Several years ago the county in which I live appointed a Virtual Headteacher. She was a real person and her role was to work on behalf of those children who can find it difficult to access mainstream education; disabled children, children with learning difficulties and children from cultural and ethnic minorities. As an experienced Headteacher she knew something about the needs of these children. But buried in her job description was a baffling reference to another group: adopted children.
‘But why would these children require any special attention?’ she thought to herself. And so with our Post Adoption Support Social Worker she advertised for adoptive parents to join her for a meeting and to share with her any difficulties they and their children may have experienced in school. I don’t think she expected to learn a great deal.
The meeting was held on a Tuesday morning, in a conference room in a small rural town, thirty miles from the small rural town in which I live. I arrived five minutes before the starting time and struggled to park. When I found the conference room there were few seats left. People continued to stream in. More chairs were brought. The tea urn was refilled. The biscuit plate was replenished. Then as the last few parents came in looking flustered from school runs and long journeys, notebooks and pens were fished out from handbags. These people had come prepared. When the Virtual Head Teacher came into the room there was a feeling of what I could only describe a barely contained and yet polite kind of pent up frustration and anger.
The Headteacher started proceedings by telling us about her long teaching career and then about her new role, which she had only recently taken on and had been established by the then Labour government. She opened up the floor and a few nervous parents started to explain why school is so difficult for their children. They talked about inappropriate behaviour systems which shame the already shamed, exclusions which exclude the already abandoned and teachers who refuse to understand the impacts of early trauma, tagging these children as ‘controlling’, ‘lacking in focus’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘unteachable’.
She was I have to say, not the most humble person and what followed was not pretty. She uttered the words (which I cringe as I write),
‘All children are like that aren’t they?’
There were gasps from around the room and a long, long, painful silence. The Virtual Headteacher shuffled in her chair and fished her pendant out from her cleavage. The Social Workers looked on with not a great deal of surprise (‘enough rope’ I thought to myself).
Then a very eloquent man spoke up.
‘Our children have come from the care system. They were in the care system because most of them had been neglected or abused or both. They have suffered loss, they have suffered fear, loneliness violence, hunger and cold, some have suffered severe pain. Raising these children is the biggest challenge which many of us will ever have faced,’ (we all nod in agreement) ‘and most of us would consider ourselves professional parents’ (we nod again, more vigorously) ‘not only do we struggle to parent our children, we have to fight an education system which does not meet the needs of our children, which shows little understanding of attachment disorder and early trauma and you have just demonstrated that in front of all of us’.
His braveness was astonishing. I felt like applauding.
Barely a second after he finished someone else joined in and then another and another. There was account after account of jaw-dropping struggle against schools and systems and bureaucracies, heartbreaking stories of children failing, parents being blamed, difficult situations being made worse and many children being excluded from school altogether. The speakers struggled to voice their experiences through their emotions. I spoke of my own experience which resulted in months of searching for a school which had some appreciation of attachment and trauma. I found one eventually, an excellent village school in a different county, half an hour’s drive from our home. The difference in our son is remarkable, but the travelling and the dislocation from our local community come at some personal cost.
Battling the education system whether that be the SEN process or a teacher in a local school, feels like just that, an arduous and lonely battle and it is fought by those who can ill afford the energy and the time that the battle requires.
I have no doubt that the Virtual Headteacher felt overwhelmed by the parents and their stories that day. But I will give her credit for listening to us. She enabled a project to start in our county, a project which seeks to award adopted children similar rights to those given to children in care. It has been rolled out across our county and my son’s new secondary school is about to use it for him and the other adopted children in his year. It is not perfect, but it is a good start and at least it allows our children, with the agreement of their parents to be flagged as potentially having additional and different needs.
I will blog about the project in more detail in my posting next week. Thank you for taking the time to read this.