Getting Political About Education

Having three children at school has freed up time for me to usefully spend on admin and being angry. We have to submit an application for Ben to go to secondary school next year (How is he old enough? Where did my baby go? Etc. etc.) It’s a straightforward form where we express a preference and the Local Authority then processes applications, consults with schools, reviews Ben’s Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and allocates a school to him. 

But of course it doesn’t feel straightforward at all, because all decisions about education are set against a bleak landscape of onerous budget constraints. 

We would like Ben to move to the secondary campus of the school he already goes to, but this will require our Local Authority to agree to him continuing his education ‘out of borough’. Judging by the experiences of our friends with children slightly older that Ben, they might push for him to stay ‘in borough’, which is cheaper largely because the transport costs are lower. We’ll see… 

What makes it anxiety provoking is that it’s hard to trust that decisions about Ben’s education will be made on the basis of what is best for him rather than on the basis of squeezed budgets. Spending on education has fallen, and the amount of money given to Local Authorities to fund schools has dropped, while the number of pupils needing extra support has increased. Of course it has, because if schools are stretched then they need formalised funding (an EHCP) instead of informally supporting children within the standard offer of schools.

Ben’s EHCP sets out what he needs to learn and it’s worked brilliantly for him. It opened the door to his current school which has supported him well. The process to get him into school initially was horrific, but let’s save that for another time. So the EHCP process can, and does, work for some and Ben has benefitted hugely from his EHCP setting out what he needs and then matching the funding accordingly. But past success is no guarantee of future provision. We don’t know if the Local Authority will agree to Ben staying at the school that he has thrived in and if they don’t then we will have the option to argue our case against the Local Authority in front of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

The introduction of EHCPs was meant to solve the issue of funding for pupils with special educational needs but of course it has not, and parents take their cases to tribunal every day either to get the support their child needs or to get an EHCP in the first place. They have a good chance of winning – 92% of the appeals decided last year were in favour of the child, family or young person. 92%! So Local Authorities know they are likely to lose but take families to tribunal anyway. It is estimated that Local Authorities spent £40m spend in 2018/19 on SEND tribunals. By all accounts, going to tribunal is hugely stressful and expensive (if you can afford a lawyer) and the child or young person is left waiting for support.

Families are going to tribunal because it is the only way to get what their child needs in a system where there is almost no extra capacity. The number of pupils in special schools has increased, but mainstream schools are still trying to support pupils with special educational needs and insufficient funding. As the head of Max and Molly’s school told us, ‘A recent survey of 600 Headteachers showed that 94% found it harder to resource SEND than two years ago and only 2% felt top up funding was sufficient to meet Education Health and Care Plans.’ This kind of funding shortfall inevitably results in children not being taught as well as they could be, and those who could manage in mainstream schools with the right support moving to more specialist provision where they will. Which is a kind of segregation.

The effect of this creaking system on children and their families is awful but obvious. But even if you, like us, are lucky enough for your children to be in good schools, with really good teachers, it feels like you’re on the edge of a precipice. In England total school funding has fallen by 8% since 2010. Education spending as a percentage of gross national product has fallen from 5.8% to 4%. We know what the pinch of funding cuts feels like – the respite stays that have been withdrawn, the transport to playscheme that evaporated, the wheelchair appointments can’t keep up with the growth of Ben’s legs. My family has been insulated from the worst, but none of it feels secure. Perhaps we are just one decision away from Ben not being at the school he loves, or getting the help with communication that he needs. 

It doesn’t feel like the system isn’t set up to be fair and right, but rather is trying to keep going in almost intolerable scarcity and it needs to ration the resources it offers. It doesn’t offer additional help when it might be useful, it needs each person to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the help is essential before the money can be released. 

This should fill us all with rage: for the pupils who aren’t getting the support they need, for the families that have to commit to stressful tribunal processes, and for schools that are struggling to give pupils educational support in a near impossible situation. I’ve written about this before here, and no doubt I will again, because it’s outrageous. The government are encouraging schools and parents to see SEN pupils as draining funds that could otherwise support more kids. They are overseeing a shift that encourages pupils towards special schools, not necessarily because that is the best place for them, but because that is the only place that might have appropriate support. That is a travesty for all our kids, who find themselves educated in less diverse, less inclusive schools.

Who knows what will happen with Ben’s secondary placement. I think it’s common to find a child moving to secondary school stressful but surely it doesn’t need to be this way. The system is set up to pit families against Local Authorities, schools against parents, and the dynamic is forever stacked against those with least power. Education is not this government’s priority and that’s exactly what it feels like.

Of all the things this government is doing to reduce opportunities, increase inequality and further demonstrate its disregard for disabled people, this is the one I am most angry about this week. It’s not fair on our children or their teachers.

‘This is Ben. He’s playing the iPad.’

About five years ago I did a BBC Radio 5 Live interview, which was indeed live, about Ben’s nativity play which we had been to the day before at his then school. The BBC had been filming the rehearsals for the play and interviewing parents before the final performance, and a lovely film featured on their website. It was also picked up by 5 Live and Ben’s school asked if I could be interviewed on air. I said I’d think about it and spoke to my husband, James, who said obviously I should do it – why wouldn’t I? And he was, of course, right.

Before talking directly to the presenter on air I had a conversation with the producer of the show who asked about nativity play. He was friendly, but it was clear the story they were looking or hoping for (similar to the website headline: ‘The parents who never expected to see their child in a nativity play’) was one of my surprise that my disabled child had taken part in a nativity play. Ideally I would talk about how amazed I was, that I had never expected this to happen because my child was, you know, disabled.

I gently pushed back and said the play had been amazing but not beyond what I had dreamt for my son, because the school was great so it was entirely within expectations that they’d do a Christmas performance. Then I tried to give them an alternative story (encouraged by James who has done substantially more media interviews) which worked. When I was put on air and talking to the presenter she asked about Ben’s progress at school and I told everyone that he’d read new words the week before which was a much better, feelgood, story. I wrote a blog about it at the time here.

I had never thought about nativity plays and been sad that Ben would never get to be in one. I’d never really thought about nativity plays at all – for either (at the time I had two) of my children. I don’t spend much time thinking about whether they will or won’t take part in these rites of passage. But if I had then I would have presumed that Ben’s excellent schools would make some version of it happen, and they have – we’ve been to a Christmas play every year since Ben started school. I wouldn’t say he has always enjoyed them, but they have happened.

Over the years Ben has got better at being able to take part in these kinds of performances without finding it all too overwhelmingly bright, loud, unexpected and unpredictable. His current school has an Awards Night every year where all of the pupils’ achievements are celebrated. There are some speeches and performances and each child goes up onto the stage to accept a certificate. The first time we went Ben hated most of it, but particularly the moment when he had to go up to the stage, and we wheeled him off the stage in tears straight to the car to drive home, leaving six members of our extended family clapping for children they were not related to. He gets overstimulated by the cacophony of music, clapping, lights, people and being the centre of attention. This kind of event doesn’t happen every day and therefore is hard to handle for him.

We didn’t go to the second awards night. We gave the third a try and didn’t invite other family; Ben’s crying that year wasn’t quite as loud but still heartfelt. This year we tried again and prepped thoroughly. We talked Ben through it for days before, agreed with him who would go onto the stage with him. As the ceremony started James read furiously from a poetry book and Ben allowed himself to be occasionally distracted. When it came to his class’s turn, James and Max wheeled him up to the side of the stage and delivered joke after joke to Ben.

I watched nervously from the audience as they came up to the stage and the headteacher handed Ben his certificate. I could see Ben was tense, already sweating from the stress of it all, but HE WAS NOT CRYING. He even managed a small hint of a smile. And then they wheeled off. Max appeared a few moment later demanding more sweets and when James and Ben returned to our seats we agreed we shouldn’t push our luck and beat a jubilant retreat to the car.

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So when, a week later, the school asked us whether Ben should take part in an evening music performance we were unsure. They reminded us that we had said no the year before. But now, fresh from the success of awards night, maybe we should give it a go? It’s a delicate balance with these things between it feeling wrong to force Ben to take part in events he hates and making him stretch his comfort zone so that he can discover that it’s broader than he thought. We said yes.

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On the day Ben’s teacher said they would take the kids to a rehearsal between the end of school and the performance so we just needed to turn up at the venue at 7pm. We had sent in his dinner that morning and they got him ready to go. We were so nervous we left home early and had time for an unusual Monday evening drink – just two parents having a semi-relaxed glass of wine before going to watch their son in a concert. It felt like a Thing that we hadn’t been involved in any of the preparation for this – we weren’t the ones getting him fed and changed and ready – we would just be spectators.

The performance was in a converted church and we took our seats looking down on the large area of floor which was the stage, where once there would have been an altar. Ben and his gang (five kids, five teachers/assistants because that’s how special needs schools roll) were at the side of the stage and Ben looked more relaxed than we had expected. The concert began and it was a mixture of folksongs played by professional musicians and pieces with children from other, mainstream, schools. We could see Ben getting more tense but his teacher was sitting right next to him and talked him through it.

When it came to Ben’s school’s turn they wheeled the children onto the stage as the compere/conductor explained that musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra had been visiting the school and had composed a piece with the pupils. He introduced each of the children and their instrument: ‘This is Ben. He is playing the ipad’. Ben had a trumpeter standing directly in front of him and when he touched the ipad with his hand the notes changed according to the pressure and direction of his touch. The trumpeter then played each phrase back, mimicking his ipad music, like a freeform duet. Other pupils played drums and buttons linked to recorded music. It was glorious.

Ben sat patiently at the side of the stage for the rest of the concert, listening to beautiful children’s choirs and enthusiastic drumming. At the end we collected him, thanking his teacher for the utterly brilliant way she had helped steward Ben’s emotions through the evening, and saying hello to the trumpeter who was chatting to Ben. We paused outside the church to collect ourselves and our belongings and people came up to Ben to say hello, to say well done. One lady bent down to his level and stage whispered, ‘Ben. That. Was. Fabulous.’ As we walked away, the evening warm and still light, a family coming the other way said, ‘Bye Ben, well done.’ We don’t know any of these people. None of them knew his name before his performance. It was amazing.

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I hadn’t imagined Ben would perform with LSO musicians, not because I’d thought he wouldn’t be able to do it because he’s disabled and would be sitting at home excluded from normal childhood opportunities (see BBC headline above), but because I didn’t know my children would have the opportunity to perform with LSO musicians at all. I would have been proud of any of them taking part in a ‘proper’ concert like this.

But particularly for Ben – it’s not that I’m amazed that he took part in these performances despite his disability; it’s that I’m so proud of him taking part in these performances because he’s disabled. Because he’s worked (working) hard to overcome all the reasons why things like this are sometimes overwhelming for him. I think it’s amazing that he has got to the point of being able to enjoy these opportunities despite finding it hard to cope with the noise, stress, unfamiliarity they involve. I love that the iPad was treated equally to the trumpet, and his disability incorporated, and that all the other parents and children remembered his name and came to say hello. It was one of THOSE moments which I’ll talk about when I’m old and dotty and reminiscing about how much joy my children brought me.

Playscheme

We survived the summer holidays! Nothing brings home the fact you have three children like having them all at home for six weeks . It is inevitably chaotic and puts all other meaningful activity on the backburner, but it’s also fun. We don’t all have to be up and out first thing in the morning, remembering school forms and PE kits. We can go to new places and hang around in the garden.

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The secret to communal happiness for us (me) is to have some structured activities, ideally not involving me, lined up between the museum outings and home-based craft projects. We are fortunate that Ben’s school runs a two week playscheme in the summer, and even more fortunate that we have funding for him to attend for one of those weeks. We pay for him to go for a second week.

Running a playscheme for kids like Ben is not straightforward – you need a suitable building, loads of staff with the right expertise. They are expensive because the ratio of staff to children is high, which means either schools or councils have to subsidise them or they are prohibitively expensive for parents. As a parent, it is difficult to find any holiday activities for our disabled child where we feel confident leaving him in a new place with unfamiliar people. I will only send Ben to this playscheme because it is at his school, staffed by people who work there so know him well – these are people who are used to feeding him through his tube and can communicate with him. It’s not the closest holiday scheme but it is the most appropriate.

So for the last few school holidays Ben has spent a week at this playscheme, which is exactly the kind of age appropriate, fun holiday activity I’m into. What I’m even more keen on is the typical experience of two brothers who are a couple of years apart in age being able to do the same holiday things, at the same time, and that is exactly what this playscheme offers. They welcome non-disabled siblings so this year Max went with Ben for four days.

Hurrah, we all shout! Except (and isn’t there always an ‘except’) we need to work out how to get them to and from a playscheme that is five miles from our house each day. Ben is theoretically provided with transport to do the morning journey for one week, but all of my emails to confirm this have gone unanswered and in the week before the playscheme, I still have no confirmation whether the bus is coming and if Max will be allowed on it. There are some mutterings about insurance (or lack of it) for Max. As always, I eventually call my contact, Ms A, at the private transport provider who are sub-contracted by our local council to take Ben to and from school during the term. She works her magic, and calls me back the following day to say she has confirmed the crew that usually take Ben to school will be there on Monday morning, ready to take Max and Ben.

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I cannot overplay the value of Ms A. After weeks of me emailing and calling social services and the school transport service (as I do in the weeks leading up to every playscheme) and getting precisely nowhere, she smooths the path and makes it work with a driver and escort who are familiar to Ben, and with enthusiasm for Max joining them. People like Ms A are the ones who brighten my days.

And so off they went! Ben went on his own some days, and Max joined him on others. They swam in the hydrotherapy pool and did some DJing. They made spiderman masks and puzzles.

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One day I collected them and a young woman was accompanying the boys down the corridor towards me. I could see they were relaxed and happy. She introduced herself and then, in a low voice so Max couldn’t clearly hear, said what a great brother he was. That he’d been friendly to everyone and helpful to Ben, that he’d made some funny jokes. She said her sister had gone to the school and that was how she had got into helping at playscheme. She seemed like exactly the kind of person I want my kids to hang out with.

This is unusual – it is not standard to have access to a playscheme where you feel really confident people understand and can care for your child, where they will be happy and safe. It is rare for non-disabled siblings to be allowed to join in with these kinds of activities. It is unusual to get funding for a week which includes help with transport to get them there. In fact, in a stunning display of bureaucratic madness, a classmate and friend of Ben’s went to the same playscheme each day but for some unfathomable reason was not allowed to travel on the bus with him. Ben’s bus went past the end of his road each morning without being allowed to pick him up, despite there being room. It was the same bus and crew that normally picks him up for school every morning. I despair.

After two weeks of Max and Ben spending time doing all of the fun the playscheme had to offer, we were ready to spend more time at home. I geared up to organise trips. We did loads of interesting things, but I worked hard. It takes thought and planning to find activities that work for a disabled eight year old, a six and a two year old. Holidays are fun but intense, which is exactly why a playscheme like ours is so valuable.

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There is a temptation to see such playschemes as a luxury but there is literally no other holiday scheme, club or session that Ben can go to without me or a carer. It is entirely appropriate for an eight year old to spend parts of his holiday without his mum, and to have the opportunity to do different things. It’s a crucial part of growing up.

From my perspective it’s brilliant. Ben said that he enjoyed it, and Max asked if he can go every day with Ben next year. I hope so, my boy, I hope so.

 

 

The Perils of the Internet

Like practically everyone in the developed world, I am trying to be more thoughtful about how much time I spend on my phone and on social media. I try, with mixed success, to not spend time on my phone around the kids, and to avoid disappearing into a blackhole of news about people I don’t know. Every once in a while I think about deleting the apps. Sometimes I actually do it, but I can’t quite resist because those clever engineers know what they’re doing and I enjoy the pretty pictures and surreptitious snooping.

But it’s also because I get genuinely useful information and a sense of solidarity from the social media I use. It’s brilliant to be able to make connections with disabled people, to learn more about their experiences and their politics. It’s great to be able to talk to other parents of disabled children. I find out about events, equipment and approaches, from organisations and individuals. I think there is huge value in sharing experiences, hence this blog!

But once you find yourself in this little corner of the internet, there are many stories written by parents of disabled children, and it can be uncertain ground. There is a fine line between sharing experiences and oversharing information about a child who may not be able to consent.

I question myself a lot about what it is okay to write about and what is not, particularly when I read things which I think are inappropriate – perhaps because they show photos which I wouldn’t want to see of me as a child on the internet, or because they dwell on how difficult their life is because they have a disabled child.

I worry that when that child is an adult they will be sad to read what was written about them. I am sometimes concerned that the parent’s account is disrespectful to disabled adults with the same impairments as their child. I am by no means beyond reproach – I am sure I have shared things that I thought were okay at the time, but would now not. Sometimes I think that maybe I shouldn’t be sharing anything at all, but I keep coming back to my conviction that as long as disabled children and adults are perceived as ‘other’ by much of society, there is value in attempting to puncture ignorance with our stories. I try my best to respect all of my children by carefully editing what I share (and perhaps I should share more photos of myself…).

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What I am particularly drawn to are stories about disabled children overcoming communication difficulties, and adults that use Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). It is inspiring to see people who have found the communication system that works for them, and are able to say what they want to say. It’s encouraging to see that methodical, consistent use of AAC can pay off – that children who were unable to communicate have a viable way to do so.

If there’s one thing these kinds of internet stories are good at, it’s celebrating the role of the parent, most likely the mother, in facilitating their disabled child’s access to AAC. Often the mother has fought for the right device, has pushed those surrounding the child to presume competence, has homeschooled the kids when the schools weren’t good enough, has modelled AAC language to their child consistently. The kid is therefore doing really well (possibly writing messages saying how grateful they are to their mother).

And, obviously, these stories are amazing. I want Ben to be the subject of these stories – celebratory, happy stories featuring quotes from a child that found it tricky to use expressive language.

So, does Ben have the right AAC system? Is he getting the right education? Is he getting enough specialist input? Should I be homeschooling him? Am I, personally, doing enough to encourage literacy? Are we modelling enough? Are we doing it every day, in every place, at every opportunity? Because if Ben doesn’t become expressively literate, will it be my fault?

These are the kind of myopic, self-obsessed thoughts I have as I peruse Facebook and it’s not that relaxing. I know I don’t want to homeschool any of my kids – I taught an English camp for Spanish kids when I was younger and I learnt from that summer that I am a terrible teacher. I shouted a lot, particularly when it looked like the kids were enjoying themselves too much. I think there are all sorts of advantages to going to school beyond literacy. But still. The pressure. My god, the pressure.

(Sidenote: if crafting expertise was crucial to teaching literacy, I’d be all over it. Gratuitous World Book Day photo:   )

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And then, occasionally I get a moment of thinking we’re not failing. We’re doing our best, and maybe we’re actually doing okay.

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Today Ben was home from school because he has yet another cold (don’t get me started on the sickness count in this house this winter, it is beyond tedious). Molly was with us, and I was pottering around trying to get stuff done between the nose wiping and Calpol distribution. Molly had pulled Ben’s YES and NO symbols off the velcro on the back of his chair, and she was standing next to him holding them up, saying ‘Yes, Ben. No, Sam’.

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This is how Ben answers questions – he looks at yes and no symbols. She is doing this because two year olds copy what they see around them. She has noticed our modelling and she is using AAC with her brother. It’s a little bit magical. We must be doing something right.

Where kids go to school

Max started school in September. It has made me think a lot about how we educate kids with disabilities.

Max’s school is a short walk away from home. It is a typical inner city state primary. Unremarkable for being similar to lots of other schools in London. Remarkable for being like many other schools which are also educating loads of kids with different needs, languages and backgrounds. I have been consistently impressed by how they have calmly settled thirty new kids into school and appear to be totally in control, while I struggle to keep three kids in any kind of order at home. Max has been learning at a furious pace – generally uncommunicative about his day, he’ll then slip in some comment about how to spell a word, or write something, or tell us about numbers in a way that shows he is really soaking up the things he is being taught.

One of the reasons I liked the school when we originally looked round was because it seemed to accommodate difference well – it has specialist provision for pupils with autism, it has a dyslexia centre. It has the kind of diversity of kids you would expect of an inner London school. I believe these things are important.

(Sidenote: a teaching assistant who we loved at Ben’s old school once told me she chose her non-disabled daughter’s school based on it having a lot of kids with special educational needs and being well known for inclusion. People like that make the world a bit brighter.)

Out of the classroom, and purely by chance, it turns out we live on the same road as two other kids in Max’s year and as we all troop up and down the hill every morning we have got to know each other. So within weeks of starting school Max was being invited over, and James and I were getting to know other parents. We bump into parents from the school in other local places and stop for a chat. Apart from this being really fun for Max, it has meant us being able to ask for favours; when Ben was ill, another mum collected Max for me and brought him home. This is new to us and it’s brilliantly straightforward.

I was worried about Max starting at a school where no-one knew Ben. Of course I was wrong to be concerned – within the first few weeks he had described his family with accompanying photos: ‘Me and Ben are lying in bed. Ben’s disabled and my bed isn’t that big so he sleeps downstairs’. Within the first half term the whole class had watched videos of Paralympic athletes and discussed overcoming adversity. As the teachers said at the time, the kids were too busy being impressed with Jonny Peacock’s speed to notice his lack of leg. Max has the confidence to explain Ben’s disability when he needs or wants to and he knows it isn’t negative or something to be self-conscious about, it just is.

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So far Max’s school is everything we hoped it would be. It is enabling the small ordinary interactions of living in a community. And in that respect, it is really – and unavoidably – different to Ben’s school experience.

Ben goes to school five miles away. It’s a really good school, and he’s there because we think it’s the best school for him right now. It takes about an hour each way for him to travel there and back every day. That is not that unusual – kids at Ben’s school come from all over London, in every direction.

James, a carer or I take and collect Ben two days a week. We chose to do that, so we see his classroom and his classmates, and have chats with his teachers and assistants. The other days he gets a school bus, like almost every other child in the school since. We rarely bump into other parents at the school.

Years ago, we looked at Max’s current school as a school for Ben. They were willing to consider it, but he would have been the only physically disabled child in the school and they had no track record of teaching a child like him. We decided it was better for Ben to go to school further away that had proven expertise in teaching children like Ben, in helping them to communicate and in maximising their potential.

We think this was the right decision for Ben, but it means we removed him from his local community. It is only through our efforts to engage him in local activities outside school (and my reliably local family) that he will have any sense of belonging in our little bit of south London. As I have written about before, life is all about human connections and this is more important, not less, for children with disability for whom interacting is challenging.

In some ways this is where Max comes in, as an unwitting but ever reliable social conduit. He invites his friends over, and then Ben is surrounded by boys playing with helicopters. Those boys, and their mums, dads, sisters and brothers,meet Ben and then recognise him in the street. They ask questions and get to know him. We take Ben to the Christmas Fair at Max’s school, where he meets Max’s teachers, other parents and kids, and really enjoys the Salvation Army brass band (obviously).

As ever, the path of inclusion never runs smooth, and Ben couldn’t meet Santa at the fair because the grotto was up two small flights of steps. But never mind – Max told Santa he needed a present for his brother, who is disabled, and wasn’t there, and Santa handed it over. They both got books about the Lego movie so we are all now clear about exactly why Vitruvius (not that one) is so amazing.

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There’s an argument to be made that it makes sense to group children who need specialist input together (and no-one appreciates the expertise of really specialist teachers, speech and language therapists and technologists more than me). That it makes sense to have a critical mass of similar-ish kids in a school together. It’s kind of obvious, and I have sympathy with this point of view, not least because kids like to be with their peers and for some children, perhaps being the sole physically disabled kid in a school is not necessarily that bolstering an environment. I think it works well for Ben to be somewhere with kids that communicate like him, and professionals experienced in teaching kids like him.

It’s not good enough that at 8am every morning hundreds of children with special educational needs are being bussed around the city, sitting in traffic jams while they try to get an education, driving past the local kids who could have been their friends. It’s not good enough that the families of the kids on the buses don’t get to know local parents. How otherwise are they supposed to forge the kind of friendships that are based on mutual understanding of how you feel at 9am having used the cross voice at least five times to ask your child to put on their shoes/not get run over by a motorbike/stop walking on that bit of wall, when you have run to school as you tried to keep up with your child scooting too fast down a hill, and are now wondering if someone is going to give you a medal for remembering the bookbag?

Obviously, calmly loading your older child on to a bus arriving at your house at 8.15am can sound attractive in comparison to the 9am chaos, but is it right? Is it really the right way to organise an education system? Is it fair for disabled kids? And are we really doing right by our non-disabled children?

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(Unconnected, cheerful picture)

How we learn to talk (part two)

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Recently I complained that Max talks too much. I caught myself saying it twice, to two different people, in one week. Granted, James was away and I was really feeling the intensity of being the primary carer of all three kids, but what was I thinking?

Max is, in the nicest possible way, a chatterbox. Some days he will barely stop talking for hours at a time. It’s a charming mixture of questions, statements and analysis of the varying powers of superheroes.

Max was relatively slow to talk; he just said ‘oh no’ repeatedly for months and as he turned two the health visitor was a bit concerned about his lack of speech. I wasn’t worried. I had spent hours with speech and language therapists with Ben and so knew something of the basics of learning language. I could tell Max knew loads of words and understood what we told him. He made loads of sounds. I had a feeling he was just biding his time until he started talking.

At two-and-a-bit he started saying more words. Within a couple of weeks he was putting words together. And by the end of the month he had three-word sentences. It was like a miracle, like you could see his brain working and his body co-ordinating itself with an ease and fluidity that was beautiful to watch and hear.

Since Ben will probably never talk, I promised myself that I wouldn’t take it for granted. And I haven’t – there have been numerous occasions when we have been so very grateful for Max’s ability to tell us what the matter is when he’s ill or what happened at nursery that day.

Meanwhile there have been many times when we have been so very sad that Ben can’t tell us what the matter is, or what he has done that day. We find ways round it by school telling us each day what he has done, and recording messages on a button that goes to and fro with him, but it’s no substitute for independent communication and it’s a clunky way to converse.

We, and his school, are trying our best to give Ben the means to ‘talk’. We continue to model his PODD book with him (a communication book with lots of symbols to represent vocab), and give him access to his eyegaze computer regularly. When he returned to school after Easter, his carer/nanny printed out photos for him to take to school of all the things he had done over the holiday. I programmed new pages on his computer so he could use his eyes to describe what he had been up to (with photos) for his friends and teachers. (SO proud of myself for managing to navigate the software to do this, with only a couple of exasperating moments when I felt like chucking the computer out the window).

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Ben loved all of it – he enjoyed showing people photos of Max squashing him in the park, and telling them about our easter egg hunt.

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But these things are manipulated by us. We choose which photos to include and which anecdotes to tell. Ben can’t tell people what HE wants to about his holiday he can only share one of the moments we chose to include. Who knows whether we have included the bits he most enjoyed? Yesterday we were talking about when we all visited an outdoor exhibition of massive light sculptures and Max’s best, most important memory was of the Smarties Grandpa gave him, rather than any of the sculptures. Kids experience the world differently to adults, and often remember the bits we think are incidental.

Or we (adults) don’t realise what kids want to do. When Max is climbing a tree, Ben will make complaining noises until we ask him if he wants to climb the tree? He then looks at the ‘Yes’ symbol on the arm of his wheelchair, and so we take him out and lift him up into the branches. A year ago he wouldn’t have been able to communicate this clearly something we hadn’t thought of. Or perhaps we weren’t able to interpret what he was trying to tell us.

We continue to hope we can give Ben the means to express what HE wants to say, rather than what we think he wants to say, and he is making progress with the ways he has available.

Each week at school Ben helps create a sentence and they work on the sentence each day, putting the words in the right order. On one of the first days back at school this term, staff in Ben’s classroom navigated him to the Places page of his PODD book. He had to choose the place to complete the sentence ‘I went to the …’ and through careful yes/no answers as he worked his way through the various symbols with an assistant he chose Library: I went to the library.*

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School wondered if he really meant library. We hadn’t mentioned going to the library in our various messages to school. Maybe he was confused, or hadn’t really meant library. After all, his communication can be hard to interpret.

But HE HAD GONE TO THE LIBRARY. The day before! So he had told his class something we hadn’t!

Before Max started talking it was all in his head, he just had to work out how to say it all so we would understand. Ben clearly has so much to say, but no reliable way to say it. In some ways this makes me sad. In many ways it makes me anxious – it is our job (with various professionals) to help him find ways to talk to us and I feel the weight of the responsibility.

But mainly I feel hopeful. Ben has started to use the communication systems we are providing and has begun to talk independently. It will take time, but he’s making progress. He went to the library!

 

How we learn to talk – part one is here

* Note how many symbols there are on this page, which is one of many in the PODD book. Imagine the skill needed to identify which symbol you want on that page and then communicate it to the person you are talking to using only your eyes. Imagine if you got distracted or confused midway through and needed to start again.

New School

We are coming out of the post-surgery haze. Having come out of hospital one week after the operation, Ben started at a new school exactly two weeks after surgery. We had feared that he wouldn’t be well enough and might miss the beginning of term, so it felt like a huge win to get him there in one (slightly bruised, stitched together) piece.

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James has taken a significant chunk of time off work so we have had the luxury of introducing Ben to school slowly, calmly, with both of us around to make it work. We have been able to take him in together, learning how to drive into central London without killing a cyclist or getting embedded in a stationary traffic jam, and pick him up early. Max has come in with us and got to know the new school. We have all been able to meet the staff and see where Ben spends his day. It’s all been significantly less stressful than I anticipated.

It’s not all been plain sailing. Until earlier this week Ben had periods of profound unhappiness which couldn’t be resolved with paracetamol, or ibuprofen, or TV, or books, or lying in bed. There are few things more sapping than spending four hours with a child who is really unhappy and being apparently incapable of making things better. Maybe he had a headache (there is, after all, stuff in there that wasn’t there before), or a tummy ache (ditto), or the wounds are uncomfortable, or he’s just really bored of being with us at home. Not fun. But if someone told me pre-surgery that Ben would start at school two weeks later and be largely cheerful (or at least not miserable), I would have taken it.

He’s now done two weeks and he isn’t just putting up with school, he is really happy. As we walked in on the first day, Ben was all smiles. He has loved school thus far and he knew he would enjoy it, and he was right. That is partly because he likes learning and the variety of a school day, and partly because it’s an excellent school. James and I were far more nervous than Ben, but the staff are so obviously capable, receptive and skilled that we have had no choice but to happily leave Ben there and go for lunch in Clerkenwell or take Max to the Museum of London, again.

I’ve described before the importance, and marvelousness, of one’s disabled child going to a really good school. We have been fortunate enough to find two. Ben has moved schools because we, and the professionals working with him, felt he would benefit from more specific and specialist input so he has moved from a school for children with a range of special educational needs to a school for physically disabled children. He, and we, loved his previous school and were sad to leave. We all made very good friends there and Ben was lucky to be taught and supported by lovely, skilled people for two years. Saying goodbye to them all involved a lot of weeping, for once not just by me.

As part of leaving, Ben got his last school report. We spend a lot of time reading expert reports about Ben that are, necessarily, factual and focus on problems. Ben’s report was the exact opposite of this – hundreds of words of enthusiasm and celebration. It was a joy to read and was written evidence of the can-do attitude of his lovely teacher. Forgive me as I quote some of my favourite bits – comments that could only be made by people who have taken time to really get to know Ben and see past the immediate obstacles to communication and learning:

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‘Children and adults are drawn to Ben’s fun friendly nature and positive attitude.’

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 ‘One of Ben’s many lovely qualities is his empathy. If another pupil receives praise or is celebrated for an achievement Ben will start to beam and become very excited.’

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 ‘Ben can communicate with adults using his communication board, his PODD book, symbols or just by gesture.’

 ‘Ben has really flourished with phonics activities this year, and with the continued support he receives from his family he has excelled in this area.’

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We are incredibly proud of him, so pleased he’s had such a brilliant experience of school so far and so thankful for such talented teachers and assistants. What a geek! Like mother (and father), like son.

A trip to Westminster

I didn’t realise quite what a difference it would make to our lives once Ben was at school. We’re now coming to the end of his first year of full-time school, and it’s been bloody marvellous. The thing about having a very small disabled child, who’s at home a lot, is that you are responsible for every almost every aspect of their lives; what they’re doing, who they’re doing it with, what they’re learning (or not), how much variety they have in their days. Even with the aspects that aren’t entirely down to you, you are still the one providing taxi services or co-ordinating appointments, having conversations and arranging outings. It’s a lot of pressure and hard not to take things personally.

If you are lucky enough to get your child into a really good school (via interaction with your local Special Educational Needs department, which is bound to be stressful), a significant chunk of responsibility is lifted from your shoulders and you are handed back whole swathes of time. 5-6 hours a day to be precise.

Of course there’s still a lot to do and arrange. And there are school holidays to fill. But every day during term time, your child is with people who are teaching them, playing with them, taking them to go swimming and to other interesting places.

Ben’s school celebrated the election of a new parliament in May by going on a school trip to Parliament for all of the children who are part of the MOVE programme, which is all about integrating physical tasks, goals and skills in to the school day and is designed to involve the expertise of everyone who works with the children – parents, teachers, therapists, classroom assistants and others.

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Ben’s MOVE goals focus on him sitting unsupported and standing for short periods of time. Being part of the programme means practicing these skills every day at various points throughout the day. The idea is to go beyond just working on this in designated physiotherapy sessions. It a great idea, and Ben’s ability to sit with less support has improved noticeably over the last 6-9 months.

The outing to Westminster was to celebrate the achievements of all of these kids, and where better to take them for a treat than to the heart of power? The place that, for a group of eleven disabled children, ultimately determines so much of their lives, from education and transport, to benefits and healthcare.

If I decided to take Ben on a trip to Westminster, it would be a big deal and I would spend a lot of time planning and fretting. The idea of taking eleven children in wheelchairs, eleven staff and all of the necessary bags on the tube, in order to make an appointment time with an important person would send me into some kind of collapse. But that’s what the school did – cheerfully and enthusiastically. Presumably somebody was planning and worrying, but they gave the impression of easy calm. They even, in the spirit of MOVE, got all of the kids out of their wheelchairs on the tube to practise sitting on seats. Brilliant! Nuts!

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I met the party at the Houses of Parliament and we went though security – all lovely slopey ramps, friendly frisking and smiles for the army of wheelchairs. We went through to New Palace Yard where we were met by Neil Coyle, the very newly-elected MP in whose constituency Ben’s school sits. He’d only had a couple of days to familiarise himself with the workings of the Houses of Parliament but he got us in, and happily chatted to us all, kids included. You could not meet a more welcoming MP.

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There’s a video here.

I love the idea of politicians and their colleagues coming across these kids as they walk through the Palace of Westminster. I got by far the best bit of an ambitious day – just swanning in for the photos in front of Big Ben. What a luxury for me – none of the anxiety about logistics or whether Ben would be happy, and all of the fun of the adventure. But mainly, lucky Ben!

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(Surprisingly hard to fit my large head, Ben’s wobbly head and Big Ben in a selfie.)

Hobbies

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It is tricky for us to encourage Ben’s hobbies. Or find fun stuff for him to do that isn’t watching an iPad or being read a book. Activities often feel like hard work for not that much reward. We have had some successes: swimming and stories at the Horniman Museum in particular.

Over the last couple of months we have been trying two new activities with Ben regularly – music on Mondays and trampolining on Wednesdays.

Music is the very best kind of therapy – therapeutic input with specific goals in a trojan horse of fun! I’m certain Ben has no idea he’s working. I wrote about us starting music therapy here. Since then Ben has got over his upset at each session finishing and is happy to arrive and leave each week. We have just had a review with his therapist, who I will call C, where she showed me videos of some of the sessions and summarised how they were getting on so far.

We rarely have reviews that are as wonderfully positive as this. You could be forgiven for thinking Ben is some kind of musical genius when you talk to C. Her feedback is full of things like:

Ben has been extremely motivated to participate and shown himself to be very sensitive and musical, working hard but also sharing a clear sense of his fun character‘.

And:

‘On a small number of occasions Ben has also very clearly, melodically, and beautifully, sung in response to the music. This is very fragmentary at present and it is likely to be an evoked – rather than consciously directed – response. However, the musicality and sensitivity of this illustrates clear musical understanding.’

In the videos I watched it was striking that during long periods (i.e. up to a minute) Ben was listening intently to music being played and was totally still. This is unusual – Ben is nearly always moving some part of his body. When he did try to participate he managed, despite all of the physical challenges. I saw him bashing a drum at the right time, and kicking a tambourine to a beat. Not always, but often. It is all hugely exciting and Ben is so obviously engaged.

Meanwhile, on Wednesdays we have been going to trampolining before the school day starts, on the amazing big trampoline that is hidden beneath the floor of Ben’s school hall. Ben was pretty relaxed from the beginning, but has been enjoying it more and more each week that we go. He clearly now knows what to expect and is really comfortable with the instructor, who I’ll call D. D has been bouncing higher and doing ever more bold moves as Ben lies on the trampoline surface and is flung around.

Having been invited to come along by the staff at school, Max has taken longer to engage, preferring to play with the PE equipment in the hall rather than venture on to the trampoline. It’s not only disabled kids that need time to acclimatise and build up their confidence. Today, finally, he totally embraced the concept and D helped him to bounce and lie next to Ben. If finding successful activities for Ben is difficult, finding things that both Ben and Max enjoy at the same time is THE HOLY GRAIL. I actually got cheek-ache from smiling so much (video below).

Similar to music, the trampolining is doing all sorts of things for Ben beyond letting him have fun. Being bounced around is excellent vestibular input (to the structures within the ear which provide information about balance, equilibrium and spatial orientation) for a child that doesn’t necessarily roll down hills or go down slides. It gives unique feedback through a body that can’t communicate with itself very well, and is physical therapy in disguise – Ben clearly tries to lift his head and arms throughout the sessions.

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This is what happens when the stars align and you find something Ben’s interested in, at a time that suits him, in a venue that works, with a therapist or instructor who is really good at what they do. C is really careful – to the untrained eye she appears to be sitting in a room helping Ben play a drum. To a skilled eye, she is getting Ben in the right position, making up a song that interests him, adjusting the timing so he can get organised to move his hand to the beat, positioning the drum where he can bash it, constantly testing and adjusting to get the best out of him. D is filled with enthusiasm and has gently worked out what Ben likes and included Max as much as she can. She works at a pace dictated by Ben, and is unfailingly pleased with every bit of feedback Ben gives her.

It’s all totally bloody brilliant. I couldn’t be prouder of these boys

(Not the best quality photos – iPhone cameras not happy with institutional lighting and bouncing.)

School bus

Ben is now at school full time. He goes to the special primary school in our borough so we have to drive him there which takes 20-30mins.

Most children who go to the school get the school bus. I spoke to various people about this before the summer and was given the impression that the school bus is all or nothing – every morning and afternoon or not at all. I was grumpy about it on a day when I happened to be interviewed for a film about parenting children with special educational needs. I grumbled at length about the inflexibility of such systems.

I applied for transport assistance, thinking that I’d see what happened and we didn’t have to take it if we didn’t want to. I was told we could pretend we had physio every afternoon so Ben couldn’t get the bus. A woman who works for the transport bit of the council then came to visit us and assess Ben’s needs. She was really friendly, confirmed Ben would be offered a place on the bus due to his disability, and said it was totally up to us how often and when he used it. All of the scare stories about the inflexibility of the bus were totally unfounded!

We then couldn’t decide what to do because Ben is so young and time to fit in his breakfast in the morning is already limited (the bus arrives half an hour earlier than if I drive him straight there). I enjoyed taking and collecting him when he had gone to school 2.5 days a week last year and it meant I got to know the staff and kids at the school. But doing the school run for an hour every morning and afternoon five days a week is a lot of time – time that could be spent with my other child, or working, or making a dent on the Ben-admin/washing/massive piles of lego in my sitting room.

We came up with a complicated rota of Ben getting the bus on various mornings and afternoons after an initial few weeks of me driving him. Everyone nodded when I told them, looking kindly at me like I was nuts. We realised that no-one, including us and more importantly Ben, would be able to keep track, so we settled on Ben getting the bus each morning and being collected every afternoon.

On the first morning, we were ready at the front window looking for the bus – we had been given strict instructions that the bus would wait for 3 minutes from our allotted pick-up time but no more. We’d told Ben what was happening and he was totally fine. He was smiley and relaxed.

While waiting, James and I had some small misunderstanding about something and I burst in to tears. I found the whole thing so emotional – my little boy going all on his own on the bus with people he’d never met before. And Ben’s school bus is, by definition, full of disabled children. Happy, friendly, lovely kids, but there’s no getting away from your child being disabled in that context.

Non-disabled four year olds don’t get buses to school, they potter round the corner to the local primary. In fact hardly any British city kids get organised buses to school; there is no culture of school buses like I have seen in American films. (Aside: construction companies in Qatar buy old American school buses, so when we lived in Doha you would often be waiting at traffic lights next to big yellow buses with SPRINGTOWN HIGH SCHOOL written on the side, which were full of adult migrant labourers being driven to work.)

Then the bus arrived and we met Omar, the driver. Ben got lifted up on a platform on the back of a bus, and was all smiles as his wheelchair was secured. Then he was gone. Of course I called the school mid-morning and they said he had arrived happy.

That routine lasted three days.

On the fourth day we repeated everything as normal, Ben smiled at Omar, and then his bottom lip appeared in direct correlation to the height of the wheelchair lift. Ben’s bottom lip is legendary – he has used it to great effect ever since he was a little baby. By the time he was in the bus he was crying and wouldn’t open his eyes to say goodbye to me. ‘Ben’s very sad’, said Max.

So now each morning Ben is happy while we all wait for the bus. The bus arrives and Ben smiles at Omar. Then he sticks his bottom lip out as he gets in to the bus and cries as it leaves. Unless the lady who accompanies the children sings to him, in which case he allows himself to open his eyes a tiny bit and marginally retract his lip. As soon as she stops, off he goes again with the tears. It’s all heartbreaking.

I keep asking the bus staff how he was during the journey and each day they say he stopped crying as soon as they turned the corner. Every day each child is greeted by the headteacher or deputy head on their way in to school, and every morning they say he was happy. We collect him each afternoon and his class teacher says he was cheerful.

So I guess he’s okay and we all carry on until he gets used to the idea of leaving us on the bus. But in the meantime my heartstrings are taut and in danger of snapping.