When your child/young person with SEND who has struggled in the system starts a new setting, you have all the hope in the world that this time it will be different. To begin with it seems possible that you may have finally found the place that will genuinely understand inclusion.
For us, this was mainstream number four after four years of home ed.
After attending a course specifically designed for home ed students for year 11, we decided that this was possibly the best chance for H at post 16 in mainstream.
H had to audition for the course she wanted to do in December of the year before she was due to start. At the audition she was told that the college would definitely offer her a place on a music course. With hindsight, that was the point at which it went wrong. The reason I think this is that from that point forward we should have requested transition plans would be made and transition started especially as H was already on campus 2 afternoons each week.
We got to spring and GCSE season took over, the music department was busy with their music festival which we visited one afternoon and enjoyed. We had meetings to discuss which level course would be appropriate and to review H's EHCP, still no transition plan was made.
At this point alarm bells should have rung for us, H was having a massive wobble about attending college but we assumed it was the stress of exams and the pressure that she was feeling.
It was agreed that the level 3 course would be most appropriate for H based on her musical ability. We looked at the syllabus online but didn’t get to speak to anyone about the expectations of the course.
Then we reached summer, there was an open day for new students but for some reason H didn’t get invited. We think that it was because she was registered as a student at college already but it was another missed opportunity to begin to familiarise H with the department she was due to join and the course she was due to start.
September arrived, H had passed her maths and English GCSE which was an incredible achievement.
H was offered an induction day alongside all the other students. It was a full day but as soon as we told the staff that a full day would be too much the length day was reduced. Which was fine but it meant that H didn’t get access to all the information she needed. She was overwhelmed and stressed and couldn’t absorb anything that was said to her.
Then college started, H's timetable was reduced as a reasonable adjustment and if there were sessions that she couldn’t cope with she didn’t have to go but....
Is this inclusion?
I have found myself asking this question many, many times over the past 4 weeks since H stopped attending college. Yes, after 4 weeks she stopped attending and there is no hope at all of her reintegrating.
Inclusion to me means making a course accessible to all students not offering a course and then simply expecting the students to fit in with the expectations.
H had 1:1 learning support staff, they were not responsible for including her in the course, their role was to communicate for H when she was unable to and help her remove herself if she was feeling uncomfortable or stressed, to help her to move around college if she needed to and many other things but I don’t believe that it was their role to make the course accessible to H.
From the very first day H was put into a group and had to work on exactly the same topic as all the other students, she was following exactly the same programme as others, if there were things she couldn’t cope with she was allowed to skip them. But this is not inclusion, in fact, it is exclusion. By telling H she doesn’t have to do things she is effectively being excluded from parts of the course and from college life.
When things started to go wrong and I requested work for H to do at home nothing arrived, when I requested a meeting it became clear that the staff hadn’t met a student like H before and it was obvious to me that we had reached the end of the road with mainstream.
This is how it is, the course is the course and H either needs to fit in and cope with it or she doesn’t but if she can’t there is no alternative, there is no plan B there is no inclusive version of the course that can be adapted for H so that she can attend and achieve.
I wonder if mainstream colleges can ever be truly inclusive?
There are courses that H could do with other disabled students but that isn’t inclusion, that is segregation!
Having a 1:1 to navigate the staff and the ups and downs of day to day is integration and is part of the way there but it's still not true inclusion.
Now we are looking at specialist colleges, can they be inclusive? I don’t know.
Maybe they can be inclusive in terms of developing a package that will support H to begin to build her confidence and trust in adults away from home. They maybe inclusive within themselves and that is brilliant, but H will still be excluded from mainstream, her disability has once again prevented her from accessing a mainstream setting and in my world that shows how far we still have to travel for our disabled children and young people!
A little bit about me, I am a late diagnosed autistic parent with three children aged between 30 and 16. H is my youngest child she was diagnosed with autism at age 9 and selective mutism at 15.
We removed H from the education system in 2015 after she had what we now know as an autistic burn-out.
The school system didn’t suit H at all but home ed has been amazing.
Since my diagnosis I have begun to share some of our experiences at support groups and am hoping to expand this out to schools, colleges and anywhere people want to hear me really.