Thursday, 8 October 2009

Build a school, build your own dreams

In Northern Ireland, the hope of attaining a ‘good’ education in a ‘good’ school (whatever that is) can depend on a number of things. For any child, some of the obstacles to attaining a good education include whether or not your child sat the 11 Plus, what postal code you live in, whether a child’s parents value education and are proactive about it and of course the academic ability and/or motivation of the child.

In terms of the 11 Plus exams, many parents are well aware that for their children who did not sit the exam that their child sat ‘in the back’ so to speak while the 11 Plus pupils got all the attention.

Separate curriculums, even separate classes are formed between the ‘smart ones’ and the others. Don’t believe me? Ask your son or daughter who did not sit the exam, what their schoolwork consisted of, just prior to and following exam time. Were they colouring in a lot of maps and being kept busy with ‘artwork’ while their peers were busy cramming in concepts, facts and figures with the full attention of all the teachers?

We all know there is a two track system in Northern Ireland best exemplified by the grammar schools. Regardless of the 11 Plus being phased out, it has already done its damage.

For our children on the spectrum the obstacles set against them include all the above and so much more. Large class size, over stimulating environments, curriculums that have not been modified, teachers and classroom assistants who have not been highly trained, teachers who can’t cope, the list goes on and on. Put our children in a class of 28 and most of the child's day could well be spent having teacher and aide calming down his overworked nervous system.

Northern Ireland has a number of empty schools, schools that could be used to provide kids with autism a more specialised education.

If parents want schools for their children, schools that will specialise and will honour the opportunity to help our children, then parents must start demanding them. Why should we as parents accept what is on offer? The product is well past it’s sell by date and is actually starting to mould.

Have parents in Northern Ireland succumbed to the system just like the government and school boards hoped they would? Since when do we have to accept anything? Instead of governments telling us what to do, it is they who should and must listen to us, not the other way round. I see and hear parents complaining all the time, each carrying out their own personal battle with the authorities and schools, each in isolation, each signifying nothing in the bigger picture except isolated bouts of disruption. Even if a parent launches an appeal and tribunal regarding the education of their child, unless it's going to create a precedent in law the impact of such is not felt in the wider community.

All of these isolated voices of parents which are battling the system get lost and rarely come together. Despite the fact that there are more than 10 charities which offer services and/or advice regarding autism in the North, the voices of parents continue to make very little impact. Parents are separated, corralled and effectively silenced by the fact they are not coming together as one.

Every parent, without a doubt has some amazing stories to tell about their child. Are teachers and the Department of Education afraid of what our children might achieve? It would set a very dangerous precedent if our children started 'achieving' beyond the expectations of others. There would be no going back to suppressing and repressing our children and their parents if that Pandora's Box were to open. The Department of Education, I think, is terrified of providing opportunities for our children to grow because the flood gates would open to possibilities and all of that costs dearly. Best to keep parents and their children in a holding pattern. It starts with the negative attitudes of the diagnosing paediatrician and it ends with your child still at home at the age of 25.

I ask all of you who are parents to take one hour and really think about what kind of educational environment you really want for your child. Try to exclude the niggling comments from your child's teacher that he is 'happy' (he might not be happy at the age of 18 when he hasn't got the skills to get a job or a girlfriend) Talk to your fellow parents and compare notes about what you really want for your child. Then ask yourself 'are these things achievable?'

We can change the future for our children. 'Tick tock, tick tock....what are we waiting for? Are you afraid someone might say no?