Hello my name is Jenna and I am 10 years old. I have acute anxiety disorder and ADHD and I have not been able to go to school properly for nearly 2 years as my local authority have not been able to arrange the right support. In this article I would like to discuss how I think special educational needs support could be improved.
I know that the Government has promised £700m for schools to support children with special educational needs (SEN). This is not a lot of money, and it is not ringfenced which means that it might not get spent on the right things. I also know that there is a new review starting about this. But there are lots of us who don’t need another review to have ideas about how things could be better.
From my experience, schools could improve their learning quality for children with SEN and also mental health support for all children by making some changes. I have five big ideas which I have written here.
1. My main idea that would have helped me is to have CAMHS teams working with children based in schools, or coming into schools regularly. If this happened, it would mean that the teams could see exactly what the children’s school life was like, so they could make sure that they help them in the right way. It would also mean that teachers would work better with the CAMHS team and understand a bit more about the child’s situation. When I was at school, the teachers and the CAMHS teams did not agree on the ways of helping me. This meant that they were teaching me two different things: I was learning one strategy with CAMHS that was really helping but I could not use it at school because my teachers did not listen to the CAMHS team. That was very annoying! For example, one time my psychiatrist told school I should sit with my friends in class, but school sat me next to the boy who bullied me. Maybe if they worked together, things would have ended up a bit better and I would not have ended up with such bad anxiety.
2. I also think there should be more teachers and teaching assistants, and they should be trained specifically for each child’s special educational needs. It is hard for only one teacher with such big classes. It is lonely if you are a child in a big classroom and no-one helps you as it feels like no-one believes in you or cares if you do well or badly.
3. I would spend money on school buildings too. I would make sure all buildings are accessible for children with all types of physical disabilities. They also need to be accessible for children with other disabilities. This means things like quiet rooms, space for when things get too much, calm lighting, and things like that. When I was at school, I asked if I could have a tent to go into when the classroom was too overwhelming. They bought a pop-up tent but because my classroom was small, I had to walk across the room and pop it up when I needed it. This was REALLY embarrassing and made me feel ashamed and even more anxious. I have seen schools in Canada that have “sensory hallways” where children like me who need to move lots in the day can go to do a shake-it-out activity course along a corridor during lessons to stop them getting too fidgety so they can concentrate more. This would have been really helpful for me.
4. I think there should not be so many exams. When I was six, I went to a school that had exam practice every half term. My reports all gave me marks for these exams, and compared me to the other children in the class. Even though I was mostly near the top (or even at the top sometimes!) I found it really really stressful having to do exams and be compared to everyone else. It feels like teachers only worry about their students passing the exams, and not about all the other parts of their lives.
5. I think everyone in schools should be more kind – this one is free and doesn’t actually cost anything! But in my experience, schools and local authorities do not listen to children or their parents – we are just “problems” for them. I think that if whole schools were more inclusive for people with both visible and not visible disabilities, then life would be much easier for everyone! This means lots and lots of talking and training between schools, parents, CAMHS and other doctors. It also means that bullying children with SEND should be taken more seriously. I kept being told that I just needed to be more “normal”. I am normal for me! All of this takes time but I think it is worth it for everyone.
I know that I only understand about my situation though, so I asked Lucy what she thought too. Lucy is an intelligent, cool, caring 14-year-old who has Cerebral Palsy (CP). She loves music, Formula 1, learning and chocolate! Lucy uses eye gaze technology to speak. This is really amazing and she can type about 10 words a minute which I think is incredible! Her local authority have not found her a school place and they haven’t given her any alternative like tutoring or anything. Lucy says “My computer has changed my life because it allows me to do things that my CP stops me from doing. When I was 11-12 I had a tough time at school. They had never had anyone like me before and they had that “disabled must have learning difficulties” mindset. They just babysat me and this is really frustrating for a normal kid who just can’t walk and talk.” Lucy also has some brilliant ideas about what needs to change.
Lucy agreed with me that listening to children and their parents, and not blaming them, is really important because at the moment too many people think that parents and families are the problem so they do not feel they need to make the right adjustments in schools. Lucy also felt strongly that there should be more done to make sure that local authorities and schools do not break the law over SEN. She also has an amazing idea that schools should set up a “report bullies” email address for every school. I love this idea! She also said that it was really important that everyone has their needs properly assessed and met, so that can get the right assistive technology and other reasonable adjustments that they need, so that no-one has to go through what she went through at school. She thinks we should build some centres of excellence for training everyone about SEN, and help schools to understand how to get the right training for the children in their schools.
I hope that people will listen to children like us when they are working out how to spend the new money and doing more reviews of the problems. Mostly, I hope they make changes quickly so Lucy and I and all the children like us can all go back to school!