"Good support is like a box"

This week's guest blogger is Amy from our FLARE group, on support in schools.

Support in schools is vital because children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) need help to have the same opportunities as their peers. These adjustments do not always require incredible feats of change and acceptance by schools, though some do require and deserve this, but sometimes it is the little things that make a difference between getting a quality education or not.

I had an excellent teacher when I was younger who explained the concept of being treated the same and being treated equally in an excellent analogy. I know he wouldn’t mind that I have expanded this analogy to explain the difficulties with support for SEND children in schools. Being treated the same is like two people standing behind a wall. One is taller than the wall and can see over the wall just fine but the other is shorter than the wall and can’t. These children are being treated the same, they are both standing on the same ground behind the same wall but one can see and one can’t.

Being treated equally is like two people standing behind a wall. One is taller than the wall and can see over the wall just fine, but the other is shorter than the wall. In order for the two children to be equal, the shorter one is given a box to stand upon to also be able to see over the wall. They can both see over the wall and both have the same opportunity but one just needs that box to stand on.

Good support is like that box. It allows a child with SEND to access everything that their peers have and it could be anything that the child needs to that end. A child in a wheelchair may need to leave lessons early to have more time to get to the next class as they need to use a lift. A visually impaired child may need audio description on a video in class to be able to access it as well as other children do. A child with Autism, like me, may need to sit in the corner so that they feel safe and are not surrounded by the voices of other children and all the sensory stimulation that comes with that. Some of these adjustments are not complicated but are overlooked by most people. I have especially struggled with having a hidden disability and teachers assuming that because I don’t look disabled, then I can’t really be.

However, in the analogy of the wall, not everyone has that box. Sometimes people think that a child can cope without a box even though they can’t see over the wall. I have heard so many times the words, “She looked fine”. That may sound acceptable but what if they had to say, “It looked like she could see over the wall”? I doubt everyone would find that a valid excuse for a lack of support. Many children who really need a support worker and can’t function alone are being forced to. It is simply not easy or accessible enough to get a support worker. It took an incredibly long and hard fight for my school and the local authority to admit that I needed a full-time support worker. They continued to say that I was fine at school and that the only problems were at home. This line continued until I refused to go to school completely and became very mentally ill when they finally admitted that maybe I did need some help.

Some people have a box some of the time when they need it all the time. A child who needs a full-time support worker should have one. Sometimes, people argue that the child copes fine when they have a support worker so they would be fine without one. In the case of the wall, just because a child can see over it fine with the box does not mean that they could see over it without it. This argument was often used by my school and local authority; they would say that I had very few problems when a support worker was there so I would have very few problems when one was not.

Unfortunately, even when people have support, it is not always good quality. Sometimes, the support worker is incapable of understanding the child and assisting them. I have had several Teaching Assistants who have become TAs on the way to becoming a teacher. They are no more specialists in SEND than anyone else. How can you help the child see over the wall if you know nothing about boxes? 

Another common theme with bad support is teachers being inflexible to the needs of certain children. This is not a complaint against all teachers, some are incredible with children with SEND and will do whatever they can to make things easier, however, sometimes teachers refuse to adapt. A teacher of mine once remarked that she could hardly be expected to change the way she taught for one child. Not only is this remark wrong in all scenarios, as reasonable adjustments should be made for any child with a disability to be able to access their education, but this teacher had four children in the class in total and so changing things for one would not be that hard.

Through my experience, I have found that support in school for children is simply not good enough for them to feel safe and happy and to access their education. Personally, I found most of my school years to be terrifying. I was thrust daily into a busy, noisy, crowded place full of immature teenagers or mean children when I had no understanding of the technicalities of socialising and without any support to help me to feel better. I have also spoken to many other SEND children and found that, rather than being the exception, my experience is becoming the norm.