Towards the end of the last school term (just before the schools broke up for summer) we initiated the mediation process. I did this because I wanted a more honest discussion with the LEA about how to secure a more appropriate education for my daughter. I wasn’t happy with the minimal hours of home tuition she was receiving as it did little to support her social and emotional needs. Since dropping out of school she has become more and more reluctant to leave the house. It felt like we were going down the same agoraphobic route as my son and that terrified me. I really don’t want her to get as ill as her brother and for me to cope with two children with such severe anxiety disorders on top of ASD. The combination is very disabling and exhausting to deal with as a parent-carer and so keen to protect her mental health I’ve been trying to find a better educational solution for her, something that would enable her to build up her confidence and self esteem as well as the academic stuff of course.
Unfortunately that ‘something’ has been almost impossible to find. There are few schools in my area that specialise in Asperger syndrome and those that do are often male dominated and intimidating for my daughter. Neither are we happy sending our daughter long distances to a specialist school. Having gone through all we’ve gone through with our son’s out-of-borough education (a dismal failure because he couldn’t cope with going far from home) we are apprehensive of repeating this with our daughter. The chances are that the same thing would happen again. My daughter, like my son, is unhappy leaving the house. She is also sensitive to motion and suffers a lot from nausea when travelling for any distance. She just about copes with the car for short journeys which makes trips to town doable but further afield than that, she refuses to go anywhere. Clearly with these difficulties, it makes sense to stay nearer to home and with that in mind we asked the council about the local MLD school (I shall call it MLD School No. 1 for reasons that will become clear). I had received good advice that the school accommodated higher functioning children like my daughter who fell between the cracks of mainstream and special school.
So we joined a parental tour of the school and were pleasantly surprised with the level of support and educational provision on offer though I was rather appalled at the unfriendly attitude of the head towards us. She was perfectly nice to the parents of the younger children but not us for some reason. Why that was I don’t know; perhaps it was because we had an older child that they couldn’t accommodate.
It didn’t put me off though. I still thought the school was the best bet in the circumstances so I suggested it to the LEA who consulted with the school. Unfortunately the message came back that the school was full and to accommodate my daughter would undermine the education of the other students (or something to that affect). So my passive, gentle daughter who hardly says a thing to people would be detrimental to the education of others? The argument sounded pathetically weak so I contacted our local Parent Partnership who advised me to find out if the school could meet need. I approached the LEA and asked that very question. This rather simple question clearly floored them because for about three weeks I heard nothing until out of the blue I got a call from MLD School No. 1 asking if the inclusion teacher could visit me and my daughter. This felt ‘odd’ but I went along with it in the hope that something miraculous would happen. Well a miracle didn’t happen. The chat was merely to tell me that the school could meet need but that they were full and couldn’t accommodate my daughter. It seemed an unusual waste of resources to send someone round to tell me that. Why couldn’t they just tell me over the phone?
At this point, the LEA recommended we visit the other special school (I’ll call this MLD School No. 2) which we did. But as I described in this post we didn’t think it was the right fit for our daughter (even though they had a vacancy). Unlike MLD School No. 1 there appeared to be less opportunities to do GCSEs and the few pupils that did them were sent to the adjoining secondary school. We were quite dismayed by this because if our daughter is sent to the adjoining mainstream secondary school what is the point of her going there to start with? She may as well go to our local secondary school with TA support which is what we wanted in the first place but which the LEA disagreed with.
Consultation with the LEA was now becoming messy and we were becoming increasingly fed up with the evasiveness of the inclusion person. No-one, it felt, was listening to us or more importantly listening to our daughter. In desperation I asked for a mediator and after a succession of telephone calls and form filling, a confident middle aged man appeared on my doorstep. After the obligatory shaking of hands on what was one of the hottest days of the year, we sat down in the front room and started our meeting. It wasn’t an easy meeting. The mediator, an experienced lawyer, pushed us and questioned us and generally annoyed us but that is the point I think, to make us think about what is right for our daughter. I am not unused to aggression; my experience as a senior PA to board directors kicked in and I was able to hold my ground quite successfully.
But there is a serious point I have to mention about SEN mediation. How impartial is it? Does it really work in the interests of the child? No matter what a mediator says about working for the rights of a child or young person can they really defend the interests of our child if their aim is to get a resolution no matter what? I suppose it depends on your situation. Our situation is ambiguous; we’re unsure about what we want because we can’t find what we want. Provision is shockingly poor for aspergers girls like my daughter and so we’re forced to carve something positive out of what is essentially a broken system. This, I feel, makes us vulnerable to the aggressive techniques from a mediator who seeks to solve the situation by taking us down a particular route which for us was pushing us towards MLD School No. 2 because that was the school with the ‘vacancy’. There was no mention of other possibilities such as the local secondary school with TA support or the possibility of attending a specialised unit which is what I wanted to explore in more detail. It was all about getting a quick solution and of course the most convenient solution (for him and the LEA) would be for us to accept the school with the ‘vacancy’.
I was frustrated by this but nevertheless I pursued with the meeting and asked for clarification on certain points, namely how would the MLD School No. 2 support my daughter should she sit GCSEs? The mediator said he would pose this (and other questions of mine) to the LEA after which we would then all meet up in September to come to a final decision (the resolution I guess).
Unfortunately mid way through August, I received a letter informing me that the mediation company was in administration and that they could no longer provide us with mediation services. (How I laughed when I got the letter; I just couldn’t believe our bad luck.) Anyway, not one to be undeterred by this, I asked the LA for a way forward, hoping that they would provide details of alternative mediators. They didn’t and instead suggested we meet them without a mediator. I wasn’t happy to do this as I knew from experience that our LA is evasive and slippery. I wanted honest discussion that I felt I could only get through a mediator.
At that point the summer holidays were well under way and the melee of looking after two autistic children (and the occasional demands from an older teenager) swamped me to such a degree that ‘SEN education crappy stuff’ went to the back of my mind (well almost; you never totally forget as the dark clouds of SEN never really blow away). But now that the summer holidays are over and my daughter has settled back into a routine I decided to pick up the SEN reigns once again and got some advice as to how to move things forward. It just so happened that on the very day that I did this the LA sent me an email confirming that my daughters statement had been finalised with the MLD School No. 2 written on it! I can’t say I was happy that they’d decided this without completing our consultations. Nevertheless it isn’t such a bad thing because it now means that we can challenge them through SENDIST though whether we will go this route I am unsure as it means another time delay which I don’t think is in my daughter’s interests. It may be that I have to find a way of working with MLD School No. 2.
But the real shocker and the thing that has upset me the most is that the council have cancelled my daughter’s home tuition with immediate affect. They have given no thought to how my autistic daughter will cope with this sudden change which I find very harsh indeed. To suddenly end it like this shows total lack of thought for her disability and the need to gradually transfer her from one setting to another. The worst thing is that I haven’t told her what they’ve done. She has had such a good week with her tutors, ironically one of the best ever and now it has been cruelly taken from her. I can’t tell her, not whilst she is happy and we have a weekend to enjoy. Perhaps Monday.