By Deborah Jones

So, imagine an iceberg….

I can’t help but divert from my usual focus on Post Compulsory Education today.  On both a professional and personal level, I feel that Ofsted’s new welfare criteria, which shifts from a focus simply on safeguarding (Sept 2015) is such a helpful act to mainstream schools and colleges who are wanting to help some students and pupils, but cannot grasp those much needed pennies from the shackles of their funding streams in terms of special educational needs.  To be blunt, to me, it’s about raising self esteem.

The influential drive of the Biopsychosocial Model of disability, which began life in mental health services incidentally, has given us the promise of hope in the new ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’.  My own (personal) experience of it as a parent of a child with high functioning autism has been extremely positive, but I feel that this is due to a switched on, communicative and supportive staffing team at our school and, if I’m honest, a desperation to do the best for both our son and the other kids.  I am the first to acknowledge that this journey has been a massive challenge for the school, due to my son’s hyper sensory needs and disruptive and emotional outbursts, but they worked with what they had (which was very limited in terms of budget up until six months ago) to keep him in their fold.  They employed the most amazing teaching assistants as extra support, albeit with a limited budget.  They actively teach the discipline of inclusion and accepting diversity to all their kids.  They encourage the drummers to drum to their own beat. We are so lucky (and I will be forever grateful).  Others aren’t.

I should really set the context.  My son was diagnosed with high functioning autism, also known as Aspergers, at the age of six.  Although we had a supportive diagnosis team, the process was long, extremely stressful for both us and our son, and tainted with a sense of the negative; as if we should be worried or sad about the outcome.  So, we were worried and sad about the prospect of the outcome.  I am so pleased to say that our insightful and empathetic (yes!) son has taught us that having autism is, in fact, really quite cool and his brain is simply wired differently.  He sees the world with such a beautiful mind and his honesty goes beyond any levels in any adult I have met.  Girls swoon at him when he looks at them with his big, green almond eyes and tells them they’re beautiful like a princess and a couple of my single guy friends have even taken note of his tactics!

But with him, it’s genuine.

He doesn’t see deceit or manipulation.  He sees things in terms of patterns, senses, noises, heightened emotions and absolute truth. Thus, he finds it so difficult to act ‘appropriately’ in certain situations, especially school, so he was faced with the prospect of having to move to one of our very well equipped special provision schools in the area.  His school was becoming increasingly concerned about his anxiety regarding his meltdowns.  He would lash out and roar and then would feel so bad about it that he would physically try to put himself in the trash and ask staff members to kill him.  We talked for hours and tried to convince him of his worth, but his self esteem was getting worse by the week.

Things came to a head when after numerous calls from the school to collect him due to him self harming, I was called to urgently attend school to take him to be seen for a head trauma.  He had almost knocked himself unconscious on the school yard after a meltdown.  He had felt so bad about not being able to control his outburst.  We immediately contacted the CYPS and were then to wait 6 months to be seen.  Fortunately, a suggestion from a friend lead us to contact an amazing Occupational Therapist with a specialism in sensory needs, who immediately made a connection with our son and carried out a sensory analysis and made immediate, short term and long term action plans with both us and the school.  We cemented a bond and she came to educational reviews with us and was a source of immense support throughout those six months.

We were encouraged by his progress with the OT and his self confidence was being raised, but the progress within school was slow and we were now faced with the urgency of naming alternative educational provision on the plan.  I visited everywhere named as a possible provision.  They were all amazing.  They would provide sensory therapy, OT provision, behavioural and emotional support.  Just what he needed.  But, he wouldn’t be challenged academically.  Two of the head teachers contacted us privately to reinforce this with us.  Quite stark eh?  My son has a score of 98 on the Wisc intelligence scale.  He dreams of becoming a space explorer. He read academic texts from age 4.  He is about to go to the int. space center.  When he was diagnosed, the psychologist told us she would wait to see in the future what he invents. I am not a ‘pushy’ mum either, believe me!

So, reflecting on my parental desire for my kid to reach his aspirations (yeah, I have that), and acting on a mother’s instinct that a move out of his comfort zone would cause him more anxiety and self esteem problems,  I knew deep down it wasn’t going to be the right move and I decided to oppose the actions which were quickly becoming out of our control.

We held numerous meetings with the council regarding funding for his provision.  I won’t go into detail as I am still numb from the facelessness of the whole experience.  My son was a number.. reflecting pound signs disappearing in the distance.. he was even a problem.  The purse strings physically held their hands up at one point and told me they didn’t know what to do with my son.

Thankfully, the school stepped in..

They showed how much they cared for my son.  The special educational needs coordinator visited the suggested provision. She saw for herself the outstanding support, facilities and staff they all have.  It just wouldn’t ‘fit’ my son.  They saw that.  They saw a child who wanted to achieve his dreams… just like any kid.  They saw a child happy and accepted by his peers and thriving in his own way (albeit bit by bit, but they also believed in the progress he was making).

Thank goodness we had their support.  They told me they loved him and would support us all the way.  We closed ranks!  I still remember the phone call.  It was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting in the car waiting for a car wash!  I can’t remember noticing the water on the wind screen!  My son had a future!  He would have the best opportunity to reach his dreams!  The mainstream school was named on the EHCP.  He was to be given 100 percent funding for support within school. This was what we all had identified as necessary all along.  The school employed a full time HLTA, who has made such a difference to his day in school.  They help both my son and the teacher in terms of the efficient running of the class.

Now, quite a few months down the line, I can say my son is happy.  He is content, has fewer outbursts and with a plan put together as a result of the EHCP, has been attending a self awareness class where he has met other awesome and cool guys, one of whom I hope will be a lifelong friend.  He has been nominated as vice councillor and is a very popular member of his class.  Did I say he’s happy?! His school believed in him.  It paid off.

But why did we have to go through all of this when such a simple action could have been taken?  Such a simple decision to fund support within the mainstream setting?  I am so sad to say that I know of so many stories from families I have met have not been so positive.  Why should it be down to luck, school intervention or parental voice?

So that’s why I am hopeful about Ofsted’s shift in criteria.  Perhaps the pressure to ensure welfare is not just a nod to safeguarding will get authority purse strings to fund training for staff and extra provision.  I will highlight the following:

Ofsted inspectors will specifically be looking for evidence across these five areas:
Creation of a positive culture, where ‘safeguarding is an important part of everyday life’, backed up by staff training at every level. (will this be a catalyst for more funding available?)
The effectiveness of safer recruitment, vetting and safeguarding policies and procedures.
Staff awareness of the signs of harm from within the family and the wider community
Timelessness of response to safeguarding concerns.
Quality of the school contribution to multi agency plans for the child.

Are these five areas of scrutiny the drivers for change?  I hope so.  Everyone deserves to be given the best chance in terms of aspiration and to develop that level of self esteem to achieve this.