I have worked in special education for ten years and in that time I have known two sets of parents who have not only never visited the special school their child attended, they didn’t even know where it was. Reflect on how astounding that is for a minute. I shall return to it later, but consider how it is possible for that to happen.
Much time and effort, rightly, is made of the transition from primary to secondary school for children. It has been a focus for a good number of years now and many schools are very skilled in ensuring a smooth transfer from one type of school to another. How much of this time and effort is given over to the emotional demands that this transition places on parents?
Time spent as a parent with my daughter in the care of some health professionals has seen me ruminating on how we as school leaders fare in that regard.
I recently spent a day at Moorfields Eye Hospital, as I do a couple of times a year, so that my daughter could undergo the regular series of tests and check-ups that her congenital condition demand. Whilst in the waiting room I saw a few parents of babies who are on the beginning of a journey we’ve been on as a family for a few years now. Two mothers were sat next to me; one with a baby with one eye and one with a baby with no eyes at all. A number of other children present had obvious learning difficulties.
I’m a good listener but the consultant who was informing us of our daughter’s diagnosis all those years ago must have thought me very rude as I constantly interrupted him with questions. The first one, “Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?” left my mouth almost before he had started talking.
Mr Moore was exceptional: sensitive, a clear communicator and a good listener. He advised us brilliantly. “It’s your choice. In five minutes you’ll meet with the surgeon. He is going to persuade you to operate. Surgeons love to operate, but the decision is yours. You’ve heard all the facts so make your own mind up and stick to it.” He remains the model to which I aspire when I meet with prospective parents at my school.
Parents typically visit our school when their child is in Year 5. Sometimes they arrive a year earlier if they feel there are a lot of schools to visit or that there will be a fight with the local authority so they need time to gather evidence for a possible tribunal. Sometimes they visit when their child is in Year 6 and they are in a tight corner as they have been turned away by a string of secondary schools. In all cases I regard this meeting as the beginning of the transition process.
We don’t do group tours. All parents receive individual tours as they need the space and privacy to discuss their child. I make it clear to parents that I’m not a salesman. I obviously want to show our school in its best light, but I’ve never met their child so have no idea if we will fit the bill.
Parents are naturally inquisitive, but my students make a far better impression than I. Parents are always struck by their social confidence and their articulate nature. If your child is not developing in line with normal milestones it can be tough to imagine what your child may be like in five to ten years’ time. This chance to talk to students a few years down the track in some depth is vital. As is seeing a peer group, children their son or daughter can be friends with, work they can succeed at, a curriculum that focuses on maximising their chances of success as adults.
Some parents need to walk out after the visit knowing that we can keep their child alive whilst they are in our care. The reassurance required here is impossible to underestimate. We are not health professionals, yet they must be confident that we can manage epilepsy, a tracheostomy, tube-feeding or insulin pumps. Failure to manage these health needs properly could result in the death of their child, so this concern overrides all others.
Given our hard work on admission processes, how is it possible then for those parents mentioned above to be unaware of where their child goes to school?
It can be difficult for some parents to accept that their child goes to a special school. In these cases I find that they haven’t visited prior to admission, don’t attend parents’ evening, annual reviews or any other opportunities to visit. They are attempting to retain an image in their mind of where their child goes to school and I suspect that that image looks like a mainstream secondary school. Far better, surely, to maintain that image than shatter the illusion by seeing the school for real, runs the logic. The fact that transport is normally provided and the distance to school can be significant makes this gulf harder to bridge.
When I took up this headship I was warned about two parents who, the story went, would make my life hell. Labelled as “pushy” I braced myself for a battle with them. No need. I found them engaging, intelligent and committed. They’d had to fight for their children’s basic entitlement and had a reputation for being prepared to advocate strongly for their child.
This is my kind of parent. I can use this kind of emotional energy and these two parents are now Vice-Chairs of our governing body and two of our best advocates. One said recently that she felt our school was unique. I asked her to expand on this with the staff and she explained that we are open-minded, honest with parents and very welcoming. This obviously pleases us greatly but whilst there are parents out there who don’t even know where their child’s school is, we have much more to do.
Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher, Carwarden House Community School