Special schools are not mere parking places for children who do not fit the mould our educational system seeks to fill.
In fact, language is changing a little. Five years ago, we spoke of special schools. Now, they are known as specialist schools. It’s a tiny change, and then again it’s huge. As words do, the word “special” has become derogatory, and needs updating somewhat. So our children are now more and more referred to as having additional needs rather than special needs. As much as we may resent it, semantics are often more important than we would like.
My son has been in a specialist school for several years now. His teachers, care staff and us as his parents have worked solidly as a team to help him grow and develop. The system has no way of measuring the kinds of progress he was making in all the time that he was refusing to attend classes. So it came as only a slight surprise that Authorities paused before agreeing to fund a similar placement for his post-16 education…
Our young man, however, has been given the time, space and support to grow; to develop his emotional brain without which any learning is simply not possible; to develop life skills that allow him to manage the simple day to day aspects of life that just do not come to him instinctively; to become independent in a way that boosts his self-esteem and gives him the ability to move forward. For the last few years, simply getting out of bed has been a huge challenge for him. He has had to manage some emotional upheavals that have left him bereft and apprehensive at the thought of forming new friendships. He has been hemmed into a national curriculum that did not have the flexibility to allow for that growth, but he was surrounded by teachers who were able to bend things enough to allow him to survive.
Against all odds, he sat four exams at GCSE and passed three… a remarkable achievement given his mental health and his struggles with autism.
In September, he made a fresh start at a new college. No younger, annoying kids. No school grounds – his house is an ordinary suburbian house, a mile away from the teaching building. No uniform. No one-size-fits-all timetable. No adults dictating what he can and should not do. The independence and freedom afforded to him and his peers terrify the Authorities… after all, these are vulnerable young people.
My son responds best to those who treat him as an equal, as a human being in full rather than a child who must conform “just because”. And he has found himself surrounded by adults who do just that – they consider him a young adult, and listen to him. In a subtle, gentle way that comes from years of experience, they are able to encourage and guide him with huge respect.
He has been there four weeks. He is happy – happier than I have EVER known him. He is attending classes at least three days a week – an improvement that no one could have predicted. He has made a group of acquaintances with whom he is spending time socialising. He is engaging with his teacher and with the adults on house.
This is success beyond measure. It is likely that there will be hiccups along the way… but we are absolutely on the right path to a young man who will be ready to step into the world as an independent young adult in a few years.
What makes this work is the relationship that we carve with his teachers, the care staff. We speak at least once a week, we email progress reports, concerns, celebrations. We listen to him… We hear what he has to say and we adjust our expectations, our hopes, our demands accordingly.
So a specialist school is not a parking place. It is a school, or college whose physical environment has been carefully considered with its cohort of young people’s needs in mind. It is a community of teachers and adults who have huge collective experience of a certain group of young people but who, more than anything else, understand that every single one of their students is an individual who must be treated as such. And it is a community that understands that success can only come when the young person is placed firmly at the centre, and surrounded by a team of parents, educators and carers.
When you bring all those factors together, amazing things can happen. I’ve been fortunate enough to find the right specialist school for each of my three children. I’ve worked hard to help the Authorities see why those schools would lead to the best outcome for them. I’ve worked continuously and very hard to ensure that those placements worked as well as they could. My job as a parent of very special children does not stop when they are at school… but with that collaboration..?
With that collaboration come hope, joy, progress. And every now and again, success.