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Providing for those affected by special needs

I've posted two short blogs I originally put on my Facebook page in early December. The second was written in response to a friend's comments about the first, so I felt they should appear together.

6 December 2020

When there was a move towards reducing special school provision a couple of decades ago, school leaders largely welcomed the move, on the basis that integration brought great social benefits for SEND children and schools should reflect the diversity of society. It was, however, difficult to escape the cynical view that the money saved by closing specialist provision was the major driver for some in National and Local Government. Sure enough, the funding to effectively support SEND students in mainstream schools has never been forthcoming and figures obtained by 'Special Needs Jungle' website this week show that schools and Local Authorities are vastly overspending inadequate budgets in order to provide.

This is worrying for the schools, parents and young people with the most profound difficulties. Fortunately it is possible in many such cases to secure some ring-fenced funding through Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). It is rarely enough.

There are many other young people with more moderate, but still important needs. Increasingly, being diagnosed with an educational need, such as a specific learning difficulty, brings only acknowledgement, rather than funding or extra support. And there are many such young people in our school system.

Overstretched and often under-trained classroom staff are expected to adapt every lesson to accommodate multiple special considerations with little more than a restricted photocopy budget at their disposal. For most, there is no ring-fenced provision. The conversations following publication of information like that collated by the website will rightly focus on those whose need is most profound. We shouldn't forget the others.

Of course, the very existence of discussions such as this is damaging to the young people at the centre of the story. If you have a Special Need you are a liability, a nuisance. Everybody has to adapt their way of doing things to accommodate you. It's difficult not to feel embarrassed for the extra burden you place on others and angry at a world that has saddled you with all of the challenges that come from being different. This is true where the need is profound and also where it is more moderate.

Deeply angry and shamed people struggle to integrate into society. Is it a coincidence, for instance, that studies consistently estimate that over 30% of the prison population is dyslexic and up to 30% meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD? I suspect that difficulties at school, poorer formal qualifications and the unaddressed emotional toll of being different all contribute.

The impact that special educational needs place on the mental health of the young people is rarely considered and, to my knowledge, never funded. This is unlikely to change soon. At a time of financial crisis, our perception of 'cost' becomes narrower and more short term. The needs don't disappear, we choose not to notice them.

9 December 2020

My recent blog on SEND provision and the value of counselling was well received. Thank you to everyone who engaged with this important subject. A good friend has since pointed out from experience the stress borne by parents of young people with disabilities and special educational needs. I think this is a much-overlooked pressure.

Parenting is hard enough for anyone, but getting the right balance between being a champion and being a nag; protecting and empowering and simply doing what you believe is best for your child when what's best doesn't neatly fit with ‘the way the world works’; that all makes a difficult task much harder. These things (and worrying that you could be neglecting the needs of other family members) must add immeasurably to the everyday challenges which exhaust most parents. At the same time, in some cases it may feel that one's own identity is being lost as commitment to others becomes more and more all-consuming.

As my friend pointed out, there is a real need to offer sensitive, appropriate support to families. There is joy in being a parent, regardless of circumstances. It's important that this isn't lost in a mass of worry and responsibility. Parents worn down by a sense of never doing enough and faced with impossible decisions about life's challenges could benefit from their own counselling. This would also surely only be a good thing for the children in their care. There is, however, only so much money (from government, charities and individual pockets) available to fund any important cause. Nevertheless, supporting parents and families in order to enable them to be there for those they love and to find some space for themselves could prove a very wise investment. As ever, the emotional impact of additional needs on families can be as profound as the more obvious physical implications.

Sadly, I can't deny that for many people counselling, although probably the best option, remains a luxury. So what can we do to help? Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective.

For those who are in this position, perhaps being kind to yourself is a start. To seek and accept help from professionals, from others who are or have been in the same position and from true friends. Sometimes it takes strength to be seen as vulnerable.

For those who walk alongside others on this journey, it’s worth asking 'How are YOU?’, and truly listening to the answer. Not advising or putting it right, but listening. (Sometimes it feels like advice is everywhere, but wisdom is precious.)

These aren’t the perfect solutions, but in an imperfect world they’re a good start. We need to do our best to care for those who care.

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