I had the opportunity recently to talk to several parents who have sons or daughters with learning difficulties or who are on the autistic spectrum who are struggling to support their children in mainstream schools. They chose a mainstream education over a more specialist environment because they believed that this was the best route to help their son or daughter learn as much as possible and to be meaningfully included in society.
Please believe me when I say that I fully believe in the principle of inclusive education. I just wonder if some mainstream schools do. I don’t know if it is the stringent targets they have in terms of educational attainment or if it is simply that many teachers do not have the skills and experience to support people properly but I do know that, for many, it just isn’t working.
I felt compelled to tell you my sons’ story. In my heart, I probably always knew that he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but, like many I didn’t want to go down the medication route. Although not perfect, things were easier when he attended primary school. For me, that is because teachers have the opportunity to build a relationship with the pupil and can better understand their needs. In secondary school, the situation was completely different.
Very quickly after starting secondary, he began to be excluded from school. The number of exclusions gradually increased and when he experienced a close and sudden family bereavement we were quickly in a situation where he was excluded more than he was at school. By this stage it was pretty much accepted that he had ADHD but we were waiting for an official diagnosis. We went through all of the conventional routes – anger management, counselling etc and I tried some more unusual routes out of desperation. I played tapes when he was sleeping and arranged hypnotherapy, to mention just two. Looking back on it, it sounds crazy but, believe me, I was at my wits end and I could see his self-esteem disappearing at break neck speed before my eyes. We were also having problems out with the school environment as a result.
I could go on and on about the failings of the school. Whenever he was excluded, his first experience when re entering the school was to hear a list of his ‘crimes’ which put him in a tizzy before he had even seen a classroom. On another occasion I was told that the school had done everything to support him. I pointed out that his most recent exclusion had arisen from him waving out of a window at someone. When I suggested that sitting a pupil with ADHD at a window might not be best practice, they appeared oblivious to this.
The only ray of hope, in that very dark time of our lives, was a behaviour support base at the school, with a fantastic staff team. They completely understood my son and did their best to support him. I very much appreciated their efforts but wondered sometimes if that, in some way, this allowed the rest of the school to absolve themselves of all responsibility.
Although things improved dramatically for my son when he started taking medication, we decided that a fresh start in another country was our best option. I often think about what would happen if he were going through education now. When the secondary he attended built a new purpose built school, they decided that there was no room for the behaviour base that had been our lifeline and the staff team was redeployed into mainstream schooling.
Anyway, that was the then and this is the now! Having spent a few years abroad and now back in Scotland, we have worked hard to resurrect his self-esteem and he is now a confident 19 year old. He made a decision at the age of 16 to stop taking his medication. I was terrified at the time but he was right.
He passed his driving test on his first attempt. He has learned lots of basic joinery skills with my husband over the years and took up a place on a construction Get Ready For Work course in Aug 2009. He has always been honest with people about having ADHD but it isn’t the problem or stigma that it seemed to be in school. At his training, he successfully passed various courses that would help him find a placement.
Although his first employer placement was intended as temporary, the foreman really liked him and went out of his way to find him paid employment. In October of last year, he moved into a permanent vacancy with his employer. He is keen to do a formal apprenticeship with the company and his foreman is doing everything that he can to make this a reality in August 2010. We had the opportunity to meet his foreman recently who said “He is a great guy, a hard worker and wow can he talk?” It was so nice to hear the foreman speaking so positively about him and acknowledging particular aspects of his ADHD as just part of his highly loveable personality.
My son has bought a car, does a part-time job in the evenings to pay for running it and has a girlfriend. In other words, he is doing all of the same things as most guys his age. I offer this story to all parents who are still going through the nightmare battle that we went through a few years ago. There is light at the end of the tunnel. At my bleakest moments, I really feared that he wouldn’t get to this stage but he has and I have to say that is more credit to him than the establishment.
As parents, we need to stand together and strong to let educational authorities know that some of the practices around are unacceptable, unlawful and immoral. United perhaps, we can make a difference and ensure that our sons and daughters have the best possible educational start in life.
- An empathetic parent