I can’t really put into words how disheartened I am currently feeling while searching for a secondary school for Charlie and George. Both Charlie and George now have EHCPs in place, covering not only the fact that they both have Cerebral Palsy but also their social and emotional needs moving forward, and we had hoped that this would have opened up our options in choosing the right school.
Now because of Charlie being a full-time wheelchair user, the Local Authority have suggested that we begin to look at secondary schools now, a year sooner than you usually would. We were advised to do this with the assistance of our Occupational Therapist as if there are any alterations needed, it gives the school and local authority a year to put these into place. In the local area there are realistically 3 schools which would be within a reasonable distance which we could consider for the boys.
So, we began contacting the schools and their relative SENDCOs in order to set up some visits to get the ball rolling. This proved to be more difficult than we had initially thought, with one school completely ignoring our emails and not returning our calls, one saying they would not be facilitating any visits at present and the third, after a few emails, we managed to book a visit in.
We finally managed to get through to someone (turned out to be the business manager) at the school that had ignored our emails and calls for weeks. We explained why we were calling, only to be told “I haven’t been told to expect this call, and anyway we don’t take children in wheelchairs”. In all honesty I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I asked for her name and ended the call in complete shock, but fully expected it to be someone who had made a complete error in what they were telling us. Unsurprisingly we very quickly received another from a rather panicked sounding SENCO who surprisingly not only verified what we had been told, but further explained that they had high levels of asbestos in the school and therefore could not undertake any work including the widening of doors, and therefore they were not able to take anyone in a wheelchair. They further explained that the Local Authority were fully aware. I am still shocked that that seems to be it and that I must concede that this school (where probably most of the boys’ peers would go) is now not an option.
We dust ourselves down and move onto the second school. This school is the one that we had found relatively forthcoming after a few emails which was positive. We booked a visit and went to have a look around the school (without the children). We initially got a really good feeling about the school, their ethos seemed to be really about the child and not about just grades, with a big focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of the child, even having two dedicated classrooms and a teacher responsible for this element of school life. We were shown to the two rooms which just happened to be upstairs in a building without a lift. We obviously thought this isn’t a massive issue and I am sure there would be a way to accommodate this on the ground floor to make it accessible to Charlie.
We were then introduced to the teacher and we explained why we were there and spoke of Charlie and George and how good this resource would be for them to access, but for Charlie the provision would need to be on a ground floor. The teacher responded with, “well this has been my classroom for 15 years and it won’t be moving anywhere”. Again, I presumed that this was just someone who was possibly a bit “stuck in their ways”, and had been taken off guard, however considering that this would be the person responsible for my boys’ social and emotional wellbeing, it didn’t fill me with hope. The rest of the tour continued in a rather positive manner and other than that one encounter we were left with an overall positive feeling of the school having also been able to talk to some other teachers and students who gave us a good insight into school life.
The next step was to book another appointment with the SENDCO, in order to take Charlie and George round with our OT to assess the environment and look at prospective adaptations. Upon meeting the SENDCO, the first thing he showed us was the areas which Charlie wouldn’t be able to access. He explained that Charlie would have no access to the Social and Emotional hub as it is upstairs and due to the size of the classrooms it can’t be moved anywhere else in the school and therefore, he will not be able to access this service if we chose this school. For me this was obviously an extremely negative start to the meeting and to be honest seemed to set the tone for the rest of the tour.
Many of the classrooms were locked meaning that we couldn’t be shown inside (which seemed strange when the appointment had been booked for two weeks and he knew the purpose was for the OT to assess the classrooms). At the end of the tour he went on to explain the process of consultations which would happen if we chose the school and how he would then have to liaise with the local authority to see if reasonable adjustments could be made, but that we are still “more than welcome to apply here if we want”, before telling me to make sure I look at some other schools and giving me the names of them. At this point my wife was honest with him and said how negative she felt he was being and that in her opinion they clearly didn’t want to make changes, something I completely agreed with, and something they didn’t really deny, instead saying I’m only trying to be honest with you. What was obvious is that they didn’t want us to apply.
We left and sat in the car in complete dismay. Jo was in tears at the way in which this meeting had gone as this school had gone from being the front-runner to a non-starter in the matter of an hour.
The thing I just want to reiterate at this point, is that the main change required would be that the social and emotional base (Something Charlie and George would both need access to) be sited somewhere else. That was it. And they will not even consider it. “If he does come here, he will not be able to access this resource”.
So, we are left with one option in our local area. A school which we know fairly well, and we know has a reputation for bullying, and for this not being dealt with necessarily well. And this is real feedback from real people including friends and neighbours who have removed their children from the school because of the issues. With two children with Cerebral Palsy and SEN needs, this is our final option in our area unless we consider schools much further afield. However, we will always give places and people the benefit of doubt and honestly, when we viewed it we were pleasantly surprised. Both Charlie and George were like different children walking around this school. George was engaged, interested, and took strides along the corridors with confidence, something we rarely see. Charlie was zooming through the corridors with excitement and ease, keen to see what was behind the next door. Practically this school is perfect, it is modern, disabled friendly and we were left with a good feeling.
The difficulty is knowing if you’re making the right choice and if the right choice is good enough. Is it better to choose a school where you know some of the demons than to choose a school further afield which may present well but you don’t know anything more than what you take face value from the day of your visit?
All we want is for a school to want our children and not close the door to the potential they have because it could be seen as too hard work.
These past couple of weeks have left me in total dismay at the system and the incredible lack of support and willingness of schools to adapt and change. If this is the approach from the people in charge, then what on earth is filtering down to the children? That is two schools now who will NEVER come across a child in a wheelchair during their school time. So how do they learn about inclusion and diversity in the real world if they are never going to be exposed to it? Something somewhere needs to change.
Over the last 10 years we have become rather adept in fighting for Every. Single. Thing.
But if I am honest, I’m tired. I’m tired of the emotional drain it takes every time we want Charlie just to be involved and included. I’m tired of the ridiculous excuses, the red tape, the bureaucracy. I am tired of having to learn the job of a SENDCO to ensure things are being done correctly. I am tired from the endless research of legalities, statutes, laws and acts. I just want to be a dad. A dad to a son who has access to the experiences of his peers. I don’t want to have to keep fighting for that. But I know the reality is I will. So here we are, embarking on that next battle. The battle of trying to find a secondary school who wants my son for all the amazing things he brings with him and understands that this may mean they have to swap a couple of classrooms round. Wish us luck. Dan x