Inclusion for Finn
Tara Flood talks to the parents of an Eastlea student about the challenges they faced in getting him a mainstream school place
Tell us something about you and your family, particularly Finn
Finn is 15 and lives in Harrow with his family and his dog Horace; he has lived all his life in this borough. He has a rare form of congenital muscular dystrophy, muscle-eye brain disease (MEB) a neuro muscular condition which is characterised by him having a movement disorder, a visual impairment, a severe learning difficulty, and no speech, although he’s just started to say “Mama”! Finn was the first person to be diagnosed with this condition in the UK and there are just a handful around the world with MEB. Finn loves music, noisy toys, people and visiting different places, especially the seaside.
The first school he attended was a special school which although it had many good features, didn’t really provide Finn with what he needed. Finn is fully integrated into the community and regularly takes part in mainstream activities, for example he has a season ticket for Fulham Football Club.
Why do you think it is important for Finn to be included in mainstream education?
Mainstream education is important for disabled children because it provides invaluable learning opportunities with mainstream peers. It creates the possibility that children will not simply accept the segregationist attitudes so prevalent today. Teaching disabled and non-disabled children together provides a solid foundation for inclusion more generally in society. Whilst inclusion in school is essential, it is equally important in the workplace and inclusive education will enhance work opportunities for disabled people as it helps break down segregationist values. There is a lot of pressure on disabled people today to get a job and employers are expected to look favourably on employing them. Many employers have little or no experience of disabled people and may question why they are being asked to act supportively towards them when it has always been “someone else’s” responsibility to engage with them – special schools etc. If all children were educated together, employers would be more likely to see how a disabled person could fit in to their workplace having learned all through school about the needs and abilities of their disabled peers. We believe special schools are an anachronism and hinder the pupils who attend them. Why would we want Finn to attend such an outdated institution? Finn was out of school for three years during which he received no help (therapy, etc) from the local authority (LA), but the advantages of him being at Eastlea Community School have made this huge sacrifice worth it.
The therapy Finn received in his special school came from the Local NHS Trust, as is generally the arrangement, where, astonishingly no service level agreement existed between the two organisations and the therapy he received was largely dreadful.
What have been the challenges?
There were a huge number of challenges in getting Finn into a mainstream school.
The LA (the London Borough of Harrow) did not support our preference for Finn to attend a mainstream school, claiming it wasn’t ‘suitable’ and that “children like Finn do better in a special school”. This approach is of course wholly unlawful. They then claimed there were no schools in the area that Finn could attend, but were not prepared to put any effort into making the schools ‘suitable’ as required by the Education Act 1996 and now the Children and Families Act 2014. There is a fully accessible school in Harrow that Finn could have attended; there are pupils there who are wheelchair users but the LA and the school were wholly hostile to Finn attending this school – one of the reasons being that Finn’s presence would “upset” the other children. Indeed there were other schools in Harrow Finn could have attended but without exception they all adopted a segregationist attitude whilst at the same time claiming they were an inclusive school!! Around forty mainstream schools were contacted about a place for Finn and all except one refused – they all gave unlawful reasons, which were accepted by LB Harrow. The one out of borough school that did say Finn could attend changed their mind after meeting individuals from LB Harrow and then refused to take him. We went through the tribunal service (four hearings in total) which was lengthy, taking well over two years. Perhaps the most concerning part of it was that we were confronted by members of the judiciary who had attitudes towards inclusion that would have been more at home in the 19th century! The only positive result of Finn’s case was that it was established that costs to the LA are not a reason to prevent a child attending a mainstream school.
Harrow were wholly resistant to acceding to our preference and spent many thousands of pounds of public money to prevent Finn attending a mainstream school, upholding their segregationist position. For example they spent over £15,000 on instructing their barrister.
On a more positive note we made comprehensive complaints against the judges etc involved in Finn’s case about the bias shown by the tribunal service in favour of the LA, which were received with some anxiety. All those in the LA and the tribunal service who claimed that Finn couldn’t attend a mainstream school have been proven wrong as Finn now attends a mainstream school in Newham called Eastlea Community School and is thriving!
What would have helped your family secure a mainstream school place for Finn?
The two things that would have helped would have been if those involved embraced inclusion rather than segregation. Secondly it would be a huge advantage if the LA and relevant members of the judiciary actually understood what the law says about mainstream education for children like Finn; this would have helped them discharge their obligations to our son and other children.
What advice would you give other parents of disabled children starting the inclusion journey?
I would like to offer four pieces of advice. Firstly, find out what your rights are in relation to mainstream education. Secondly, put as much effort as you need to into finding a school which will take your child. Thirdly don’t take for granted that what your LA tell you about your child’s entitlement to mainstream education is accurate because all or most of the agents of the LAs are ignorant as to their legal obligations towards your child or they will deliberately mislead you as they do not want to comply with your wishes and the law. Last of all, avoid telephone conversations and unnecessary meetings with agents of your LA, rather use email to communicate with them, as this provides a paper trail and could be used as evidence in your case. Meetings with these people tend to be an ineffective use of your time and are generally used by the LA to try to convince you to do what they want. For example, we were told by one uninformed individual that he thought mainstream school was not ‘suitable’ for Finn. The two problems with this advice are that firstly it is not suggested that a child go to an unsuitable school as the LA are obliged by law to make the school suitable, and secondly, the person giving the advice was deluded as he genuinely thought his opinion was significant.
Lastly I haven’t met Finn so don’t know whether he would want to say something. If he wants to or is able to – I was thinking maybe what does he like about school at the moment?
Finn loves everything about his school day, even the journey, and he’s made huge progress especially in his walking. I would like to add that Finn’s mainstream peers enjoy having him in classes, especially daily mentor time when they get together. Sometimes all his peers ‘clap’ for him because he likes it, other times they tell him to be quiet if they are listening to something and he’s being noisy. Children who know Finn from their mentor group etc come over to him in the playground and say hello, which I’m sure he likes. He also loves interacting with many different members of staff and doing all sorts of interesting things. He finally has some brilliant therapists and has made more progress since starting at Eastlea than in all the previous years he attended school!!