Where kids go to school

Eli started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Eli’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Eli has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Sam’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Eli’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Eli was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Eli, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Sam was ill, another mum collected Eli for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Eli starting at a school where no-one knew Sam. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Sam are lying in bed. Sam’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Eli has the confidence to explain Sam’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Eli’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Sam’s school experience.

Sam goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Sam’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Sam two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Eli’s current school as a school for Sam. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Sam to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Sam, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Sam, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Eli comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Sam is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers,meet Sam and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Sam to the Christmas Fair at Eli’s school, where he meets Eli’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Sam couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Eli told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Sam to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

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School bus

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Sam is now at school full time. He goes to the special primary school in our borough so we have to drive him there which takes 20-30mins.

Most children who go to the school get the school bus. I spoke to various people about this before the summer and was given the impression that the school bus is all or nothing – every morning and afternoon or not at all. I was grumpy about it on a day when I happened to be interviewed for a film about parenting children with special educational needs. I grumbled at length about the inflexibility of such systems.

I applied for transport assistance, thinking that I’d see what happened and we didn’t have to take it if we didn’t want to. I was told we could pretend we had physio every afternoon so Sam couldn’t get the bus. A woman who works for the transport bit of the council then came to visit us and assess Sam’s needs. She was really friendly, confirmed Sam would be offered a place on the bus due to his disability, and said it was totally up to us how often and when he used it. All of the scare stories about the inflexibility of the bus were totally unfounded!

We then couldn’t decide what to do because Sam is so young and time to fit in his breakfast in the morning is already limited (the bus arrives half an hour earlier than if I drive him straight there). I enjoyed taking and collecting him when he had gone to school 2.5 days a week last year and it meant I got to know the staff and kids at the school. But doing the school run for an hour every morning and afternoon five days a week is a lot of time – time that could be spent with my other child, or working, or making a dent on the Sam-admin/washing/massive piles of lego in my sitting room.

We came up with a complicated rota of Sam getting the bus on various mornings and afternoons after an initial few weeks of me driving him. Everyone nodded when I told them, looking kindly at me like I was nuts. We realised that no-one, including us and more importantly Sam, would be able to keep track, so we settled on Sam getting the bus each morning and being collected every afternoon.

On the first morning, we were ready at the front window looking for the bus – we had been given strict instructions that the bus would wait for 3 minutes from our allotted pick-up time but no more. We’d told Sam what was happening and he was totally fine. He was smiley and relaxed.

While waiting, James and I had some small misunderstanding about something and I burst in to tears. I found the whole thing so emotional – my little boy going all on his own on the bus with people he’d never met before. And Sam’s school bus is, by definition, full of disabled children. Happy, friendly, lovely kids, but there’s no getting away from your child being disabled in that context.

Non-disabled four year olds don’t get buses to school, they potter round the corner to the local primary. In fact hardly any British city kids get organised buses to school; there is no culture of school buses like I have seen in American films. (Aside: construction companies in Qatar buy old American school buses, so when we lived in Doha you would often be waiting at traffic lights next to big yellow buses with SPRINGTOWN HIGH SCHOOL written on the side, which were full of adult migrant labourers being driven to work.)

Then the bus arrived and we met Omar, the driver. Sam got lifted up on a platform on the back of a bus, and was all smiles as his wheelchair was secured. Then he was gone. Of course I called the school mid-morning and they said he had arrived happy.

That routine lasted three days.

On the fourth day we repeated everything as normal, Sam smiled at Omar, and then his bottom lip appeared in direct correlation to the height of the wheelchair lift. Sam’s bottom lip is legendary – he has used it to great effect ever since he was a little baby. By the time he was in the bus he was crying and wouldn’t open his eyes to say goodbye to me. ‘Sam’s very sad’, said Eli.

So now each morning Sam is happy while we all wait for the bus. The bus arrives and Sam smiles at Omar. Then he sticks his bottom lip out as he gets in to the bus and cries as it leaves. Unless the lady who accompanies the children sings to him, in which case he allows himself to open his eyes a tiny bit and marginally retract his lip. As soon as she stops, off he goes again with the tears. It’s all heartbreaking.

I keep asking the bus staff how he was during the journey and each day they say he stopped crying as soon as they turned the corner. Every day each child is greeted by the headteacher or deputy head on their way in to school, and every morning they say he was happy. We collect him each afternoon and his class teacher says he was cheerful.

So I guess he’s okay and we all carry on until he gets used to the idea of leaving us on the bus. But in the meantime my heartstrings are taut and in danger of snapping.