Yesterday was January 1st 2018 and it was my birthday…well the 4th Birthday of Reachout ASC. This time four years ago I'd only just left my school and started a new business. There wasn't much rest that Christmas holiday, I can tell you! I end 2017 with a team of three people who help Reachout ASC be all it is. Emma Turver is the other specialist teacher, doing the same work as I do and being very good at it. Meriel is our administrator and can do in 3 minutes what would take me 3 hours to do, and Cristina is our newest member of the team, working as our office assistant. She is an Aspie and we will be writing a blog together about employing autistic people later in the year.
Working in and with many different schools has given me the opportunity to see how education, and specifically SEND reforms are working in real life. I deliver training to SENCOs and staff from all over the north of England and here many stories from many people. 2014 wasn't only the birth of Reachout ASC, but also the birth of the new SEND Code of Practice, since revised in 2015. The landscape for children, parents, SENCOs and school provision has changed in many ways, and in other ways hasn't changed at all. I'd certainly recommend reading posts from Special Needs Jungle to keep up to date with the national picture.
Budget Cuts and SEND
I wrote some of my observations here (SEND children are being damaged by our Education system and it's not their fault). Looking back today, this last term has seen some shocking consequences of the government cuts to schools. Budget's in some primary schools have reduced tens of thousands of pounds. In some secondaries, hundred or more thousands. In tertiary colleges they have had cuts of millions of pounds over the past five years. All this has been in establishments I know and have worked with. And one major area that they have all cut is in SEND provision. Often, it's been staff, many learning support assistants have lost their jobs. I heard of schools who made every TA redundant and then said to parents that they could not meet a child's SEND needs. Schools have children with high levels of needs and less staff to support them.
So what can be done? Well it is easy to say more money will fix it. But it isn't always the best approach (and that may not be popular), because the truth is, a child with SEND needs the expertise of their class teachers more than they need teaching by an unqualified assistant. I meet many very experienced and well qualified TAs but unless the child is taught by the class teacher they are missing out. It has to have a more balanced partnership. Certainly, looking at Rob Webster's guide to effective use of TAs would make a good audit for schools to use what staff they have left to the best purposes.There are some children who benefit from focused 1:1 interventions at certain times, and support in class, but our aim should always be to teach them independence so that they can do things for themselves, and support them in the best way that makes that possible. That will be different for each SEND child. This will probably still involve adult support, but as I say in my book "How to Support children with ASC in Primary School", learning support assistants should be ELASTIC (able to stretch away and ping back when they are needed), not Velcro!
The budget cuts concern me a lot. But wailing about lack of money and then neglecting SEND children using that as an excuse isn't going to help all the children that need help now. We have to find smarter ways of helping them thrive in schools. I do feel better training can help, not just one off courses but sustained training so teachers build up their expertise over time. How about each teacher in a school taking responsibility for one area of SEND so that the range of knowledge spreads out across the staff and isn't all down to the SENCO? How about teachers have to prove their SEND credentials before promotion? The Code of Practice does remind us that "All teachers are teachers of SEND" after all. When Emma and I go into schools we build up the staff knowledge over time so that they do feel more confident and able to teach autistic pupils effectively. Coupled with the more specific and targeted approach we provide as we go along, the child is more likely to settle, succeed and even thrive in their school. A good relationship with specialist teachers from services like ours or from special schools, would be of great benefit to many schools.
My final point draws on that. Previously I worked in a special school with good links with the local primary and secondary mainstream schools. All schools can benefit from shared partnerships and 2018 should see a sustained effort to set these up and find ways of supporting one another. We are only isolated if we allow ourselves to be. We know the phrase "Together we are stronger" and we really can be.
People we should learn from
I've learned a lot this year. I have gained so much from listening. Especially to autistic people. The hashtag #ActuallyAutistic has been so valuable. I've made some more autistic friends this year, some online and some in real life. I have been informed, challenged, encouraged and cared for by people who are autistic. Thank you especially to @AnnMenmmott, @ASKPERGERS, @AspieDeLaZouche, @karmina and some other special people who are not publically known. I have read some great books by autistic authors and academics including @SheffieldLuke, @karmina, Luke Jackson, and the girls of @LimpsfieldGrange.I've already got a few more to read through in 2018!
The autistic people Emma and I have learned the most from, however, are the children and young people we have supported in schools. Just getting to know them, observing them, talking and interacting with them and then building relationships where we can problem solve together is the joy of mine and Emma's work life. In training I share their stories, telling people about the realities of trying to survive in school. The barriers they have to overcome and the challenges that the system and those who don't understand them put in their way. And together we try to make it work better for them. I really wish I could say we get it right every time. But there are sometimes environments and circumstances that are so, so tough and difficult. I promise to always try my best for you, whatever comes.
I've also been listening to parents. Parents of the children we work with and parents online. Thank you all for all you do for your children and I am so very sorry that the SEND system is working so badly against you. Four parents I have known this year had to go through the tribunal process to get their child's needs met.In all four cases the authority backed down a few days before the tribunal date. The untold stress and costs of this is ludicrous. Usually for very small or easily managed changes or placements into LA special schools which could meet the child's needs.
For 2018 my plea is for schools to take the lead and listen. Listen to autistic people, listen to parents and work hard on building those relationships. There are many #AcutallyAutistic speakers who will come and speak to your staff. Parents can talk to staff about their child. Be aware of the toll the stress of fighting for their child's needs to be met takes on parents. Listen to your parents and read some blogs.You'll learn a lot.
I want to say how much I've enjoyed some CPD conferences this year.Particularly speaking at and attending the Parents conference at Preistnall School in Manchester organised by @gdmorewood, listening to @Nancygedge at the TES SEN Show in October, the NASEN Show, the ADHD Foundation Conference in Liverpool, and the NAS Women and Girls conference. Not surprisingly, all these events had Autistic / ADHD and parent speakers. (I loved listening to Rory Bremner talking about his ADHD.)
Things I never thought I'd do
I have loved doing training since I first gave it a go when I worked at Hillside Specialist School. I never thought I'd be travelling the country training other teachers and the general public about all different aspects of autism.This past year I've been to Cumbria, Glasgow, Birmingham, London, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Liverpool and all over Lancashire. Some new topics I wrote courses on were Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome (PDA) and Mental Health and Wellbeing for SEND pupils. I've now got a huge range of courses I can teach, so that schools can tailor training for their needs. I've also delivered training in businesses such as our local HMRC offices, churches and charities. I want to make sure that the training I deliver is having a positive impact, and so in 2018 we will be working on a follow up programme to find out how schools have implemented what we have taught them.
We never thought we'd become assessors for the NAS Autism Accreditation Scheme. Emma and I have both done one so far and are booked in to do some more in 2018.
Writing has been a passion of mine since I was a child, and having not one, but TWO books published this year has been a dream come true.Of course, however much work they took me to write means nothing much unless people read and use them!So far there have been some good reviews, but like all authors I worry that they will languish on a dusty shelf…and so 2018 will entail some publicity work to keep them in people's minds. Any school that books us for training will get a copy as part of their package, and hopefully with the publication of book 3 "Stories that Explain" (A book of over 60 social stories for primary aged children) in the New Year, there will be plenty for teachers to use a resource books as they teach autistic children in primary and secondary schools.
Inspirations for us all
I have been inspired by @WomanEd, #behaviourchat, #SENexchange and #teacher5aday on twitter. Sharing expertise and experiences with others has been a fantastic source of CPD for me. Emma and I have been inspired and challenged to look after ourselves and to be 10% braver. I start an exercise programme in January (I hate exercise so hoping this will get me into it) and Reachout ASC is going to be making some important changes. I never thought I'd take on employees – and having now a team of four, it is time to formalise some of our objectives and become a Social Enterprise company. We are passionate about supporting autistic young people, parents and developing our training into churches and other settings. We are looking for a bigger office (twice the size we have now for the same price or thereabouts…please!) so we can hold more meetings and training onsite. Our profits will be ploughed back into the autism community that we support.
So, in 2018 I hope you can be 10% braver wherever you are. The education and SEND system can be saved by the people in it. Not by griping at each other, but doing what we do best...sharing our knowledge, teaching children and sharing best practice. The SEND system is not totally broken...let's share what works well and show the government how it can be mended. I hope school leaders in particular take some responsibility for this. I do believe 2018 can make positive moves forward to fix the SEND system.