Yesterday we had some extremely good news. Even better news than the safe return of Bert (thank you Selfridges…).
Orange has a school place. Not just any old school place, but a place in the very best school in the region for children with physical disabilities. Naturally, we are over the moon. His future education is secure. Orange can learn in the very best environment for children with his particular type of needs. Supported by the most wonderful, skilled, caring staff. He will be safe, loved and helped to fulfil his potential by experts who understand him. I cannot fully explain the relief that this news brings.
But there is more to it than that. And hopefully this might go some way to explain why I have perhaps been a little strange, and distracted, for what feels like the longest time.
Getting Orange into school has been anything but simple. It’s pretty much consumed me for the best part of eighteen months. I’ve wanted so much to write about it along the way as I’ve struggled to think about much else but there is a very good reason I haven’t been able to. Politics.
The politics of trying to secure a special school place in another local authority, for a child under statutory school age, with no diagnosis, at a school that is already full could fill an entire book.
It should be simple. Child with complex needs. Nearest school that specialises in said needs. And you’re in, right? In a word, no.
I can’t think of another process that has involved quite as much smoke and mirrors. It is labyrinthine. Awash with riddles, rhymes, booby traps and games. Super Mario had nothing on this.
The daftest thing about it, in our case, is that there isn’t a person involved with Orange who would say this school is wrong for him. And yet the system that Orange’s professional team works within has become so bureaucratic that not one of them was able to say publicly ‘yes, I agree that’s the right school for Orange, let’s talk about how we help you get him in.’ Not one.
Even the school itself had its hands tied. Orange has been attending playgroups and swimming sessions at the school for eighteen months. The staff knows him well. His photographs are up on the notice board in the corridor. And yet, the system has meant even the school did not have the freedom to talk openly with us about securing a place for Orange.
For eighteen months we have had to blindly but doggedly follow a process, knowing with 100% certainty that this school is the right, and only, option for Orange, all the while being told repeatedly that we were trying to achieve the impossible. Worse, knowing that the final decision lay with office staff in two local authorities who have never met our child, and for whom funding and finance is the primary concern.
Many a time, I have sat in my living room surrounded by professional faces telling us nothing other than ‘the school is full’. Individuals who I like and respect, and who are enormously helpful to us, but who are so trapped in a local authority system beset with politics that leaves them powerless.
Throughout this entire process we have often felt utterly alone. Unable to talk honestly and openly about what constitutes the right school for Orange because the very people who are experts and know what he needs (his educational psychologist, physio, occupational therapist, Portage worker, paediatrician, early years senior SENCO), are all employed by a local authority that forbids them from making open recommendations to parents.
We have had to trust in our own belief that this school is the right one for Orange, and push against bolted doors with unwavering faith, surrounded by nothing but negativity about what we were doing. Driven by our own instinct about our child, but unable to ask for advice from any of the experts that surround us, knowing that they couldn’t give us any straight answers. Or any answers at all.
Eighteen months of bureaucracy. Months of statutory assessment for Orange, reports and draft statements, wondering what to do with a statement of special educational needs that specified no school, three months of preparing for a tribunal hearing that we could afford no legal representation for, seeking out advice where we could from charities on how to make our legal case, and still not knowing if any of this work would result in getting Orange his school place.
Nights that should have been spent sleeping, sat instead with hundreds of pages of the SEN Code of Practice, highlighting bits relevant to our case. Daytimes when I should have been working, with the phone on redial to IPSEA to seek out legal advice. Countless meetings and correspondence where we have been told in riddles that ‘you can’t do this’, while persistently and single-mindedly carrying on.
For us, the story has a happy ending. Instead of spending Christmas preparing case files for the tribunal hearing, we will now be celebrating. There have been so many times when we could have given up, and indeed the system frequently encouraged us to do so. Our hard work and determination has paid off, although I am sure not without a huge dose of luck, too.
But our story is far from unique. Hundreds if not thousands of other parents and children around the country are also facing the same, and worse. I wish I was exaggerating when I say that, at its very worst, this process bankrupts families with legal fees into the tens of thousands. It breaks marriages. It leaves mothers, and fathers, at the deepest depths of depression and seriously mentally unwell. We are extremely lucky that we have come out the other side relatively intact and with the right result for our child.
The truth is, there simply aren’t enough special school places. There isn’t enough money. And there aren’t enough people within the system who are willing or able to stand up and change that. They are silenced, and afraid, or just not that interested. Leaving parents to continue battling their way through a system that does very little to work in the favour of the child.
Any parent will tell you that getting a school place for their child can be a nervous time. But how wrong is it that we live and work within a system that makes this process all the more difficult for our most vulnerable? For those that are most in need. It is a system that compromises everyone within it.
For us, we’re going to take a short while to breathe a huge sigh of relief. But once I have recovered myself I will continue to advocate in any way I can for families who are going through the system. And campaign for change.