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.
What an interesting project and a very interesting read. Well done to you all for educating this Virtual Headteacher. It sounds like she has taken your comments on board and I hope the result is huge improvements in your county for adopted children in education. I am delighted that the Government has now also stated that adopted children will get the same status as Looked After Children when applying for school from 2013. This has made me one very delighted mummy as I know we will be able to ensure our daugther goes to the best schools for her needs.
Yes, the preference our children will get in the school appplication process is a good start. One of the most difficult problems is in working out which schools suit our children best, it’s not always those with the brilliant OFSTED inspections. Could be the subject of another blog post methinks.
Connected via twitter and read your article with interest a reflection into the world we are headed. We have completed Prep groups and waiting for social worker allocation, expected panel date in June 2012, so a while to wait yet. Please keep this up as all the books I have read seem too dated and a “live” experience will help with our preparation – looking forward to it! Thank you.
Thanks for reading and commenting Dave. I hope I haven’t painted too bleak a picture. Adopting is challenging in so many ways but it is brilliant too. I hope that you are soon allocated with a Social Worker and that the process goes smoothly for you. Keep in touch, Sally
I have read this blog which has appeared as an article in Adoption UK magazine, April edition.
I have already quoted the bit about shame exclusion etc in an email to the head of conduct and discipline at my daughters school.
I face a re-admittance interview with him on Monday morning after exclusion on last day of last term.
My adopted daughter is 15 years old and should have had a Statement of Special Needs in primary school, in my opinion. Unfortunately, her behavior at school was compliant until Year 8. Then she became a “naughty” child.
Several exclusions down the line, truanting with menace and looking at all men as a sexual encounter, we will have a statement this term. She will be moved from mainstream education by September, woop, woop.
It’s not the answer but it’s the start of a new chapter……….
Excellent blog, Sally……I wish I had found you earlier. The Adoption UK , message boards kept me sane in the meantime.
I wish you well for Monday and with your continuing journey. Your story demonstrates that not all children clearly and loudly demonstrate their pain and anxiety right from the start and that educators need to be vigilant about attachment/neglect issues throughout a child’s education. Compliancy is of course another means of hiding pain and anxiety.
The Adoption UK boards are great aren’t they. I too have found them a great source of support.
Thank you for reading the blog and for commenting.
I have just read your aticle on “parents give virtual head teacher a lesson on adopted children” and was so relieved that I am not on my own! We hit rock bottom last term with my son which I believe was due to the way he was being disciplined at school, being given warnings after warnings, missing breaks and lunch times and being yelled at by his teacher. My son would come home in tears feeling like rubbish. I really believe teachers and other educational professionals should have attachment disorder training so they can appreciate that adopted children have different needs and not use inappropriate behaviour systems. I would be really interested to hear more about the Education Plan for Adopted Children as this sounds like an excellent support tool which can be used to help an adopted child progress and have access to the curriculum. I strongly believe adopted children should have the same support as looked after children as just because they have been adopted doesn’t mean that their previous traumas just go away. I would be really interested in trying to get the Education Plan for Adopted Children rolled out in my county. Any information you could provide would be greatfully received. Best wishes.
Michelle – I will email you the EPAC documents and some other information too. If you don’t receive anything from me in the next couple of days then please let me know.
It saddens me to read that your son feels ‘like rubbish’. Unfortunately these methods just prove to our children what they think they know about themselves already, namely that they are bad. They need bucket loads of empathy and support to ensure they are not set up to fail over and over again. You are absolutely right that educators should all be well-versed in attachment issues.
I have also found Michele Bomber’s book ‘Inside I’m Hurting – Practical Strategies for Supporting Children With Attachment Difficulties in Schools’ really useful. You may know it already. If not, I recommend buying a copy for your son’s school. Your school should welcome this gift as the key which will enable them to start working effectively with your son and quite possibly other children too.
Thank you for making contact and I wish you all the best.
I read with hope the comments made. I have the Louise Bomber book and so does the school but they don’t get it at all.
Can you e-mail me the EPAC documents that you spoke about. It’s such a tricky thing parenting traumatised kids withoout trying to educate the educators!!
Well done all you adopters out there who are doing such a fab job.
Hi Sarah. I will send you the documents right now. If you don’t get them within the next day then let me know. I don’t know what else to suggest if the Louise Bomber books aren’t working. Do you have a social worker who could come into school and explain things? I have found that relatively effective in the past. You are right, it is difficult enough having to be a super-parent without having to take on the might of schools as well.
I hope you make some progress. Good luck.
Such powerful stuff Sally. Is this this project still going strong a year down the line. I’m interested in understanding how this was initiated, do you know who came up with the idea. Is it a pilot scheme or one that your LA has instigated. Please could I also have a copy of the EPAC.