How could anyone dispute that inclusive education could be anything but positive for everyone?
By S Harris
Within 5 months of being born our daughter Grace was fighting for her life as she battled Meningitis. Seven weeks later she came home from hospital and, from that moment. our lives changed forever. Grace had sustained a brain injury and was destined not to walk. I was frightened, but resolved to make sure Grace was always treated equally, as the next couple of years were dominated by doctors, consultants, therapists and other professionals. But the real troubles began when Grace reached school age, and her development took a detour.. .
I never considered anything other than mainstream school for Grace. I had established a relationship with our Education Authority who were supportive of this, and a school was chosen because it was local, newly built and on one level. Grace would need additional support and the Educational Authority didn’t have a problem with this, so I assumed there wouldn’t be one.
The opposition when it came blindsided me. It came from the headmistress of the school, whose objections, many and varied, were quickly overruled by the Education Authority. Grace started in Reception with a dedicated learning assistant at age 4. The first year passed without problems – or so I thought.
It was at the beginning of year 1 the learning assistant warned me that she had been told to keep a log of any unusual incidents involving Grace, for example, occasions she could not keep up or may wet herself. This ‘evidence’ was to demonstrate Grace’s unsuitability for mainstream schooling. And at age 5 Grace picked up that something was wrong, and that peeing was somehow a problem. So, she stopped peeing at school. I was unaware of this until she became very ill with a urinary infection. Her learning assistant then told me what had been going on. A meeting was called with the school and the Education Authority. The school presented their evidence the gravity of a criminal trial. It was to be a very short meeting. The Education Authority dismissed the school’s objections, e expressing disappointment with a teaching staff colluding to expel their only pupil with physical difficulties in a new school designed to be accessible.
Entry to Middle School – This school, was in the same building and the natural progression from First school. I hadn’t imagined a problem, but I found myself in a DeJa’Vu situation with the Head teacher there too. He put up a variety of barriers, pointing out difficulties and generally trying to put me off. Finally, I lost patience with parrying off his objections. Without anger I told him that like it or not we were destined to be shackled together for the next 4 years and that we could do it the easy way or the hard way. I said I was giving him an opportunity to learn; that I was offering up my daughter to be his learning tool and that he could take this opportunity and learn from it or learn nothing and we would all have a miserable 4 years. I predicted he’d thank Grace one day. Did he have a “why not?” moment too? I don’t know but he came back to school and embraced this new challenge with enthusiasm. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Eventually, at his suggestion and with his support I became SEN Governor of both First and Middle Schools for many years. Furthermore, we became firm friends. Grace is now 32 years old, and we are still firm friends.
After 4 happy years, at graduation from Middle school, Grace was presented with an award for endeavour. The Head teacher recounted our introduction and thanked Grace for enriching himself and the school. He dedicated a new award in her name to be given to future children who showed endeavour.
What Grace’s peers learned in those years was beyond measure. An example of this was sports day practice on the school field. One year there had been waterlogging problems so a ditch was dug around the field. As Grace’s wheelchair couldn’t cross the ditch the teacher said she could watch from the side. Without hesitation, the children refused and said if she couldn’t join them there, they would do the practice on the playground instead. 10-year-old children who had grown with her from age 4 were instinctively looking for a way to include a classmate.
During this time, I engaged the Education Authority in two SEN tribunals. I argued that to access the curriculum Grace would need the support of physio, occupational, and speech therapy. The Education Authority didn’t agree. I could understand. They were thinking of their budgets, and I was thinking of my daughter. I won the tribunals. I believe it helps not to take these disputes personally. They were doing their job and I was doing mine. It’s just business.
All the above was merely a gentle introduction to the High School wars!
The high school we chose was a new state of the arts highly rated school. What could go wrong? Well, a lot as it turned out. The first sign that all was not rosy was when the Head of Middle school wrote three times to the Head of the new school offering to discuss Grace. He received no response. Rude obviously, warning bells definitely. The Education Authority also wrote requesting Grace’s placement. Silence. The first term in the new academic year had begun and Grace still had no placement. Finally, I resorted to use a contact I had on the board of trustees and Grace had her place.
I should have known better. What followed were two years of sheer misery for both Grace and myself. This school took their cue straight out of the Victorian Poor Laws that applied to the Workhouse – a policy devised to deter those seeking shelter in the workhouse by making life so miserable that it was preferable to be homeless. This High School were certainly fans of this policy. They treated Grace like an unwanted houseguest. They were reluctant in all respects – belligerent and mirthless. They treated her with relentlessly cruelty, making her sit alone outside the nurse office at breaktimes, denying her social contact. Grace became so terrorised by her treatment that she was too afraid to tell me. Countless meetings with the school achieved nothing even when the head of the Education Authority personally attending a meeting. Perversely, the Headteacher would park her car in the accessible bay. When I complained that in a school with 1500 potential drivers, she was sending out a socially irresponsible message, her response was to paint out the accessible bay!
The end came abruptly at the start of the 2nd year. A 6th former made a complaint about the treatment of Grace that he had witnessed. His complaint was ignored so he told me directly.
I made the decision to immediately remove Grace from that school but with no idea what to do next. I wrote to the Governors informing them of my decision, detailing the cruelty and humiliation at their hands, adding that their understanding of inclusion was so far removed from anything we had experienced that removing her was a very easy decision to make. Predictably they wrote back placing the blame on her! It was neither surprising nor unexpected. So lacking in self-awareness, that they were shamelessly victim blaming!
The surprising response of the Education Authority was of undisguised relief.
They found another high school very quickly. I had dismissed this school two years earlier thinking it was unsuitable, but I was so wrong. The headmaster was incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic and promised Grace she would always be treated with respect. And she was.
Through their kindness, up until she left aged 16, that school restored Grace’s dignity and self-confidence.
Although Grace was the ‘first and only’ for most of her school years, I honestly believe that most people want to help but simply don’t have the knowledge or resources. I sometimes had to drag people kicking and screaming to a place of acceptance and, apart from the first horrible high school, when they got there it worked. It helped me enormously not to take arguments personally.
Grace is now 32 years old, and I wouldn’t change a thing about her. She is witty and joyous. She’s kind and caring. She’s an actress. She is my best friend.