend mainstream schools have their needs met, they will learn and they will be able to access the curriculum just like any other pupil within that school.

Not all children with SEN will be able to have their needs met in a mainstream school, and will need a placement in a special school. Jane, who is a teaching assistant in a special school, has this to say about how students should learn in special schools:

‘I think the answer… is entirely summed up in one word: ‘differentiation’. The main barrier to learning is that educators have not thought about what and how students should learn. In any school but especially a special school each pupil needs to be learning different things in different ways. Too often those in charge assume it would be a good thing for the children in their care to have a chance at a “real” qualification, usually a GCSE. These courses are not at all suitable for pupils who can barely read and they are stressed and humiliated.

There are better things they could learn to do to a worthwhile standard rather than getting a “G” at GCSE…. [such as]… how to carry on a conversation, how to notice another person’s mood, what is helpful behaviour in common social situations. A child’s primary educational objective could even be to become toilet trained. The impact of learning this skill is taken for granted by all and is huge and life enhancing, far more beneficial than spending the year learning to count to 5…. It is sad that the process of grouping children in terms of their special needs is basically a negative one. You drop down the groups because of the things you can’t do until you reach the lowest level. Articulate children end up grouped with non-verbal children simply because they can’t write. Too much weight is given to the child’s physical age instead of looking at their overall developmental age.’

There is a great need to look at the system for identifying and meeting SEN, and to also focus on and enhance those properties within the current system that meet need and give security to children such as the statement of SEN. These can really be a passport to a successful school experience. I welcome the Green Paper on SEN and disability and hope that I will still feel the same when it is published, and that this opportunity to make positive change is seized upon by policy makers.