I want to talk about Foday*. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a pupil like him. Not that I’m doing anything myself for his care- that’s down to several members of staff who are working magic, and I do not exaggerate.
Foday requires two adults at all times. We’re used to 1:1 arrangements in schools but I must admit it’s rare to find a child with 2:1 on his education and health care plan. He kicks, spits, bites, scratches, takes his clothes off, soils himself, and has smeared his faeces on the wall. He runs off. He’s nine years old and quite tall for his age. He’s strong.
The staff are working magic because it’s been a couple of weeks now since he’s done any of these things. He still makes a run for it, and we’ve had the occasional scratch. But he’s getting into a routine now.
Foday is one of the pupils in our enhanced provision for severe learning difficulties. All these pupils, around twenty of them, are classed as vulnerable – a word thrown around like confetti over these last few weeks. Everyone is suddenly EXTREMELY concerned for all these vulnerable children.
For me and the staff, to decide what was right for these pupils after March 20th has been a real challenge. For some, the parents felt that being at home was better. In these circumstances, the teachers and assistants have been in regular contact with the parents to try and support them with a new routine and programme of learning, however basic.
Many of these children are very autistic and might not react well to a new ‘school’ rhythm; different members of staff on duty each day/week. Decisions were taken with parents, as we all knew that social distancing was going to be impossible. We were also hamstrung by staff absence, several shielding their own family members.
For those such as Foday, we had several weeks of negotiation before a plan was put in place for him to attend the school. We felt we needed specialist support, that the risk was too great. We had to stand our ground when challenged by social workers who insisted he attend the school. In the end, all agreed that the risk was too great! Yet still, school staff volunteered to support him in school for three hours a day, against all the conclusions of a risk assessment.
I bring up this case study to highlight the complexity of each situation, the time and effort required to balance the risk of caring/educating pupils with severe learning difficulties with the needs and safety of staff. All in the context of a worldwide pandemic!
You see, what might be right for one child might not be for another. Bringing one pupil to school might be more of a risk to the pupil and to staff than staying at home. For others, the reverse might be true. And don’t forget that they are only at school for five or six hours. They are at home for fifteen or sixteen, pandemic or no pandemic.
I have lost count of the number of people – usually politicians and journalists – who have expressed ‘worry’ and ‘concern’ about vulnerable children being out of school at this time. I welcome their interest, and hope that this remains for years to come. But they really need to visit schools like mine, and learn about the complexity of the decisions we are faced with. All I can say to them is that we take every decision in what we perceive to be the best interests of the child. But please understand that it is far more tricky than simply ‘get them in to school’.
Foday would not be in school now if it weren’t for this group of heroic staff. Such staff are hidden and unknown to the politicians and journalists. Before the pandemic, I have to say most of these children were rarely discussed by the likes of Andrew Adonis and Isabel Oakeshott, whose main educational interest seems to be in high-performing, selective schools where Foday’s presence would be an abhorrence. The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, who should know better, has weighed in too, really disappointing in the level of simplicity she appears to apply to such matters.
At our school, we can do better, I know that. That’s what school leaders and teachers tend to be like – we’re never doing it right. We should be doing this and that. But when I see what we’re doing with Foday, I can’t help but be incredibly proud of the staff, in awe of them really.
We’ve dozens and dozens of so-called ‘vulnerable’ pupils at the school. Schools like ours work hard to get it right for them, and mostly we do, and sometimes we don’t. We’re always looking to improve, and work with parents and support services (those that haven’t been eviscerated in recent years) in an effort to do this. We probably don’t meet Michael Gove’s description of ‘best leaders in education’ and that’s fine.
But don’t say it’s simple. It’s not.
It’s really complicated at the moment, when Foday has a full playground to use, and his own room. When hundreds of other pupils return, supposedly socially-distancing on an undersized playground, then that’s when things become really interesting.
Before we return to a something like ‘normal school’, could we have a deep and mature national debate about these vulnerable children. There are thousands and thousands of them.
We need a five year plan; this cannot be addressed with simplistic rhetoric. I’d love to be part of it, and so would the staff doing such great work with Foday.
Give us a voice.
*Foday is not his real name.