I was recently invited to speak at the Sandwell Headteacher Conference in Telford. The theme of the Conference was “Inspirational Leadership” though essentially, they wanted to hear about my perspective of mainstream education as a disabled pupil. I decided to then link this to the SEND Code of Practice and emphasise the importance of raising aspirations for SEND pupils.
My mainstream education
Following my diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy 36 (ish) years ago, my parents were adamant that I should have a mainstream education. Mum used to tell me, “There might be something wrong with your legs but there’s nothing wrong with your brain!” Not language I’d encourage but you get the gist. It was instilled in me that my disability didn’t have to limit me. The local authorities disagreed. They felt I should go to a specialist provision, that I wouldn’t cope within a mainstream environment.
Though my parents won the battle, the war was far from over. My place at school was always in jeopardy as the Head tried to have me moved elsewhere. When bullies began to target me, it was left to Mum to put a stop to it. The Head viewed it as evidence that I didn’t belong in mainstream.
Secondary school made adjustments
As I moved on to secondary school, things did improve. The school were keen to make adjustments for me and at last, I felt supported in my education. When it came to my GCSEs, I was informed I’d be taking 7 subjects rather than the traditional 10. Though I understood the school’s decision was to ensure I didn’t “burn out”, it still frustrated me. I felt like I was old enough to be involved in decisions which would impact on my future.
I received a good mainstream education. I went on to gain a degree from Oxford Brookes University. But my parents had to constantly fight for what they knew I was capable of. I was often a box to be ticked or that’s how it felt. As I left school and as a disabled person, I was ill-prepared for the challenges which lay ahead. There was so much I would have to navigate for myself, so much the educational system had overlooked.
SEND Code of Practice
As I told the conference, this was the case all those years ago. It shouldn’t be the case now. I asked the delegates two questions. What were their expectations of their pupils? and What were their expectations of their SEND pupils? If they answered those two questions differently, there lies an issue.
Headteachers and their teams need to have high aspirations and expectations of their SEND pupils. Education, in my eyes at least, is about opening doors in the future. Most SEND pupils are more than capable of opening those doors, with a little assistance. So the question which needs to be asked is: What assistance can we put in place to ensure that our SEND pupils reach the same point as their peers?
The SEND Code of Practice wasn’t a thing back in my day. Perhaps it would have eased the burden on my parents. In any case, it outlines a whole range of ideas and support which can help SEND pupils to achieve the same as their peers. These include making sure pupils have access to information, mentoring support, developing independent living skills, to name just a few.
As I finished speaking to the delegates at the Headteacher Conference, I hoped my story had made an impact. My disability hasn’t held me back. I’m self-employed, living independently with a family of my own. I’ve achieved so much – despite the educational system having few expectations of me. It is more than possible for SEND pupils to aim high and reach the same expectations as other pupils.