On Wednesday child 1 cried for no reason. He’s not really a crier. (Child 2 makes up for that) He couldn’t explain why he was crying so we sat for a while not saying very much, and then he said, ‘I don’t like school, Mummy. I don’t want to go any more. It doesn’t make me happy.’
Perhaps these are fairly standard words, but not for child 1. He likes school. He finds school hard, but he’s always liked it. He likes his friends, his teachers, the routine of the day, the fact that he’s on the school council, the lunch, science, and reading. School didn’t use to make him unhappy. And now it appears it does.
I asked a few questions. He cried more, but worse than the tears was his quiet, resigned, despair. ‘I’m just not good at learning,’ he said. ‘I can’t follow all the instructions. I try to, but I can’t work out what are the most important ones, so I give up.’
It has become clear that child 1 probably fits somewhere under the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) umbrella. I say probably because he does not yet have a formal diagnosis. He has seen an educational psychologist but is yet to see a paediatrician and start a formal journey towards diagnosis. He doesn’t fit with a lot of what people generally see the autism spectrum to cover. He’s social, and he has maintained several good friendships, and he’s empathetic (generally) and not especially literal or controlling. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey, it’s that just as no two children are the same, no two children with special educational needs are the same. Every child is different, every child has different struggles, and every child has different challenges. And it matters not at all what we call it in the end. I don’t care if it is ASD or if it ends up being called something else entirely – whatever it is, it’s there, and we need to find him a way to overcome the challenges.
His challenges are greater than I hoped they would be. He’s a bright, thoughtful, sweet little boy, but he finds the classroom hard. As well as the poorer auditory processing, which means distinguishing the important instructions from a list of others forms one of his greatest challenges, there’s also the fact that he increasingly can’t cope with noise. ‘When it’s noisy, my thoughts go a bit crazy and I can’t make them do what I want to do,’ he said sadly. And it does make him sad. He wants to be able to do what the other children can do. He doesn’t want to engage in behaviours that other people may perceive as naughty. But in a class of 30 children, when he can’t cope with noise or weed out the instructions he needs to follow, or write very well, it’s almost impossible for him not to become overwhelmed.
We talked for a while, and then he said, ‘I don’t want to talk about this any more, Mummy, it makes me too sad.’ I told him we needed to talk about it – that I could help. He looked at me, with real despair, and said, ‘there’s nothing you can do. I’m just not very good at learning. I’ve just got to get on with it and try harder.’ The resignation in his voice just about broke my heart. A six year old, already resigned to not being a very good learner to just having to ‘try harder’ to fit into an environment that in no way helps or nurtures or enables children who have an additional need to feel good about themselves.
And this isn’t to do with the teachers. I’ve praised before his teacher and the SENCO and his teaching assistant and everyone else in his school who helps him. They try their hardest. He uses a laptop. He has a huge amount of TA time. He has a great SENCO and teacher who acted instantly when I phoned the next day and repeated the conversation. And the irony is that he probably gets more attention than a lot of the other students put together. But the fact is that he goes to school every day in a pressure cooker of data, targets, children being above or below or expected, six year olds having to write much more than is natural or than that they would choose to, teachers who are trying to teach a curriculum that last year was taught to the year above, and above it all – always – the constant black shadow of a government who don’t trust teachers to teach and educate and enable students to learn. No, if anything they distrust them – so that primary schools are in the ridiculous position of having to push students harder and harder to reach ridiculous, arbitrary levels and pass tests that benefit the students in no way at all. And all this means is that students – all students but particularly those who are more vulnerable, for whatever reason that may be – are feeling like failures at the age of six. ‘We need to show progress! The data has to show progress!’ This has become the battle cry of Ofsted and this government.
Well, I don’t want my child’s data to show progress. I want him to be happy. I want him to love learning. I want him to want to go to school. I want him to feel good about himself. Most of all I want him to not feel stress and despair at the age of six. His problems aren’t great compared to the children in the world who don’t have enough food, or a home, or love. But they are great enough that he feels real despair over something he should never have to feel terrible about. And that isn’t good enough. Not for him, and not for all the other children like him.