As a mum of a daughter with Down's Syndrome, I understand at first hand how hard it is to make the decision over whether to choose mainstream or a special school for your child. Today, I'm bringing you a guest post from mum, Michelle Bailey, who talks honestly and openly about the heart-rending decision to move her daughter, who has Down's syndrome, to a special school. She understands the issue both as a mother and from her perspective as a school Special Needs Coordinator (SENCO)
The choices we make
Around a year ago, I started to admit to myself that something was amiss. Georgia (then 9), had gone from being a happy go lucky little girl, an eager student who couldn't wait to enter the classroom each day and declare “I'm back!” to being somewhat withdrawn. Sometimes she cried before school; this was new and heartbreaking and as a Mum, I struggled to deal with the anxiety I felt all through the school day, waiting for her return so I could squeeze her and know she was OK.
I knew she was unhappy, but while Georgia has good speech, it was difficult for her to tell me what the problem was.
With my 'detective' hat on, off I went to meet with Georgia's school team, as well as the educational psychologist and learning support worker from the local authority. I had contacted them prior to the meeting informing them of the issues we were having, so they may carry out their own observations of Georgia in the classroom setting before we got together.
Any angst I felt as a parent melted away as I entered the meeting. As I do in these situations, I replaced my 'Mummy' hat with my 'SENCO' hat. That's just the way I deal with things. The tears often come later.
I spoke to the professionals arranged in front of me and of my concern for Georgia's well being. I enquired as to what their views of the situation were and what their advice would be. Georgia was in year 5, and while her classmates were being coached on SATs papers, she was working with her teaching assistant on letter formation. She obviously found this frustrating. She was separated from her friends, metaphorically and physically. She wasn’t part of what was happening in the classroom and I knew she would feel this keenly. We discussed differentiated curriculums, small group work and limiting the time spent out of the her class group. Each suggestion seemed to have been implemented, and her progress had still slowed to an almost stop. Over and above this, for me, her behaviour was declining as quickly as her well being.
While everyone in the meeting was open and willing to discuss Georgia's progress, one thing was made clear – any decision to move Georgia from her mainstream school was mine to make.
And what a burden that was to bear. But carry it I must.
Sleep was fitful at best. Every single scenario swam around my head until the wee small hours; Georgia hating a new school and withdrawing further, stopping speaking, even. Georgia loving the new school and thriving. Georgia not being able to make new friends and spending the rest of her school life lonely. There was no stone unturned in my nocturnal world of 'what if's'.
Waking hours were tired and anxious. It was too much for me to carry, I was literally terrified of making the wrong decision for my little girl.
There was something else as well, niggling me, but I couldn't, at this point, put my finger on what it was.
I arranged to go and visit a local special school for children with moderate learning difficulties. As this is the only such school in our locality, I was worried that it wouldn't be suitable and I would be left scratching my head as to a next option.
My initial sense of dread was quickly replaced by the infectious sense of positivity within the school. A new build, the classrooms were spacious and bright, the class numbers were very small, the staff were bubbly and enthusiastic. The children were engaged, well mannered and seemed happy. The first classroom I visited saw a group of seven children of Georgia's age learning about insects, the thing that struck me was that they had little plastic versions of the bugs they were discussing in front of them, to touch and hold and see. I felt for sure this was how Georgia needed to learn and that she would blossom in the environment.
Once I had toured the lower school (primary age) with the Head, we went on to see the Upper School – the comprehensive age provision. If Georgia attended this school she would be there until she was 16. This was another point to consider. I had already been thinking long and hard about whether Georgia could and should attend main stream Comprehensive. My feeling was that she would not blossom with that environment. Having also got a teenage daughter who attends the local Comprehensive School, I aware of the fast pace of the school day and the maturity level of the students. I felt the provision at this SEN school was far more suitable and it gave me peace of mind to know that if Georgia did excel in a subject or subjects, she would still be put forward for GCSE's in them.
Leaving the school I felt a little lighter. It was a nice place, a place I felt my Daughter could be happy. Yet, there was the niggling again. Something nagging at me. A little knot twisting. After some soul searching, I realised it was my ego talking. So long had I spent saying “Yes, she's in the same main stream school as her Sister” and talking about the importance of our children being part of the local community, that I felt I was back peddling. Somewhere deep inside it felt like we were admitting defeat, I may as well have been carrying a banner saying “She couldn't cope!” as far as I was concerned.
But, that was MY ego talking. Of course our children should be part of the local community! And Georgia most definitely is. Of course she had done wonderfully well at her mainstream school since the Foundation Stage where she found her confidence and built a friendship circle that would last until she left the school and beyond. But Georgia needed to learn in a different way, and still feel part of her class. Due to the pressure to perform placed on teaching staff and schools the classroom environment changes from year 5 onwards, and it no longer supported Georgia's style of learning or right and need to be included.
From the moment I realised what the knot of anxiety was, I began to refer to the new school as a 'school for children with learning differences' rather than difficulties. This slight shift changed my perspective and gave me the positive mindset I knew I needed in order to be able to support Georgia with the transition. It wasn't that she couldn't cope, it was that she needed to be somewhere that could support the way she learned and still ensure she was a part of the school community
The next step was to take Georgia to the school and see how she felt about it. Discussing matters which are obscure to Georgia is difficult, however I knew once she had visited the school I would be able to work out how she felt about it. After some initial shyness, she had a whale of a time walking into the various classrooms and introducing herself! The children were all so welcoming, each room asking whether they “could have Georgia” in their class! We left the school and I drove home in silence, giving Georgia the time I know she needs to process and mull over an experience. Once at home we cuddled up on the sofa together and I ask her whether she would like to go that school. After some initial concerns about leaving her friends, Georgia said she liked the school and it looked fun. High praise indeed from Miss Georgia!
My best friend came with me to the follow up meeting at the current school. I needed a hand to hold. The meeting where I would officially tell the professionals involved with Georgia's care and education that it was my intention to take her out of mainstream provision. I was nervous and tearful and shaky. Not for the first time I questioned my ability to cope with these matters. Once in the meeting my professional persona took over and I dealt with the matters to hand. Two of the teachers, and my friend cried. I did not. I gained answers to the list of questions I had in front of me, thanked everyone for their time and left.
Then walked to my car and cried. I cried for my little girl taking such a big step, I cried for my own ego, I didn't want everyone to see the move as a negative, I cried because the stress and pressure of decision had worn me out. I was emotionally spent. But there were also tears of relief, because I knew in my heart of hearts I had made the right decision for my little girl, and I knew we had come through the hardest part.
The process of moving a child to new setting requires a stand alone post, I feel, but the one thing I will say here is that the process for us was made all the easier by befriending as many people involved in the procedure as possible. Phone calls just to thank someone for their time, or doing something so quickly paid dividends.
Six months later and Georgia is settled in her new school. She has already taken part in an athletics championship – in the long jump event, no less! (she may be small, but she's springy). She has new friends and is back to being a happy-go-lucky little girl. She skips off to her school bus in a morning (I'll need an entire other post about the school bus!) and waves goodbye with a huge smile on her face and my ridiculous little ego dances, because I know I made the right choice at the right time. More importantly, my heart dances, because seeing my children happy really is the be all and end all. Being inclusive and ensuring our children are part of the community is so important, but that doesn't mean every one of our children will stay in mainstream education. It isn't a one size fits all system, and to leave Georgia in her primary school would not have been inclusive practice. To be inclusive means to treat all children as individuals, and ensure we meet their needs to enable them to thrive and fulfill their amazing potential.
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