Last week my 11-year-old twins, Ivy and Seb, left primary school. As expected I spent the entire leavers’ service weeping – it was a five tissue affair. I have four children who have all been through the same primary school from reception to year 6 and this was the end of a 13 year era of being involved with the school and it’s staff. I have found that I tend to involuntarily mark such events with a steady stream of tears. I simply have to resign myself to having a wet and blotchy face, much to the embarrassment of my family.
My kids went to a small, one form entry, city school which probably has one of the most diverse catchments you can imagine. It’s wide diversity and small size were two of the things I initially liked about it.
Edward’s year group was a particularly complex mix of kids, at one point his class spoke 14 different languages between them. Although I think Edward may have said he could speak French, although what he actually meant was he could count to ten in French which is hardly the same thing! As far as I know Edward was the only child in his class with autism.
The school did a lot of things well when it came to Edward and I wanted to acknowledge a few of them here.
- He was taught by staff who were genuinely interested in him.
- The school agreed to my suggestion to get STARS involved. STARS is a specialist Leeds based service who provide support to schools and children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions. Most of the following points on this list were instigated following STARS input, which was invaluable.
- Staff met Nick and I at the beginning of each year and at any points during the year if we had concerns. We always took a collaborative approach and tried to work with staff to find solutions to problems; after all we were experts when it came to understanding Edward and they were experts when it came to Education. We had to work together and keep school on side to find the best outcomes for our son.
- He was allowed to work at his own table which he could stay at so that he didn’t have to keep moving from one table to another when lessons changed from literacy to numeracy etc.
- He was allowed to go into the dining hall with one other child from his class at the very beginning of lunch time when it was calmer and quieter.
- He was allowed to wear jogging bottoms rather than school uniform trousers as he found these trousers very uncomfortable due to his sensory processing issues. (I’ve written about this in The Wrong Trousers)
- As part of his transition package to high school the staff arranged for him to go for a maths lesson at the high school once a week during year 6.
- He was allowed to alternate between having outdoor and indoor play times so that he didn’t have to be in the playground at the same time as a boy in his class who had unpredictable and challenging behaviour, (together they were not a great combination!).
- He was allowed to do his own projects on a computer in the classroom if he finished school work quickly. Staff understood that rewarding him with extra play time would not be a reward for him.
- He was allowed to bring in a snack from home to have mid morning.
- He was given permission to stop filling in his reading record when it became apparent that he would rather stop reading than read and complete a reading record each day.
- He experienced teachers listening to his opinions and making changes if he had a good point – for example the time when he got the class to move in a more realistic way when they were being butterflies in year 1. (I’ve written about this in Polar Bears and Penguins)
- He was allowed to sit outside the hall in the quiet library area if the assemblies were too loud.
- In year 6 he was allowed to type his work rather than handwrite it; he found handwriting difficult and therefore produced less work if he had to use this method.
- His skills and talents were recognised and encouraged; he was valued.
We did have a couple of years when he had teachers who just didn’t get autism. Those were hard years and we had a less happy child at home as a result. They misread his pedantic tendencies for insolence. They didn’t appreciate that eye contact was too hard for him. They expected him to understand their more subtle forms of communication and got frustrated when he failed to respond to their hard stares or changes in voice tone. They were more focused on his ability to reach targets than celebrate his achievements, which often didn’t neatly fit into measurable nationally agreed targets.
However, the vast majority of the staff were wonderful, flexible and open-minded teachers and assistants who did an incredible job.
The main downfall for Edward at primary school was that he just didn’t find a buddy to relate to. A couple of the girls were kind to him and he had a friendship of sorts with them. He also made friends with a very calm natured boy who was at the school for a few years but who moved away in year 5. Family friends had children in the same school but none of their children were in Edward’s year group. He never found a class mate who wanted to talk to him about the things that really interested and fascinated him. At primary school, Edward was basically lonely. Very lonely.
The primary school my kids go to (oh no – went to – it’s going to take me a while to get used to this!) is recognised by Ofsted as being a GOOD school. It is so much better than that – it is a school where the staff work hard to make sure everyone is valued and respected. I am grateful to the staff who worked with all my kids, but especially to the staff who went the extra mile to understand about autism and who made lots of small changes and adjustments to make school a much better place for my son.
I was quite anxious about Edward leaving primary school but I needn’t have been, school life for Edward improved tremendously once he started year 7.
I remember picking Edward up from high school after he had been there for just a few months; he was unusually late. When he reached the car he leant in and said, “sorry I’m late mum, I got into a good conversation with my friends”. It was the first time I had ever heard Edward use that simple “my friends” expression. It felt wonderful – I think my heart skipped a beat. I tried not to make a big deal of it and asked as casually as I could manage, “oh, so what were you talking about?”.
“Global oil stock depletion”, he replied.
Edward had found other kids, for the first time in his life, who genuinely wanted to talk about the things he wanted to talk about. Life became good.
If you have experienced a primary school making small changes that have made a huge difference to how well your child has managed at school I would love to hear about them.