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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Choice: Free School or Mainstream, what would you do?

So. The next big thing in my diary (how will it ever top Westminster I wonder?!) is that on Monday I will be attending a conference locally. It's all about schooling - specifically, schooling and education for SEN children (yep, those three letters again, Special Educational Needs).

Getting this education lark right for my children is my number one priority in life at the moment. After all, such a large amount of their time is spent in school and it really shapes who they are. Most parents worry about it, and some stress more than others - not always in relevant proportion to how their children are doing at school.

Parents in our town are pretty lucky as there are several good schools to choose from - and even the worst school isn't actually that bad. I wish our choice was as simple as that. 

We don't actually know what level of schooling will be suitable for Sasha in 5 years time, and we need to be prepared for any scenario. It's not being pessimistic, just realistic. What I am 99% certain of is that it will not be the relatively straightforward decision that we will make for Tamsin. I also know that I need to find a school suitable for Sasha - in my head and my heart I know that homeschooling will not be an option. So many parents are forced into homeschooling these days (although there are of course several families who homeschool through choice) because the school their child was at is just not doing it right, not doing enough for their child, not set up to cope with the 'different' behaviour.

I digress. Back to the conference. I have a dilemma and I'd love some advice and feedback.

There are two strands to the discussions. One will be about the possibility of setting up a Free School in the area to provide for 'our type' of children. This may be done in conjunction with the National Autistic Society who already run 7 other autism specific schools but who have now also successfully started a Free School for higher functioning autistic children in Reading (Thames Valley Free School opened Sep 2013. Another in Lambeth is planned to open Sep 2014). So this is not a pipe dream but a project waiting to happen if enough parents support it locally.

The other will be about the possibility of improving services for autism in current mainstream schools by pushing for 'Autism Bases' or 'Inclusion Units'. 

On the face of it, it sounds like an easy decision to make. Especially as we are in the position where we have an 'NT' (Neuro Typical) child who will definitely attend mainstream. I think a majority of parents would rather their children were included rather than sent away to a 'special' school if at all possible. We would love for Sasha to be at the same school as her sister. 

But what if it becomes apparent that the topic of inclusion units has been discussed with the local authority for years and years, with conversations going round in circles, and generally coming back every time to the lack of funding to make any great difference? On top of that, the 'whispers' that a decision was made to trial autism bases or inclusion units, but when local school governors were approached to see which schools could champion this, the idea was batted back by ALL of them with the refusal 'but we don't want that here'. 

As a Governor myself, I'd see it as a way to improve a school and offer something new. I believe that education should be all about the children and helping them all individually. I think the reality is that for most others not already involved in the world of Special Needs, it's seen to be a headache. Extra work. And what school wants to gain a reputation as being good with Special Needs, right? Then they'd just attract more of 'them'! A sad but true reflection of how things stand today.

So given that extra information, the choice now becomes less clear cut for me. Now though, I have to throw my energies into one route or the other, I can't hedge my bets. Both will have their own challenges, but one may have higher obstacles.Which path would you take?


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24 comments:

  1. It is too bad that it has to be an either/or choice. Some of 'our' kids can function well in mainstream, provided they have the proper supports (including school administrators, teachers, and other parents who embrace the idea). Other kids need a special environment. I think it is great, though, that there is a willingness to set up a school for higher functioning kids. Over here, most of the special schools are for kids who are not high functioning.

    Good luck. Let your voice be heard.

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    1. Thanks Yuji. I'm hoping I don't have to make that final call, and that some other parents may be braver than me, but we'll see! If no-one does it, there's no plan B though, and that's the problem...

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  2. Oh, such a nightmare choosing schools for our children! I've always concentrated on what it is my boy needs in all areas then do the rounds of the schools seeing what each has to offer. No one school has it all but the one for your child should eventually standout. I also strongly adhere to my mum-barometer.... the 'feeling' I get as I cross the threshold of a prospective school for the first time. Hasn't let me down yet!

    I know it's that bit harder for you as some of your choices haven't even opened up yet! List your questions and ask them of the relevant authorities if you can?

    I wrote a post a while back sharing our decision making, most of it won't resonate with you but the the list of questions at the end might help? http://jazzygals-steppingout.blogspot.ie/2011/11/asd-and-road-to-secondary-more-choices.html

    Good luck!

    xx Jazzy

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    1. Thanks Jazzy. Those questions are all very pertinent and I'll print off and take on my tour of all schools Herts has to offer! A lot to think about.

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  3. What a tough choice to make. So much can depend on the individual school and attitude they take towards extra attention needed. I can completely understand you wanting her to be with her sister, and if the support is there that's a great choice. Problem is, you may not know the right choice till it's been made. I know my situation is completely different to you, but my twin son has speech delay and sensory processing disorder. He is only 2 1/2 but the nursery we sent the twins to (private) told us they couldn't accommodate him after a term!! We couldn't believe it. He has been making fantastic progress in therapy and will hopefully be joining his older brother at his school in September who have a COMPLETELY different attitude towards development and support. Wishing you lots of luck with your decision making, I hope the answer will become clear! x

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    1. That sounds exactly like our experience - we sent our youngest to the same private nursery her older sister had been to, and they said they couldn't cope with her! So she started at the school nursery and they were brilliant with her. You're right, it's the individuals and the team who make the difference, we can't choose based on that shcool's standard offer....

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  4. I am sure you will make the right choice! xx

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  5. Choosing the right school is a tough decision for any parent, can't imagine how much extra pressure you are under. I think all children should be given the chance in mainstream education and hopefully with the right support at school and home your child will thrive. I am sure you will do what is best but do us Mum's ever 100% believe we have made the right choice?!

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    1. That's true. We're probab;y all never quite sure of lots of things, and Mummy Guilt is always hanging around :) Only time will tell I guess!

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  6. Interesting post - will look forward to hearing how your conference goes. You have big decisions ahead!

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    1. Thanks. Will definitely update, most likely with even more questions!

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  7. I'm with you, schools should be much more inclusive. We recently ran a survey for parents about education and confidence in Kent, it was interesting to see that we have 60% of statemented children in special school but 60% of parents would prefer a mainstream with inclusion.

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    1. they should be... just don't think they are yet sadly. How do we achieve that? Probably not by taking all of 'our' children out of them.... but who wants to be the guinea pig?

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  8. This is such a hard decision and I really feel for you. My sister has the same predicament and has finally decided on a SN school for my nephew who is now secondary school age (up til now he's been attending mainstream with SN unit). What's harder is the decision on whether to separate the girls. I would keep them together and send them to a school with SN unit but it's easy for me when I'm not in your position. Thank you so much for linking to PoCoLo

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    1. Thank you. Trouble is that eldest will obviously want to go whre all her friends are going, and it'd be unfair to make her do something else just because of her sister (she has enough ofthose pressures already!!). So in my heart I don't want it, but I think my head knows that they most likely will be split :(

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  9. I'm trying to get my son into a Communication Interaction Unit. This is attached to a mainstream school and he will integrate in the mainstream based on him as an individual. For example if children are very able at maths they will go to mainstream for maths. If they can't cope with the noise of PE they will stay in the centre and learn. It is also completely tailored to those with communication and interaction problems - visual aids, even a trained dog.

    It is all very difficult.

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    1. That sounds really interesting... probably the only one of its kind in the country though??! Don't think our county is very good at 'units' - or if it is, it's also really good at keeping secrets...!

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  10. The best of luck with your decision, I know how hard it is! In Ireland the pattern seems to be that it is the schools that have falling numbers that set up ASD or aspirer units, as a way of increasing pupils at the schools, so that is something to consider too x

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    1. Sounds interesting - and actually smaller numbers in the school can only be a good thing for our sensory challenged children!

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  11. What a tough decision to have to make. Especially when you're at the stage now where you have to put your energies into one or the other. I don't really know enough yet about your girls or even about the English school system to say anything sensible, but thought I'd share my second hand experiences for what they're worth. My two cousins in Holland are both autistic, one quite severely and the other high-functioning. They both go to special schools: the severely autistic one goes to a residential school and comes home every other weekend. With support from the special school he attends a mainstream school for half an hour a day. The other goes to a special school that has a very high teacher-to-student ratio and he seems to be doing very well - I think the eventual aim is for him to be integrated back into mainstream school eventually, once he has learned more about expectations in the classroom etc. I'm not sure how it works in Britain, but it seems to me like it wouldn't be a bad thing to attend a special school initially, but perhaps to work towards transitioning to a mainstream school later on. Also, if you set up your own school you get to shape it to your liking!

    Hope you come to a decision you're happy with, I'll be reading along to see what happens!

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    1. Wow, sounds like Holland are streets ahead of us!! We agreed at the conference that it would be a much better idea to put support in when the children are young (Early Intervention, anyone?!) and maybe start at special school, with a move back to mainstream being the aim if suitable. Sadly here what happens is that children are pushed to the point where they fail in mainstream and are then either sent off to special schools or left without support and end up being homeschooled, but by then it's too late. Thanks for your comments - update post to follow soon!

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  12. Difficult choices indeed. At the end of the day whatever you choose the thing that makes the biggest difference in education is the support at home. Do what you feel is best deep down and support and encourage all you can as parents.

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    1. Thanks for these encouraging words. Guess we all just want what is best for our children :)

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