Class Issues in Bristol Schools – It’s not just a Send issue:
A Needs Assessment Apology
This week, Bristol City Council responded to an official complaint I had made about the SEN team breaching statutory time frames with the ECH Needs Assessment process. I have two children and two Needs Assessments currently ongoing. I’ve written about it often.
One of these assessments is already two months’ past deadline and the other will carry on further into the new year. The effects of these delays on families is crushing and for the individual child, completely devastating.
The entire process of needs assessment to holding a draft plan should only be 20 weeks. That seems like a tiny blip in the passing of time compared to the reality of actual time frames.
It’s not right. It’s not on. It’s having a terrible impact on families affected by Send in Bristol. I also can’t imagine having to work in the council’s SEN team and field calls from frustrated parents about the delays. Nobody is winning. The only thing that can be said of the situation is that currently, the council are at least being honest about their failures: ‘I fully accept that the the local authority has breached the statutory timeline for completing the needs assessment.’
Lack of Integrity in Schools
One of the biggest challenges I have found as a parent with a child who has additional needs is a lack of integrity, honesty and transparency coming from education itself. Perhaps I have been somewhat unlucky with my choice of schools.
When it came to my choice of secondary school, I was repeatedly warned by many people in communication styles varying from raised eyebrows, cautious tact and several quite blunt verbal warnings.
Every member of teaching staff at my child’s primary school, in response to the school we had put as a priority, without exception looked at me and responded with “have you looked at Fairfield?” We went with our choice because arrogantly, I thought I knew best.
When I started my education journey as a parent, I trusted school staff. I believed that should a problem arise, should my child become behind, should there be any issues at all, I would be informed. I lived in this ignorant bliss for some three years.
As my first child grew, I had major concerns with his ability to read and write. I raised these periodically, but at the time, I didn’t have much in-depth knowledge about primary education and so went with parents’ evening feedback.
My concerns really began to grow despite constant reassurances. The month before my son left infant school in Year 2, I had a meeting with the school SendCo and headteacher, who told me they saw no issues with child’s development and definitely no problems with his handwriting.
The week before he left that school for the junior school next door, the class teacher told me at the last ever parents’ evening, that by the way, he was actually two years’ behind in his reading. They waited until the week before we left the school to drop that major bombshell. I was so angry, I couldn’t even look at any of the staff let alone speak to them.
Some five years later, I still cannot work out why on earth teachers would not be honest. I have put it down to either them being worried about the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) or worried about having to dip into ever thinning funding.
My son has never really caught up on that gap and he was later diagnosed dysgraphic by an ed psych, with Aspergers by SALT and extreme anxiety by CAMHS. That’s quite a collection for a child who was ‘fine’ in school.
I can still see the Sendco at that infant school shaking his head and saying my child’s handwriting was absolutely fine. No, no it isn’t holding him back at all.
Dysgraphia is a difficulty with being able to get thought from head to paper through writing. It’s characterised by appalling handwriting that even the untrained parent eye can spot. The lies, incompetence or both is still galling.
I did keep the faith for another two years. We tried to move forwards positively in the junior school. By the time I pulled him out in Year 5, I had resigned from that school’s governing body and further submitted two complaints to the people I had once sat next to in meetings about the school’s abject failure to support children with Send or tackle widespread school bullying.
“Good for you,” a member of teaching staff I had never previously spoken to came up and whispered in my ear. I subsequently joined the ranks of the most loathed group of people on the planet known collectively as That Parent.
Whilst the final years of primary yielded some ups and downs in another tiny, underfunded inner city Bristol school, the teachers were honest from the start. Honest about where my child was academically, honest about what he was likely to achieve before leaving and honest throughout his time in the school.
That is exactly what a parent ever wants from a school. Honesty and integrity and in that underfunded, crumbling church primary school worked education staff who were happy to give it.
There was the headteacher who stood outside the gates every day greeting families in their individual home languages and made himself mostly accessible to parents. There was the deputy head who had absolutely no filter at all and spoke the truth with the tact of a sledgehammer through a wall. I loved him. And though it’s fair to say there were the occasional disagreements over SEN provision, his year 6 teacher was just an incredible teacher and incredible person.
Sadly, that’s where honesty and integrity appears to have dropped off for us as a family. I feel it’s always really important to explain to people that I didn’t arrive at the reception class door as a difficult person. I do value and respect teachers and appreciate the difficult and underpaid job they do in an underfunded environment that is constantly under extreme scrutiny by senior leadership and a government that has systematically killed off any joy the career might yield for both teachers and children.
‘A Lie, Is A Lie, Is A Lie’
However, when my child is behind. When there are problems. When things need to be addressed, what I want is for those behind the closed doors to be honest. Not close ranks. Not pass bucks faster than fire ball. Not lie. And, certainly not cover it up right from the governing body downwards. I don’t think this is much to expect and parents are certainly not as stupid as they are often played for.
A piece of advice from me is that if you are going to lie, don’t do it in an email. And when being caught out lying, don’t lie louder to cover it up like a petulant child caught with their hand in the biscuit tin. To quote the priest on movie Nativity! ‘a lie, is a lie, is a lie’.
When it comes to secondary schools, there are no more school gates. Communication with other parents stops and in many ways this is a total blessing. The closest you get to other parents are when they almost knock you down on the zig zags on the main road outside.
So, I do like a chance encounter to ease in that feeling of vindication. It came this week when I was talking to a former primary school parent I had bumped into outside our block of flats. During our conversation, she turned to greet a passing friend, someone I didn’t know.
“How is your son getting on now?” she asked. The tired looking lady explained that her autistic child was really struggling. His attendance was low, he was too anxious to go in most days and the school were hassling her about getting him in. He was having problems with bullies. She felt that the school were allowing them to get away with their behaviour because they got good results and their parents were from higher income families making up the kind of professionals that included teachers, TV producers and doctors.
If you live on a deprived inner city council estate in BS2,
are you treated the same way as a person who lives in Clifton?
“Out of interest, what school does he go to?” I asked. And there, on that dingy street corner so beloved by drug dealers she said it. She named my child’s secondary school. I could almost hear Murray Gold’s music and the Face of Boe dramatically declaring ‘You Are Not Alone’.
When Send Inclusion Becomes A Class Struggle
And that’s when I realised, Send inclusion in schools is not just a disability access issue. It’s not just disability discrimination. It’s not just hand wringing about school cuts and top-up funding. It absolutely is a class issue. I can’t believe I missed it until this point.
Last year, 100 per cent of the 18 year old school leavers
living in Clifton went to University
Earlier this month, senior reporter Tristan Cork at Bristol Live, ran an article talking about how private schools are ‘damaging’ education for children in South Bristol.
It was based on a statement by Bristol MP Karin Smyth, who made the claim that private education created a ‘more unequal society’ and actively ‘encourages’ underfunding of regular state schools.
Fewer people from South Bristol go to university than anywhere else in the country. According to the statistics quoted in the article, every single 18-year-old school leaver living in Clifton went to university last year. In South Bristol, Karin Smyth’s constituency, just 8 per cent of 18-year-old school leavers did.
Now we don’t live in South Bristol, but we do live in Lawrence Hill ward, which is the most deprived area of Bristol. One of the areas of priority our school pulls from is Clifton and the school is statistically, one of the best in the city. Why pay private school fees when your local former grammar school, former comp, now academy is high achieving and pulling students from the most affluent areas of Bristol? The school describes that part of its priority area as ‘economically advantaged’.
With all this in mind, the words that parent said to me in that chance encounter suddenly resonated.
Two parents turn up at the same secondary school with identical problems. One is a BBC producer living in Clifton, clad in Boden and with a hefty income. One is a parent living in the most deprived area of Bristol, working part time with old Converse that let in the rain and a Vicky Pollard Bristolian accent. Are they both treated equally? I don’t think so and social theory, statistics and British history proves this.
John M. Darley and Paget H. Gross proved this back in the 80’s with their Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labelling Effects.
Linguistic discrimination and the cultural bias against regional accents is also well documented. And it’s worse if you’re black or from a BAME background.
A review by Labour MP David Lammy last year, found serious discrimination against black people in the UK criminal justice system. Black people in the UK make up just three per cent of the population, but make up 12 per cent of the prison population.
Mr Lammy said at the time: “The factors behind BAME over-representation begin long before a guilty plea, court appearance or prison sentence.
“Communities must take greater responsibility for the care and development of their people – failing to do so only damages society as a whole.”
Bristol City Council has also been tackling inequalities in teaching, this month holding an information event to improve diversity in the profession. Just 9.5 per cent of teachers in Bristol come from BAME backgrounds.
“We have recognised that the lack of diversity in our teachers is something that needs to be addressed and this event is one part of a long journey towards rectifying this,” Councillor Anna Keen, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills said earlier this month.
“We need to look at the reasons why people from BME backgrounds are not choosing to teach, what the barriers are and how we can support people to start, or switch to, careers in teaching.”
Clifton Residents Win
So it seems the only people who are winning here are the 100 per cent of those who live in Clifton and are able to access university.
Would a school’s senior leadership team and governing body lie to a BBC producer parent in Clifton? I really doubt it. Would a school’s senior leadership team and governing body lie to a poor parent on a rough council estate? They have.
I was advised by a person working within the cogs of Bristol City Council that there are two things I can do. I can either carry on to the next level and make a complaint about an academy school. Or, I could accept that the school are going to continue lying until the end of time and never, ever apologise for their failings.
It’s a decision I haven’t made yet. But what I do realise is that Send parents are not only fighting an equality and equity battle with schools and local authorities, without realising, they are also fighting a class war and for some, racism.
You can argue finer points of law, hold judicial reviews and go to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO). But this will never stop discrimination based on socioeconomic factors, and until this changes, children’s life chances will always be hampered.
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