School Documentary BBC Two Send Crisis in Bristol:
There can be few people who watched the BBC Two documentary – School, on Tuesday 27 November, without feeling frustration, anger or upset. It was all about the impact of funding cuts on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in schools.
Viewers may have sympathised with the headteacher balancing Send budgets. Some would have empathised with teaching assistants worried for their jobs. And then there are those who would have identified and felt utter despair for the parents whose children were caught in the middle of a funding nightmare.
The programme threw up more questions than it answered, like how on earth children with Send were left to flounder through several years of secondary education without a hint of an EHCP. And, why on earth a PE teacher was left to communicate poorly with a child with a communication disability when he had already admitted receiving no training on Send. Perhaps a priority target for in-service day training.
The word EHCP – Education Health Care Plan – is often cheaply thrown around but it is a legal document. It is not optional to cut support specified in these plans, they are a statutory requirement and often only achieved by fighting long battles with Local Authorities keen to wriggle their way out of funding additional provision. If it states and funds that a child needs 1-1 provision, it is not optional.
Whilst Castle School in Thornbury comes under South Gloucestershire, it does mirror situations also occurring right now in Bristol. In fact, across the rest of England.
Bristol City Council recently passed a Send Motion after the council was held to a judicial review for unlawfully cutting the Send budget. The celebrations have been short lived. According to this month’s Bristol Schools Forum, the promised new 20 EHCP caseworkers are now only ‘up to 20 additional temporary posts’ which will not exist after March 2019. A document some hundred plus pages long also throws concerns about how Bristol City Council is planning to review and change all existing Send provision, including that provided to children who are not medically well enough to attend school.
The bad news for Bristol parents fighting for an EHCP is that when you get one, there’s no room at the inn anyway. There are no spaces in Specialist Bristol schools for children with autism or social emotional and mental health needs.
Last night’s programme featured a child with Aspergers whose attendance was low due to migraines and severe anxiety. Judging through the editing, the child had no EHCP, had full medical diagnoses and struggled with historic school attendance due to his disability.
Aspergers, as a diagnosis was dropped from DSM-5 in 2013, so making an assumption that Jack -the child who bravely allowed himself to be filmed – was diagnosed before this time, extreme anxiety in a large school should hardly have come as a surprise. Provision and adjustment should have been in place to reduce and prevent absence from day one. This is all covered by the SEND Code of Practice 0 to 25, which gives schools clear guidance about what is expected of them when it comes to provision and school accessibility. If the Send Code of Practice is too much to abide by, there is also The Equality Act 2010.
There is no ambiguity in the Send Code of Practice
I felt utter rage when I watched the deputy head discussing fining Jack’s mother for unauthorised absence. I felt that rage because I know exactly what she is going through.
The National Autistic Society says that ‘Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.’ Aspergers is no longer diagnosed as an autistic profile in its own right. It now comes under the diagnostic label of Autism Spectrum Disorder/Condition.
Autism is a social and communication disability which affects the way people see, feel and experience the world around them. Often people mistake the autism spectrum as a linear model ranging from a little bit autistic to severely autistic, but in reality it’s nothing like that. Whilst people with Aspergers have average or above average intelligence, they still struggle with all facets of autism symptoms, including communication difficulty, severe anxiety and sensory processing difficulties.
Last week, like Jack’s mum, I had my own volcanic eruption over debilitating anxiety and school attendance. My son’s own school attendance must have stooped to -at a guess – 20 – 30 per cent. He was simply too terrified to be in school and his fight or flight response kicked in.
In fairness to my child, he had tried so hard to attend school and having been severely let down by an initial lack of intervention, he was just unable to trust them and it was making him ill.
During this time I phoned everyone and then everyone again. I went through Supportive Parents, Bristol Parent Carers, Bristol Autism Team, Bristol City Council’s Families in Focus, I called out CAMHS on refusing his referral, I posted on autism and school refusal Facebook pages, I disagreed on the phone with the council’s Send team. I complained to the school’s governing body, I complained about the council’s Send team. I even phoned Bristol City Council’s education welfare department begging them for help. This is the team that deals with school attendance and issues fines for non-attendance. I can imagine my name is mud in most Send departments in Bristol. But as the Education Welfare Officer I spoke to at the council said, the school should be providing some form of education for your child. Complain to the governors.
What I learnt last week was the true horror of what acadamising schools means. It means they are untouchable and that they can create policies that deliberately deny education to children with disabilities.
Trying to get my child access to education, a basic legal right, has been a nightmare. He is not badly behaved. He does not disrupt lessons. But, he does have serious anxiety which is part and parcel of his Aspergers. Having started year 7 at a school in North Bristol without any adjustments put into place because of inclusion failure, his anxiety ramped up. By the time the right adjustments were put into place, he had lost all faith in the school and had such serious panic attacks, he couldn’t even cope with being in the local area. He could not physically get to school without his fight or flight response kicking in.
This was us directly outside the school’s student entrance at the beginning of October. This week, the school wrote on EHCP paperwork that they had seen no evidence of stress or anxiety. Perhaps they were unaware that when my child had a huge autistic meltdown on the sports pitch a couple of weeks into the new term, he had accidentally dialled me on his phone and I could hear him screaming, hurting himself and the voice of a member of inclusion staff talking to him and exactly what was being said. At a meeting with the school’s headteacher some time after I asked why the incident had not been logged and used as evidence towards the EHC Needs Assessment I had put in myself.
Some two weeks’ ago was the last time my son made it into that school building. I left him with a member of staff from the inclusion team when a running blur passed me out of the reception door. It was my child who took off down the road at speed and disappeared around the corner. School has completely traumatised him. That absence, as far as I’m aware, has been marked as unauthorised. Despite the fact I managed to get my child into the school building and left him with a member of staff, I was at risk of being fined. The school loses my child after I’ve physically handed him over, yet I get unauthorised.
My child has missed a month of school due to extreme anxiety. I asked the inclusion team to refer to hospital education, the original paediatrician and CAMHS, all of which they are able to do. Whether this has been done or not, I can’t be sure. I was asked a couple of weeks after I insisted the school referred to hospital education if I had permission for my child to be referred to hospital education. It’s hard to keep track of what’s actually happening and what are false promises.
What I do keep track of is everything happening my end. Contacts, dates, letters, emails. Everything. If schools are going to play dirty tricks with Send children, attendance and fines, they must not be allowed to get away with it.
My child has been marked on the register with unauthorised absence despite being off school unwell. Even when we have been outside the main reception. Even when my child has been in the main reception and run away. Even when I’ve spent an hour on the pavement directly outside of the school building, we have been unauthorised.
At no point was I told that to make this absence authorised I would need to provide medical evidence. If an absence is unauthorised by the school headteacher, they are duty bound to inform me of this. There’s another failure.
Obviously, the five years of previous professional intervention and reports is not good enough proof. I should have magically known that I should have asked the GP for a letter saying my child has severe anxiety despite the fact that the British Medical Association (BMA) says ‘it should be noted that GPs do not provide sick notes for schoolchildren.’
Because the school will not authorise absence, they will not organise or allow work to be sent home. I couldn’t find a policy on the school’s website to back this up. There is nothing in the Attendance Policy about work being sent home or anything about long term absence due to a medical condition at all.
The school headteacher is the person who authorises absence. Her school’s Attendance Policy (2016) does state is that ‘The School’s Responsibility’ is to ‘Respond to difficulties and issues which prevent a child from attending school’ as well as ‘Advise parents if an absence is unauthorised (it is the decision of the Head teacher as to whether or not an absence will be authorised’. Neither of these have been done.
Because my child’s school is an academy, they employ their own attendance officer which means they police their own absence, fines and Bristol City Council Education Welfare cannot get involved.
I spoke to the school’s attendance officer last week wanting to know what provision was being planned, when work would be sent home and what code was being used on the register.
The attendance officer did not get back to me before 12.30pm as was discussed. I wasn’t surprised. Instead, I had a confused call from the Sendco after the school day who simply confirmed the school had stooped to new levels of incompetence and disability discrimination by marking him as unauthorised.
Our ongoing story is far from unique. Last night, Jack and his mother bravely managed to show isolated parents that actually, they are not alone but that we all fight this battle alone. Send provision in Bristol is an everyone for themselves battle in a system which the council does not fund and for school places that do not exist.
But what the funding crisis is masking is that behind the schools’ cries about lack of funding there is also arrogance and deceit. Arrogance from some educational establishments that gaslight parents into believing that their children are not behind, they’re not autistic (even with a diagnosis) they have no difficulties and that everything is fine in school when it is not. A lack of funding from cash-strapped councils is one thing. But lies and gas lighting from schools we trust with our vulnerable children is a disgrace.
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