Thursday, 2 July 2015

The mountain ahead - fearsome barrier or exciting challenge?

We're in the middle of trying to work out where our daughter should go to high school. The whole process of deciding and preparing feels like a mountain looming ahead, and not a sunlit heather-blanketed alpine one. It feels more like a stern rugged Scottish mountain - reminding me of a visit to the Isle of Skye years ago and the shiver that went through me as we approached the Cuillin mountains in shadow up ahead.

Since mainstream primary school has gone well we'd not really questioned that mainstream would work for high school too. But reality has been slowly dawning - the reality that high school kids, high school peer pressure, high school learning challenges, high school logistics are a different proposition altogether. Talking to other parents of academically bright children who use wheelchairs who honestly describe the barriers to friendship that a wheelchair can create, and to parents of children with learning needs who have found that mainstream schools have not been able to meet their child's needs, has really made me stop and think. Our lovely girl has both of these challenges to contend with. Having a kind adult alongside you can help attract friends at primary school, but not many teenagers want to be seen hanging around with an adult. It's all about being cool.

Someone asked me in a meeting what is the most important thing I wanted for Immy as she heads up to high school. The answer came to me immediately and without contest - she needs some really good friends. The friendliness of students and staff has been her number one concern as we've looked at different schools. Her school friends now are very kind but she doesn't quite have the best buddies that I had at the same age. So if that's the case, what school option is most likely to help her make some really close friends? If she's happy she'll learn and achieve. It's been a hard reality to come to terms with, but we feel that Immy needs to learn around children who are more like her if she is to thrive.

So while I'm dreaming of a world where everyone is equally included and valuable, unfortunately that is on the other side of those grey mountains.

I am passionate about inclusive education. A very large proportion of the problems we face around the world are due to mistrust, fear and an inability to empathise with other humans. Clustering round people who are similar to us is a human instinct, but it doesn't serve the cause of world peace well, or even national peace or community peace. Our son recently started at a cathedral school rather like the one I went to, as he won a choral scholarship. This is a great opportunity for him and the familiarity is comforting to me. But it also makes me a bit uneasy and determined to ensure that his horizons are not narrowed. If we can't make our schools inclusive then we make the job of promoting tolerance and understanding much more difficult further down the line. I've said this in another blog post, but being taught in ethnically diverse schools in Leicester has had a life-long impact on me - I don't "see" differences in race and religion as starkly as other people do. Children taught alongside others with disabilities will instinctively show greater understanding and respect for people with disabilities throughout their lives.

But inclusion only works if the resources are available to support it. In busy schools with large classes those who are very different can be very vulnerable. All school buildings should accommodate children who cannot climb stairs - the option should be there, and that is non-negotiable in my view. But it has always been equally clear to me that not every child is best taught in a mainstream classroom. Being equally valuable is not the same as needing equal resources to thrive - in the same way that we use different health resources throughout our lives. Good inclusion practices are expensive and complicated as they centre on each child's individual needs. A really good school values and cares for all of its pupils no matter how strong or weak they are academically, celebrates their successes, teaches all pupils to value and respect those who are different, and embraces as many opportunities as possible to bring everyone together to work alongside one another. This has been our experience with Immy's primary school, with very few exceptions. And it is what we are looking for at secondary level too.

Is it too much to ask? I hope not.

Five days ago I managed to walk, with friends old and new, 26 miles around Malvern and Ledbury, including along the ridgeway, with a total ascent over the day of 4800ft (compared with Ben Nevis at 4300ft). We climbed to the highest peak to start and then headed down and tramped through fields, over stiles and along lanes for about 17 miles before approaching the ridgeway again for the final 7 mile stretch with 10 peaks. At that point most of us were already in some discomfort with blisters and sore muscles, but it looked so beautiful ahead that we were spurred on. And we weren't disappointed. I took the picture below as we approached the iron age fort on one of the final summits.

A "walk" along the Cuillin Ridge on Skye on the other hand involves tackling 11 munros and a total 13,500ft ascent. Given that today was the first in which I could get downstairs comfortably without holding on I think I'll leave that one to the experts!

British Camp - Iron age fort on the ridgeway near Malvern

The thing about hill walking is that you can only take one step at a time. You can't see over the next little summit, or round the corner. But then you come across a beautiful butterfly or an amazing view that lifts you, and fortunately we usually walk in the company of friends to encourage us through the tricky bits and give us a hand down a rocky jump.

I'm so grateful for social media - my Facebook friend list is full of inspiring, and sometimes despairing, parents of disabled children who are tackling the same mountains as we are, one step at a time.

Best foot forward then!