Starfish….it’s a big ask

In my latest post for WeeklyBlogChallenge17 I want to address the challenge for schools in meeting the needs of children with SEND, diagnosed or not. 

As I have previously said, the schools I visit really want to help their challenging children without resorting to exclusion and they are keen to take on board strategies and advice which encompass medical referrals as well as visible behaviours. However I am noticing many barriers to helping the pupils who struggle in terms of outside forces and influences and these are impacting on all our youngsters actually. The demands of the curriculum, OFSTED, SATS, funding and services cuts and the general high stakes driving our school  improvement are, or should be, enough to make us weep.

When I was at the PRU I saw child after child come in with nothing having been put in place, but now, on the other side of the fence I can see why – schools feel overwhelmed by need! So many children are being failed by our systems and it is no wonder education professionals are leaving in droves and potential candidates are less than lukewarm about replacing them! 

On twitter I am seeing despair and heartache in many quarters with much talk of ‘broken systems’ and pressure, but actually the signs of  disintegration are more prosaic. Over the last few months I have seen or heard about the following snapshots in primaries:

……A young (very good) teacher who spends every lunchtime in her classroom preparing for afternoon lessons as she has so much to do

……Long mornings of proscribed lessons for upper KS2  ie English split into poetry, spelling, reading with no let up, a late playtime (short) and then Maths (long) with much teacher talk; kid I was observing had a massive kick off!!

…… KS1 children expected to sit and concentrate for long periods with a pared-down version of upper KS2 lesson

…….Children being kept in at lunch time to complete SATS practice because they are ‘slow’ ( teacher frustration by the way not deliberate cruelty!) A good job they didn’t have my son….it would have been home time! (fortunately he missed KS2 SATS by a year)

…..Lots of chalk and talk (pacy) and lots of teacher confidence and expertise on show but not a lot of heart I’m afraid! 

And that is NOT the fault of staff…it is what is expected now….headteachers are under the cosh and there is not much room for manoeuvre …..I heard someone say there is no place for mavericks….and that is true for teachers and children. It is no wonder that we are seeing the de- professionalisation of teaching with unqualified staff creeping back in…I have never seen such an over-regulated, mis-trusted group of people as I am seeing now. I remarked the other day I am so glad I am not at the beginning of my career….I would not last five minutes in the present climate!

However this makes me more determined to get out and help for as long as I am needed….I am reminded of the boy rescuing starfish stranded on the beach; when it was pointed out that it was a hopeless business he picked up a creature, threw it in the sea and said ‘ well it’s made a difference to that one’

I guess I will just carry on saving my little starfish…..and sprinkling fairy dust!

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My Snowdrops

This is my third blog for #WeeklyBlogChallenge17….a day late!

A few posts and blogs full of light and shade this week on twitter and facebook….hope and despair but with hope trying to push through like the shoots of precious snowdrops pushing through icy snow and iron hard ground.

I have already blogged about the challenges I am seeing for schools as I travel round and the age old problems of OFSTED that seem to rear their heads despite the best efforts of Sean and others….but this week I saw some green shoots in my own little professional patch of garden. My schools are keen to help their children and they are delighted to get the right support to do this.Yes there are budgetary constraints but most heads have their pupils’ best interests at heart. I had a lovely email from a school last week praising me for my help and support and yes, I know it is not all about me, but when you work on your own it is rather a big deal!

On Thursday I had some of the best CPD ever….training from Emotionworks which is based in Scotland ….fab for whole school PSHE and great for children with ASD as it has a very visual system using cogs. Lynn McCann from @ reachoutASC has done a fabulous blog on this  and was instrumental in bringing Claire and her amazing system down to England….super! We were all so enthused on that day and, speaking to a young teacher, she reminded me that teaching is a vocation and our love for the kids and desire to help them is something we never lose! I reflected on this later and reminded myself that this drives what I do at the almost end of my career; the young and the not so young with a passion for children. The feeling still flowers brightly within me with the purity of the buds of my youth. My snowdrops are blooming with as much vigour as they ever did!

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New Year thoughts

This is my second #WeeklyBlogChallenge17 and I thought I would record a few impressions of the New Year to date.

On the positive side I am still really enjoying my new role and being as busy as I want to be, and feeling very touched by schools who want me to carry on working with them despite finances being stretched.(I am very reasonable for this reason!) I have just started a one day per week mainstream SENCO role covering a temporary secondment and was made to feel very welcome by the head and staff. I have worked with the head quite a bit whilst at the PRU and was headhunted for the job; I feel hopeful that I can bring something fresh to the school and already staff are asking me questions which is good after one day!

I have also had a variety of work coming in ranging from preparing EHCP paperwork to working with children, including specialist teacher work. I am also keeping up with CPD and have got an Emotionworks training day booked for next week. Then I have some book article editing to do and am looking forward to delivering at the #PrimaryRocks day in March! My life is very varied and interesting and I am in control of my own destiny work and leisure wise! Long may it continue!

On the negative side, apart from getting over a nasty virus still, there seems to be a lot of unhappiness amongst colleagues, both on and off twitter, relating to workload, wellbeing and the looming demands of OFSTED and panic about finances and staff cuts! We seem to be moving in completely the wrong direction as a profession and those in charge seem incapable of steadying the ship or even knowing whose hand is on the tiller!

 Sean Harford is doing the best he can at OFSTED within certain constraints, but ridiculous things still keep happening which erode confidence in the inspection process. A two form village school near me failed OFSTED due to safeguarding failings regarding the single central register. Okay, that is bad (although the report stated no children were put at risk)….but the report then went on to slate GEOGRAPHY at KS1 and 2….it went on and on about it!! I alerted Sean who went off to investigate and he took my point about it looking like the report was seizing on everything and anything to put the school in a bad light…..why? Surely it could have stopped at safeguarding if it was so heinous!! Other schools could be forgiven for thinking that OFSTED was on a mass drive to root out failings in foundation subjects now, as if there wasn’t enough to worry about with English and Maths!! It was a poor report (and actually in September how much geography were they expecting to see ???)  and undoes the good work Sean is doing on myth busting. Then, in a further little twist, two heads I know went on a safeguarding course after school…..and had to take….their single central registers!!! Sean says this is very odd but hardly when you can be put in special measures for making mistakes!

I’m not even going to comment on DfE nonsense except to say that the reports about funding are extremely worrying and I know schools locally who are having to make stringent staff cuts….TAs are in the firing line coupled with a rise in the numbers of vulnerable SEND pupils, including those in danger of exclusion….not a good picture.

So not the brightest start to 2017 but we have to try our best for the sake of our children and hope for a resolution before crisis point hits us…..we might not be able to effect national change but the kids in our schools need us and we have to believe we can make a difference. Happy New Year!

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Bear Hunt

Well what a fab Xmas holiday (not) ! Unbelievably I am in the second full week of a mutating virus which has thrown at me nausea,  fever, chest infection, vomiting, hacking cough, stomach and chest pain, and sudden periods of unconsciousness! There has been no escape and I’ve had to get through each episode in pure survival mode. Hubby has also been very poorly but managed, bless him, to drag himself around and look after me to boot over the last few days. I don’t think we have been so ill since we caught a hospital norovirus when my dad died eighteen months ago …..it has been horrific! However we are turning the corner now and slowly getting better….but it has made me ponder on how things can change in a heartbeat with drastic consequences. 

I remember when OFSTED came….the mutating virus pales into insignificance….similar symptoms but with a feeling of unreality and the desire to burst into tears every few seconds! The unreality was compounded by my dad’s death and it was at that point I decided to throw in the PRU towel….I was exhausted by living on my nerves and following a timetable to oblivion thoughtfully designed by the LEA. Yes it has been a period of uncertainty but this has been outweighed by a sense of being in charge of my own destiny and proving myself on my own ability…..and I love it!!

Over Christmas I watched the beautiful animation of Bear Hunt which culminated in the rather sad end (for some) of Bear trudging back to his cave on his own. And yet to me this was entirely right….Bear represented fear of the unknown and encouraged that delicious childhood  safety blanket of hiding under the bed covers. Only one child came close to meeting that fear half way but the adventure proved too much and ended in time-honoured fashion, safe in the bosom of the family.

But this is not to dismiss the trials and tribulations faced and conquered along the way.There were rivers and mountains and swamps which could not be circumnavigated….”have to go through it” rather than over and under it! And faced cheerfully too!…. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared!… And this is a message for education as well as life, surely? I fled in fear….from OFSTED, from failure, from outside forces, from anything that I felt I could not control! But fears need to be faced…and we need to go through it….those of you who are stronger, maybe younger and more energetic ….need to go after that bear and enter its dark lair, because there are no easy answers or ways forward or indeed heroes to conquer bears on our behalf! 

I have chosen to hunt bears on my own terms and draw out my own battle lines ….I have forsworn the safety of my bed now and remain in the open. You will have your own ways of hunting and staying safe but we do it for one purpose…for the sake of our children. Have a beautiful day.

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      I Saw Three Ships

      I’m sitting here calm and still….hubby is sleeping as he is really not well. Jeremy our kitten is also sleeping….like the tail of the comet he is burnt out after whizzing around non stop for nigh on twelve hours. I can hear the remnants of Storm Barbara howling around the eaves and I am thinking about tomorrow and living out all my Christmases past and present to the backdrop of the beautiful, immortal and never ending story of the birth of Jesus.

      I was dreading this Christmas in a way. It is my second as an orphan ( my lovely dad died over eighteen months ago) and my first as a consultant away from my lovely PRU. Usually I have been immersed in play rehearsals, carols and the excitement of Santa arriving. Our PRU children struggle with all of these things and it is amazing to see the hope and wonder in their eyes when they realise they can achieve everything that they struggled to do in mainstream….sing like angels, star in our play, see Santa in his grotto (my office ) without swearing at him……a magical time. I wondered how I would cope this year without all this as it confers that sense of belonging to a school…it gives identity and meaning…and all  of a sudden, like a ship adrift at sea, the stability is gone.

      It was always a gamble going alone, and I had no idea how it would all pan out but actually it has been fine.I have had just the right amount of work in a starting off period and lots of repeat bookings which gives confidence. But what about Xmas? I bought a jumper with flashing lights and got to wear it in a school I had visited previously…the KS1 children loved it and I felt a little bit of belonging. Then I was asked to attend the play at another school where I was working with a Y2 boy with suspected ADHD….I couldn’t have been prouder if I had been his mum! He was a fisherman and said all his lines and performed the actions with gusto…his singing was sublime….brilliant! This is what makes my job so worthwhile! 

      But the icing on the cake was going back to my PRU. I had gone in to do some work in the morning but was invited to stay for Xmas lunch and Santa’s visit….I also got to wear my Xmas jumper again! (It was Xmas jumper day.) I had an amazing time….I loved helping to set up the dining room and lunch was fab. Then the killer…a boy (Portugese) who came to us last year said to me ‘ I wish you came back’.I cannot explain the wave of emotion that passed through me. Later I helped bring the children to see Santa and saw again that mixture of cockiness and vulnerability with the oldest children reverting back to early childhood when they entered his ‘grotto’ (now the new deputy’s office.)

      And so to the ships of the title….this has always been one of my favourite carols and it resonated particularly this year. This year my ship has come in in more than one way and will culminate in reflection tomorrow. My three ships are…my new job, my new world and literally new life…my lovely kitten Jeremy…who is a source of joy after the tragic deaths of my two cats Jordy and Eli in the summer from unknown causes. From death comes new life and the Christian story is about the birth of a special baby…the son of God. It is about hope and ordinariness….events repeated the world over…and no matter what our beliefs are, is about the human condition.

      Tomorrow I will celebrate my Christian heritage and give thanks for the birth of baby Jesus who then died to save us all. Birth and death are inextricably linked but we can only do the best that we know we can whilst we are on Earth to do it.

      Wishing you all a merry Christmas

      ‘ I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning’

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      The Power

      Last night a lovely Headteacher who I have a lot of time for posted a link to a video by renowned behavioural specialist and government guru Tom Bennett.The gist of it was that unruly children are given IEPS by well meaning SENCOS which give them carte blanche to behave as badly as they like without recourse to the school behaviour management policy. Said guru reflected that some children cannot operate within school parameters and would be better off in a unit outside mainstream provision. Now as a former primary PRU deputy I accept that this is the case for some children but what I cannot accept are the lazy assumptions behind this view. 

      If you are going to record an assertive video, please pay attention to body language….slumping as if  you are sitting in your lounge at the end of a hard day does not look professional. Please keep your tone professional…waving your hands about whilst dissing fellow professionals in a casual dismissive way does not inspire confidence. If you are going to make a serious point gravitas is essential rather than looking as if you are making points on the hoof….you are a guru not a donkey!

      Immediately I felt impatient and not too interested in unpicking the views made…Tom is an old hand at this and his views are well known to regular observers…he is a big fan of zero tolerance and exclusion. What I cannot accept is that a paid government commentator can express such casual views in a way that brooks no further debate….he is right and he knows it…end of!

      Now this is where it gets unpleasant…I know that a big weakness of mine is flying off the handle where vulnerable children are concerned and I went off the scale at this point….however I figured that Tom is a big boy and can look after himself in a tussle! Wrong! He went all injured innocence and accused me of being ‘uncivil’ ….kept warning me and saying he was sad! Bollocks! He has no regard for me at all…I am anathema to him! In the past I have pleaded for us to have a dialogue about exclusion and been patronised to the core! I was like a little dog licking his abusive master’s shoes begging to be patted because he was a superior being….how he must have laughed!! No more….fortunately this delicate flower has blocked me! A great way to stifle debate!

      So why am I so angry? Well first off, mention of SENCOs leads to thinking about children with special needs. Is he suggesting that behaviour is linked to SEN or that behaviour IS SEN?? Are SENCOs out to make the life of poor class teachers harder than it needs to be? Really? Are SENCOs on the side of unruly children and seeking to make excuses for them at the expense of ‘good’ children? Are they encouraging them to flout school rules? Looks like it according to Tom! And this begs the question about the role of SENCOs ….they do not write IEPS. ..teachers do…remember the Code of Practice and quality first teaching? Tom?

      So then what? Well apparently these kids are unsuited to mainstream and should be shunted somewhere else where they cannot do any more harm to their poor long suffering peers and teachers! Now in my area there are PRUS. …but guess what? Thanks to the reasoning of Tom -following heads they are now full! And so they languish in their (unsuitable?) homes for months on end with one hour (if they are lucky) home tuition per day! Bloody marvellous eh? But who cares? Not schools’ problem….the White Paper was never enforced on making them accountable for excludees’ next provision. LEAs have closed provision year on year so they have nowhere to turn either…slow handclap!

      When I left my PRU it was full of children on the autistic spectrum….yes really Tom…in direct contravention of the law which is supposed to protect children with SEND….conveniently most received their diagnosis at the PRU ( thanks to me…I was SENCO). I am accused of being aggressive, personal, unprofessional…but who speaks for those with no voice? It is OK for gurus to make sweeping statements but there is no right of reply….parents do not read TES…teachers do ….this only tells half the story! Thank God for parents like @StarlightMcKenzie who keep us on our toes! And shame on the likes of @tombennett71 who use their position to expound negative views which can only perpetuate the great divide in our schools

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      My new world

      I am finding myself referring a lot to ‘my new life’ or ‘my new world’ post PRU, but in truth  it is not very different to my old one in terms of being there for schools and helping children!

      So what has been happening? I don’t want this blog to come across as just a blueprint for setting up your own business but actually good forward planning and organisation are key. It has taken me many months to get my business together and a fair financial input too! Whilst I was still at school I concentrated on infrastructure. Finding the right name was extremely important. I decided to be a sole trader and I wanted something catchy but not jokey, and definitely nothing with ‘solutions’ or ‘inclusion’ in it, important as these are. Actually I don’t feel I have * solutions* , I have actions that are worth trying which, in my experience, are often successful. ‘Solutions’ suggests that you are there to make problems go away without much input from school needed!! I wanted something personal- sounding rather than corporate, and it needed to stand out from the crowd! I came up, finally, with #SENDForJax and I am very happy with it as it emphasises my core purpose….helping children with behaviour and SEND (with a twitter hash tag for good measure).
      I hired an accountant early on because I wanted to ensure everything was done properly; I have taken early retirement and so my pension needs to be factored into my accounts….this is my safety net at holiday times or if I am ill. I opened a business bank account and my business manager (son) had training on an accounting program to manage my invoices etc. (unpaid bless!). A good computer is essential and so is my indispensable Surface laptop/tablet…they cost a pretty penny but I am realising how much I need them now I am out in schools! I am writing a lot of reports and having the latest technology gives a really professional ‘look’ to them….don’t forget these reports are being read by a range of professionals so I do not want to come across as amateur hour!

      There are so many things to think about…I have taken out business indemnity with public liability…..I needed a sponsor for a new DBS certificate (fortunately my PRU agreed to do this). I needed an identity via business cards and other goodies. My son sorted me out a fab logo and I have a magnetic sign for my car too which I love.

      When I finished work I spent a lot of time converting a downstairs room into an office. I have to say I adore it and I bought ‘The Snail’ by Matisse  print to go on the wall….it reminds me of being a class teacher and many an art lesson ( keeps my feet on the ground), but is also symbolic as there are no quick fixes when helping challenging children with SEMH and underlying SEND.Like the snail, a good practitioner will be careful and methodical and leave a clear trail of evidence to get the right result!

      Once September came it was all about marketing….emails, delivering cards, having conversations with people I knew, and also networking with other businesses; I felt in this new, uncertain world I needed to keep my options open and twitter and Linked_in have helped as there are opportunities to branch out a bit once I am more established. I have also employed someone to do my website which is now crucial…I have found that trying to move into new geographical areas is difficult because I am unknown; at times I have felt like a double glazing sales person rather than an experienced behaviour and SEND professional! So I need my website to validate me ….good references and testimonials are a must!

      My core purpose for the business is to help children and schools and prevent exclusion if possible but I need to live! I had lots of thoughts about my charges and settled on what I felt was a reasonable hourly rate. However the reality is that budgets are tight….I cannot operate if no one can afford me! So I have settled on supply rates plus and this is getting me into schools. Now I am in I am realising how hard it is and the sacrifices schools are having to make to stay within their means….but they desperately need assistance…one Acting Head is also SENCO and has been  doing the job on deputy salary for months…TA hours are being stretched and even cut, so there is little support for vulnerable children….the demands of SEND are implacable, schools are struggling with EHCP paperwork and it is now so exacting that many hours of time, both from SENCO and SLT, are needed if referrals are to be successful. I am experienced with the procedures from my time as deputy/SENCO at my PRU but it took me a full day (and evening) to sort out a mainstream referral in a school where the SENCO is a deputy with mostly full time teaching in a Y6 class! It’s an impossible task on top of everything else! And getting worse! However, there are statutory duties and as a specialist teacher I am trying to help by keeping my costs low without selling myself too short.

      And yes, despite the difficulties, it is so rewarding. I love the different challenges and the variety. In a few short weeks I have done specialist teacher reviews, EHCP paperwork, BOXALL analysis with future training planned, observations of individual children with practical strategies, support for new SENCOS, support for Heads and there is more in the pipeline! My best moments this week came when I prevented the exclusion of a CLA boy by finding the Head some extra money to support his needs and when I took in a wobble cushion for a little one who has core body strength issues (she is awaiting a paediatric appointment and I will be supporting mum as she struggles to communicate her daughter’s needs to health professionals). The little one’s face was a picture and the head and staff were delighted! The head has emailed since and said C loves her special cushion! I love being able to add a personal touch in my new world!

      For anyone thinking of doing this, it is hard because you are living from week to week initially….often I have thought I have nothing coming in but then an email comes in that saves the day! I am booked in for a slot at a heads’ cluster in November, with a warning to be short and sharp before heads start looking at their watches! ( busy people!) so I am hoping that word will spread and I can stay busy! However, Rome wasn’t built in a day as this reminds me.

      And of course this spurs me on, always…

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