Potential Energy (Part 7)

Following on from the importance placed on relationships and trust as key values and attributes of staff working with children and young people with additional support needs under Theme 5; we now turn to Theme 6: Relationships between Schools and Parents and Carers.

The review begins by affirming the importance of effective working relationships. Where there are “honest and trusting relationships .. characterised by mutual listening and respect” this allows for “sharing views and airing disagreement without conflict.”

It also notes the “many parents and carers” who shared their experience of “being disregarded, not listened to or blamed for their child’s behaviour.” This is something that I have witnessed. For example, in one recent Tribunal case I was involved in, the education authority pointed to the child’s apparent good behaviour at school as evidence that the school placement was working. There did not appear to be any understanding of the cost to the child of having to suppress his needs and challenges while in school and that this resulted in distressed and challenging behaviours being exhibited at home – despite several parental attempts to explain the issue.

The review asked the following important question of parents and carers:

If you have had a difficult time and then it got better what has made the difference?

Consistently, the answer was that an individual (whether, PSA, teacher, DHT, SALT etc) became involved “who demonstrated they care about the child and is non-punitive about their condition and its consequences for learning.” In short – “They just get it.” Again, this tallies with my own experience – understanding, caring and committed staff go a long way to reassuring parents and carers (and children and young people) even in circumstances where there is a shortage of resources, support etc. The review notes that a number of practitioners also felt “upset and stressed at being unable to source expertise and support.”

I find that parents often have a “sixth sense” about this sort of thing, able to zero in on staff who “get it” very early on in discussions.

These sorts of respectful, honest, trusting relationships between parents and professionals make it “less likely that matters would develop into adversarial, formal, stressful and costly processes.” As someone whose job it is to engage in such adversarial and formal processes, it is certainly true that in almost all cases, there is some issue around communication and relationship which has developed.

Exclusions

The review notes that it also heard from many parents and carers whose children were (or had been) repeatedly excluded from school – both formally and informally – even to the extent that they have had to leave employment. Schools and education authorities often seek to justify exclusions from school on the basis that it creates a space in which everyone can meet together and review the support measures in place for the child. However, the sanction of exclusion is likely to make relationships and communication more difficult – so the exclusion becomes counter-productive, even on its own terms.

It is still the case (both nationally and in individual education authority areas) that disabled pupils are more likely to be excluded than non-disabled pupils. This is a prima facie case of indirect discrimination, which is difficult for education authorities to justify. As the Technical Guidance for Schools in Scotland (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2014) notes:

4.10 – Behaviour and exclusions policies that result in a higher proportion of pupils with a particular protected characteristic being excluded are likely to result in indirect discrimination unless their application can be justified as being a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

and

7.2 – Positive action might therefore be used to address things such as .. [h]igh numbers of exclusions of disabled pupils..”

Information for parents and carers

If you know anything at all about additional support needs, you’ll be aware that reliable information about rights and processes can be hard to come by. I wrote an article for Holyrood Magazine over 5 years ago called “Why is independent adjudication for education disputes being hidden?” I am not convinced that the situation is any better half a decade on. Indeed, the review notes “the absence of proactively provided, accessible information.”

Worse still, it uncovered evidence that “a culture of negative expectation about parents and carers has developed as the norm in many schools. This fuels expectation that all parents will be difficult or unreasonable, their views are not valid and that best strategy is to restrict information to avoid unreasonable demands.”

Pupil Voice

As a component part of Scotland’s My Rights, My Say service for children, it is good to see noted that the views of the child and the views of the parents or carers are not always the same! The example given is an interesting one. One to one support at school, the review notes, is “highly valued” by parents and carers, but can be seen as “further marking them out and separating them from their peers” by children and young people. Readers will remember reference in earlier themes to research which raises some questions about the efficacy of PSAs.

Mediation

Mediation, perhaps understandably, is seen as a possible response to some of these issues. The review notes the “considerable scope for the principles of mediation to be developed as a positive early process to support parent/carer/school partnerships, rather than as a belated crisis response, in the form of one of the mediation services funded as a requirement of the legislation.”

I understand the sentiment behind that. However, there can be a danger in this idea of schools (or others) using “principles of mediation” or “taking a mediation approach” – in the absence of a) proper training, and/or b) independence between the parties (which is one of the principles of mediation, as I understand it). Mediation is a specialist field, and I do worry about language like this encouraging a DIY approach, which may not be altogether helpful.

It’s also unfair to label using a mediation service as “a belated crisis response” as I know that those same services are always keen to be involved at as early a stage as possible. It is regrettably true, however, that involvement of mediation is still perceived in some quarters as a sign of failure – and resisted as such. We need to get beyond such misapprehensions.

Recommendations

  • Schools and local authorities must work in partnership with parents and carers to develop, and deliver, ways of working together that support and promote positive relationships, communication and co-operation.
  • This must include clear pathways on transitions for children and young people with additional support needs, in the context of learning for life, allowing parents, carers, children, young people and professionals to be informed and supported at key transition points.
  • Parents and carers must be involved, as equal partners, in the development of key guidance, to contribute their knowledge and lived experience.
  • Further investment is needed to strengthen support services for families; allowing these services, and the support they provide, to become embedded.
  • The benefits of the use of mediation must be widely promoted at a national, regional and local level and consideration should be given to how mediation can be developed, through professional learning, to support the workforce.

Next up is Theme 7: Relationships and behaviour.

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

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