I’ve had mixed experiences of my time in education. Having started out at a small village primary school, I then moved onto an all girls’ grammar. I studied my A Levels at New College Worcester, a school for visually impaired pupils. Then, after my gap year in Germany, I went to study creative writing at a small university.
On reflection I’d say that I was lucky with my primary school; there was a maximum of 30 pupils in the whole school and this atmosphere gave me my best experience of mainstream education. Every pupil had a part in the plays which we performed every year. The teachers encouraged me to do everything my peers did, so I was expected to move confidently around a stage and to don various costumes in our productions. In lessons too I did everything alongside my classmates; I wrote my work in braille as they were handwriting in their books, I was making tactile collages when they were painting, and I was expected to kick a ball about and take part in our P.E lessons. Our school was one big family and so I grew up unaware that I was any different to my peers.
This changed when I went to the grammar school. I remember having my tour of the place and asking the teacher:
‘Do you have any other disabled people here?’
‘Disabled people,’ she said. ‘Of course not, we’re a grammar school.’
It was this attitude that presented me with lots of problems in my time there. The school is one of the best in its county because it only takes the brightest girls. I’d had to sit the 11 Plus exams alongside my class and although I’d passed the tests, there were teachers at the grammar school who voiced their opinion that I should have been placed in a specialist institution. I had a difficult time there and we had to work hard to try and find ways of making things more bearable for me. The extent of my problems and the solutions we fought to put in place will be the focus of this post.
University was similar to my grammar school experience – the main difference being that as an adult, you’re expected to sort things out for yourself rather than relying on an advocate. The support for disabled students was lacking but my course lecturers did their best to fill in the gaps. At the end of 4 years I felt as if I’d come out with 2 degrees: a BA Hons in Creative Writing and a BA LIFE in Self-advocacy. Of course, self-representation isn’t something you can be formally recognised for but it’s an all-important skill and something I’d like to explore in a later post.
Undoubtedly the most magical part of my educational experience was when I started at the boarding school for pupils with a visual impairment. I say magical – honestly, it was like going to Hogwarts! From being one of the least popular girls at the grammar, I soon made lots of friends and was voted in as Head Girl in my 2nd year of being at New College. We cooked together, helped each other with our classwork, and made friendships which time and distance can’t tarnish. This should demonstrate that it is possible to have positive experiences of being in education; sometimes you have to fight for them.
Everyone has the right to an education. What a shame the right doesn’t extend to having a good education. People have different experiences of what their schooling was like; when asked to talk about what they remember of their school days, they present us with a whole mixture of memories. From best friends to teachers they hated, the life-changing class trip and their thoughts on school food, this demonstrates how experiences of school go far beyond being in the classroom. Young people tend to feel that school is their world because they don’t usually spend much time elsewhere. This is how I felt; I was unhappy at my secondary school which made it hard for me to be happy with my life.
Education is just as (if not more) crucial for people with disabilities. They are likely to need more support to learn on a level playing field with their peers and consequently school is the place where they must learn to ask for what they need. Being disabled can mean that you have to challenge teachers, who often know less about disability than the disabled person does. School is also the first place where you make friends and create a social life for yourself; failing to do this can make school a lonely and difficult place. Growing up isn’t easy for most people and having additional needs makes the process more complicated.
Before I go onto talk about some solutions for these sorts of problems, I should tell you how my difficulties came about. I had friends for my first 2 years of secondary school but there were a few factors that changed the relationships with my peers and even my teachers too. We’ll start with the teachers; I’ve already explained about their general attitude to having a disabled pupil in their grammar school. There were some teachers who would ignore me in their lessons, expecting my classroom assistant to teach me everything I needed to know. I remember an English lesson when I had put my hand up to ask for help. Despite the teacher’s assurances that ‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ I was left sitting at my desk without help for the hour’s lesson.
Things were definitely at their worst in my year 11. I was heading off to my Maths lesson and had dropped into my teaching assistants’ office to collect my braille books. I was surprised to find my Maths teacher waiting for me.
‘I’m afraid you can’t come into the lesson today,’ he said. ‘We’re interviewing for a new Maths teacher and each candidate will be teaching the year 11 classes for part of the lesson.’
‘So why can’t I come to Maths?’ I asked.
‘We feel that your presence would unbalance the situation.’
‘I could just sit in the corner and get on with my work,’ I suggested.
‘Unfortunately, we feel that your presence in the room could make the situation unfair for … some candidates.’
So I spent my Maths lesson drinking cups of tea with my classroom assistant, who tried to make me feel better about being so disabled and different that I wasn’t allowed into my own Maths lesson.
I’ll tell you the next part of this story because it demonstrates how teachers’ attitudes can be problematic all the way up the hierarchy. I met with the deputy head teacher a few days later. As he blustered about having not been there on the day of the interviews and how he hadn’t had anything to do with what had gone on, I told him that I felt I had been discriminated against.
‘I have a meeting in 5 minutes,’ he said.
‘It’s unacceptable to prevent me from attending my own Maths class,’ I said, ‘especially as this is my GCSE year. It’s discrimination.’
He opened the door for me. ‘Well, blind people do get ignored in our society and they do get discriminated against,’ he said.
So there we have the attitude of my teachers.
In the same way that children are influenced by their parents, I have learnt that pupils are influenced by their teachers. In any case, the girls in my year were quick to pick up on the fact that most of my teachers acted as if I were a general inconvenience to them; I certainly wasn’t given respect. They treated me differently from my classmates and so even my friends began to see that I wasn’t quite the same as they were. As girls grow into teenagers, they become interested in boys, make up, magazines and fashion – all things I had no interest in. At the end of my 2nd year at the school (year 8), the school introduced a vertical form system. Whereas previously we had been placed in tutor groups according to our year, this new system meant that there would be 4 members of each year group in a form. The idea is for the older ones to help the younger years, but in reality everyone tended to sit around in year group huddles and not much socialising went on. My circle of friends shrank to 3 girls in my year and when we grew apart, I found myself isolated.
So as you see, school isn’t always a pleasant experience. However, recognising that the educational system can be harder for disabled pupils to navigate allows us to take a proactive approach. Teachers, professionals, parents, and the pupil themselves should be communicating on a regular basis to discuss a pupil’s progress and areas for improvement. Although the pupil is expected to work in school, the school should also be working to include pupils with disabilities in all aspects of the curriculum. Here are the solutions that were suggested to try to integrate me into my grammar school environment.
I was fortunate to have a team of creative people working to find ways forward for me. Specialist teachers of the visually impaired, educational psychologists, my classroom assistants, and my parents met with my teachers as frequently as the school would permit. It’s worth noting here that one member of staff involved in those meetings was the SENCO, the school’s Special Educational Needs’ Coordinator. All schools are required to have a SENCO and although they may have things to learn about disability, they need to be made aware of a pupil’s needs. I was sometimes present at these meetings too although I couldn’t afford to miss many lessons. This team would then sit around the table and turn their attention to the issues I was having at school.
Their first concern was about how I had failed to integrate into my new form group and so they enlisted the help of my tutor. They suggested that the tutor could help introduce me to people in the group by having me sit with a different girl each day. Although this was a good idea, my tutor pointed out that it wouldn’t be fair on the others in the group if I had to keep moving places all the time. However, I wasn’t the only person who had found it difficult to make friends in the new form and so the creative team proposed that everyone in the form should swap places each day; this way, we would be sitting with a different person for that day and we’d soon get to know each other. The next morning, my tutor spoke to his new form:
‘I have a challenge for you this week,’ he said, ‘The challenge is to sit with a different person every day. It’s to help you get to know each other.’
His announcement was met with groans; none of us liked being out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, the challenge didn’t catch on and having proposed the idea, our tutor left us to it. After a few months, I agreed to move to a new tutor group so that I could have a fresh start. Things didn’t improve friendship wise but my new tutor encouraged the girls in her form to say their names as they spoke. This meant that I came to learn everyone’s names quickly which made me feel more included in the group. Moving people around and getting them to introduce themselves by name are great ways to bring groups together.
As the team’s meetings continued, it soon became apparent that there was an underlying cause of my difficulties. Teachers and pupils alike were generally unaware of how to treat someone with a disability so most people would be ignorant of my needs or avoid me altogether. My teachers of the visually impaired wanted to run some awareness raising sessions to help people feel more comfortable around me. The school were reluctant to do this, their view being that it was difficult to squeeze such a session in their fast-paced educational time table. However, some awareness raising sessions were run in an assembly (for a quarter of the school) and in a lesson for the youngest girls. Awareness raising sessions are a great idea if they’re run in the right way; in my experience, they’re most beneficial for people who are in close proximity to a person with a disability. My teachers of the visually impaired did their best but I believe it would have been more effective had they been able to speak to the whole school or at least to the girls in my year.
I’ve said that the responsibility shouldn’t fall entirely on the pupil when they are struggling at school, yet they do have a part to play in their own success. In my experience, the pupil needs to be open about their needs and as honest about their experiences as they can; their problems won’t be solved if they keep it all bottled up. This means recognising when they should ask for help. However, the pupil needs a lot of support from those around them to keep going when things are tough. This support is by no means limited to teachers. At secondary school, my best friends were other visually impaired teenagers who lived all over the country; they were a great support to me and the understanding peer group I needed. My parents were forever driving me around so I could spend time with them to break up my lonely weeks of school. As parents, you can give your child small boosts to get them through. I remember Mum saying at the start of some school days: ‘I’ll make a cake for when you get home’, or ‘We’ll have something nice for tea.’
Having something to look forward to can help a bad day seem more bearable.
In spite of the awful time I was having, it had been agreed that I would complete my GCSEs at the grammar school before going to New College Worcester. By the time my summer holidays had flown by and year 10 turned into year 11, I was dreading every day at school. I would lie in bed worrying about how I was going to spend my breaktimes and what I would be expected to do in lessons. I worked hard in class to take my mind off things but I always felt that I wasn’t as good as the other girls. I hated lessons which required group work because I could never find anyone to work with and would spend the time sitting around on my own. Every day was exhausting. However, the team of staff were still having meetings. When it became clear that school was getting worse for me, the educational psychologist stepped up to the platform. She knew I only had a few months to go until the exams and suggested part-time schooling. As the school environment wasn’t going to change, she reasoned that I should have more time out of school to conserve the much-needed energy I would need for the exam period. At first, this didn’t seem like a favourable plan; surely I’d be even more behind with my work. Wouldn’t I miss something important if I wasn’t in the lessons? The team of staff did some research into centres where pupils can go if they find it hard to attend school. Although tuition is given at the centres, there were concerns that the educational programme might not be suitable for a person with a visual impairment.
In the end, it was decided that I would do part of my work at home. I went into school 3 days a week and for the other 2 days, my teachers gave me work for me to do at home. I loved it. It was great to be able to work at my own pace for a change and I felt much more relaxed surrounded by home comforts. I could take breaks when I liked and I was surprised to find that I received good marks for the work I did in my own time. For me, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the lessons with my peers. My part-time school programme taught me a lot about self-discipline and study skills so that I started at New College Worcester with a work ethic to be proud of.
Part-time schooling is a last resort solution. Integrating pupils with disabilities into classes, raising awareness of their needs, and encouraging them to ask for help are much more favourable than removing the pupil from their peers altogether. School is about the education you receive but it’s also integral to creating the person you become. Therefore, pupils with additional needs must learn to work and play alongside their peers. With good communication between the pupil and all those involved in their schooling, they have a good chance of getting the support they need and leaving school having achieved as much (if not more) than their peers.