Saturday, 26 September 2009

Catriona's Carnival

As many of you are aware of by now, Katrina Rooney, Minister for Education has been sending her talking heads out into the province to summon up support for her 'Every School a Good School Inclusion consultation paper.

Interestingly enough, though not surprisingly, the majority of questions asked at the meeting I attended,were from teachers in special education and from parents. I don't believe mainstream teachers are aware of what is going to 'hit' them should this consultation become policy.

The meeting I attended was chaired by an ex special education teacher who had the charm of a pitbull. She spent the first hour 'explaining' the dire contents of the consultation paper, how it came to be, and then 'permitted' the audience to ask questions in the second hour.

Members of the audience who had questions were curtly advised that only one crack at the microphone would be permitted. The woman ensured that the queue of questions was maintained in scrupulous order. If she wasn't a teacher, she would definitely have a career as a sheep herder - all she needed was a whistle.

Alarm bells began to ring in my head. Controlling the room and maintaining order seemed to be paramount over and above answering or even responding to questions asked.

I only attended one of these 'roadshow' meetings. I estimate over 100 people were at this one. I do know, however, that other meetings were not as well attended so perhaps the poor woman was a bit intimidated.

Despite attempts via bad timing of the meeting, to make it as difficult as possible to attend, people continued to roll in after 4.00pm.

The chair of the meeting explained the timing of the meetings (4.00-6:00pm). She advised that it was in fact parents who displayed their preference for that time slot because a 7.00-9.00pm time slot would 'interefere with dinner and homework'.

I doubt very much the Department of Education listened to any parents regarding the timing of these meetings and for those I spoke to, the timing was universally inconvenient.

I could go on and on about the content of the meeting but you can read the document yourself. (see link to the right) One of the most salient points raised was by a teacher who asked, 'if I mis-diagnose a child, will I get sued?'. This teacher was referring to page 15 of the document which clearly states, "a move to formal assessment of a child's difficulties or disabilities will only be necessary when it has been clearly demonstrated that the IN-SCHOOL support programme has not been successful in meeting those needs."

Incredibly, the Chair's response, after consulting with her stage partner was 'no, teachers are not being asked to diagnose', but that there are 'protection' and safety nets for teachers who might be accused of misdiagnosing a child. (when you read the excerpt above you will see that teachers are going to be expected to be front line assessors of children in need and will be expected to 'flag' them up.) I foresee many children being incorrectly 'flagged' up and also ignored. What about the children who have an autistic spectrum condition, are from the Travelling Community, have recently suffered a bereavement and who are 'looked after' children? What additional need must be tackled first?

What I really wanted to say at that juncture is that as a parent of a child with autism, I can spot another child with autism at 90 paces. I see them on the street, in the park in the shopping centres - why is there such a problem with 'flagging' children. I think most parents who have kids on the spectrum are capable of this. Our experience provides us with a built in 'radar'.

In front of many parents in the audience, (potentially the parents who would indeed sue such a teacher for neglect or misrepresentation of their children) an explanation was given to this individual teacher by the Chair as to how he will be 'protected', how there are checks and balances in place to always protect the teacher.

Incredibly, parents said nothing whilst listening to this, but of course, most of them had by now used up their one chance at the microphone. (Teacher had laid down her rules and we all abided by them.) In retrospect, I wish I had told the Chair at the start that I would not abide by her 'rules' and that I would ask as many questions as I bloody well pleased.

The format of the meeting was almost exactly the same as the Middletown 'roadshow' (farce). Questions were asked at those meetings too and the Chair of those meetings Mr Gary Cooper continued to respond with, 'that's a great question, write it down so we can look at'. That was over 7 million pounds ago. I would love to know what this consultation paper has cost so far. Despite its cost, I can only hope, for the sake of all our children, that it also goes the way of 'middletown' and is forgotten about.

No notes were taken by the Chair or her co-hort, and I doubt very much that the proceedings were recorded. Important questions were posed by parents and teachers and others. Those questions and comments, largely ignored, and with no recording of them, will disappear unless the individuals who posed them make sure to write them down and submit them to the Department. I do wonder what the Chair of these meetings is telling her department about the content of the said meetings. Really, what is the point of having meetings unless the proceedings are recorded in some way. Will the Chair go back to her department and say all was well, or nothing to report? Such a joke.

The question arose during the meeting, 'who do parents sue, should their children suffer from neglect? - the Board or the School.

Shockingly, the Chair of the meeting advised us all that the consultation document is not finished, that there are many more parts to complete before it could be submitted to departmental level.(which begs the question why it is being presented for our response, if it's not even finished.) We were told very clearly that we are being expected to comment on something when that 'something' is not complete and when the most important part of it, has not even been presented yet.

The Department of Education considers you, parents and teachers, as fools.

Those who asked the questions about guarding children's rights were informed they would have to 'trust' the school board, that there was no 'foreseeable' relinquishing of rights of children should the document become policy.

So, to all parents, all you have to do is trust your education board.

I don't see much point in delving into this consultation document any further as it is a total joke.

The fact that no one, not one person clapped or publicly thanked the Chair for her 'speech' said a lot. A deadly silence ensued once she signed off of her microphone. She knew it too as she very uncomfortably walked back to her notes. What did she expect?

Standing outside and eariwigging on the conversations of both teachers and parents, I can tell you that no one I spoke to was impressed, and many were exceptionally angry and rather stunned at it all. Following meetings such as this, at least in my experience, it's always like this -parents gather and 'complain' and teachers do as well.

This time, I was very glad to participate in the ensuing 'bitch fest'. I could hear parents and teachers talking to each other with much concern about this fiasco and comparing notes. These people may never meet up again but it is my deepest hope that all who had concerns about what they heard that day, will take the time to fill in their response booklets which can be downloaded online from the Department. One does not even have to use the downloadable form. You can email, write a letter or memo to let them know what you think and why.

(interestingly, the organisers of this consultation did not think to bring copies of the 90 odd page document for the audience, nor did they furnish us with hard copies of the response booklet). To read the document online is very difficult and in fact many of those at the meeting had not even read the document at all.

Our children are in great peril should this document become a reality. In my view, legal action is required against the Department to ensure this document never sees the light of day again.

The Department of Education is 'at it' again and still believes that they can ride roughshod over the needs of our children and the desires of their parents. The Department I believe, has every intention of just doing what IT wants to do, with no desire to consult with parents, voluntary or other sectors.

If you allow them to do this, you only have yourselves to blame. Parents standing up to School Boards in Northern Ireland, is incredibly overdue. There is no excuse for ignorance on this issue and I apologise for sounding preachy but sometimes parents are their own worst enemies.

Parents have got to stand up to the Department on this one. The only thing I wanted to say at this particular meeting was 'shove it' right back where it came from, it was an affront to me, to even have to discuss such drivel.