Thinking ahead

So….secondary school is a topic that’s on my mind a lot at the moment. Katie will be starting secondary school in September 2023 so there’s still a fair bit of time to go, but we will need to apply to whichever school she ends up going to in October this year. That still gives us 10 months so all fine in theory. Except the thought of Katie being at secondary school scares the pants off me because I have no idea where we’re going to send her or how she’s going to manage it.

Moving to her current primary school was definitely a good move because her mental health is much better than it was this time last year when she was struggling more and more with school and it was getting too much for her. She is much better supported at her current school and it’s tiny (just under 50 students) so by default the noise and crowding that she finds so difficult to deal with has been massively reduced. If we had a secondary school that could replicate the environment of where she is now I wouldn’t be worrying so much, but we don’t.

Even with the accommodations her current school have put in place and the fact that it’s such a small school, Katie still doesn’t like it. She still has the same issues. It’s too noisy, people get too close to her and bump her, (she feels) people are mean, school scares her. It’s just that they are on a lesser scale and she can manage them more effectively. Instead of daily meltdowns she has one maybe every couple of weeks. She will say she feels poorly and doesn’t want to go to school, but she doesn’t curl up in the foetal position and refuse to move. She still gets less sleep than I would think it appropriate for a 9 year old but she is asleep by 10.30 / 11 most nights instead of being up until who knows when.

Katie says she is looking forward to secondary school because it will mean she’s one step closer to being old enough to leave school altogether. She wants to go to a big secondary because she thinks there will be more places for her to hide. So that’s it – in the 5 and a bit years of schooling she’s completed so far, she’s learned that she can’t wait to be done with it and the more she can be invisible the better.

I went to an open event at one of the secondaries near us, which is a relatively small school as far as secondaries go. There was no one from the SEN team available to talk to. The office for pastoral care was shut and the student showing me around couldn’t tell me anything about it as it’s not something she needed access to. I waited 30 mins to speak to the headteacher and then gave up. And I freaked out because of the stairs. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that primary schools don’t have stairs and secondaries do. Katie isn’t great with stairs. Going up is fine, going down is slow. All it’s going to take is for one kid to race by her on the stairs and knock her and she’s going to flip out.

Primary school for the most part is one classroom with one teacher. The environment doesn’t massively change during the day, but Katie has still found it really tough to deal with. All of a sudden at secondary school she’s going to find herself with a different teacher for every subject, she’s going to be expected to move around the school and go to a different classroom for every lesson. I just can’t see her managing it, it’s going to be a sensory onslaught. I’m sure she will get one or two teachers who are amazing and she will be comfortable in their classes. I’m also sure she’ll get a couple who roll their eyes because ‘all kids come with a label these days’ and ignore any requests for support, and a couple who insist she doesn’t need any support because she will sit quietly in the classroom with her head down and won’t be any bother.

We’ve also found even at primary school that messages aren’t always communicated across staff. There might be one or two teachers who totally get that if Katie is looking at the board because that’s what the kids are supposed to do to show that they’re listening, that actually she won’t be taking much in at all and she listens a lot better if she’s looking down or has her head in her hands. But then she’ll get a substitute teacher or one of the teaching assistants will take the class and they’ll have a go at her for not looking at the board because they haven’t been told any different. I can only see this being more challenging at secondary school with so many more staff involved.

I would really like to get an education health care plan (EHCP) in place for Katie to help with secondary school. It would mean any accommodations she has are legally binding (at the moment we just have to ask and hope school listens but ultimately we’re dependent on their goodwill) and it also opens up the door to possible alternative provisions. There are two schools in our area that have specialist autism units, but at the moment Katie wouldn’t even be considered for them because only students with an EHCP can apply.

I spoke to Katie’s current school about applying for an EHCP and they said they wouldn’t be able to support it because she doesn’t take enough of their time or resource, but they recommended I put in a parental request. I also spoke to the autism advisors at our local council and they totally agreed with me about the challenges Katie is likely to face at secondary school and also suggested I put in a parental request.

Both school and the council seem to feel that ours is an unusual situation in that I’m requesting an EHC assessment with a view to getting Katie provision for the future rather than because she’s in desperate need of one now. They told me that although it’s worth trying to get an assessment now it’s likely to be refused and we’ll have to wait until she is in year 7 and prove that she’s not coping before anything would be done. The problem for me is that having seen the state Katie was in at the end of year 4 at her old school, I wouldn’t let things get that far again and I would pull her out of school rather than watch her suffer so much. I don’t want to wait until she’s back at crisis point to start asking for an EHC assessment which then takes weeks or months to process. I want something in place before secondary school to avoid getting into that mess in the first place.

Also, doesn’t the fact that she wasn’t coping in a 420 pupil mainstream primary school prove the fact that she’s very unlikely to cope in a 800+ pupil (as most of them are in our area) mainstream secondary school without additional support? I feel like if we’d have left her at her old school where she was literally falling apart, maybe we would be in a better position to apply for an EHC assessment. Whereas because we did what we could to help her and moved her to a smaller and more suitable school where she’s coping better, we’re being told she’ll manage fine.

I put in the parental request for an EHC assessment just after Christmas. This week I got the letter back saying an “EHC assessment is not necessary at this time” and that “Katie is achieving well academically and making progress. Therefore the EHC Panel is confident that an EHC assessment is not required at the present time”. I’m not surprised but it’s a bit soul destroying. It seems that academic achievement is put above mental health and emotional wellbeing. I spent ages putting the request together, knowing that we always hear that she does well academically so there’s no problem, and knowing it was likely to be refused, and lo and behold it was. The next step is to appeal the decision. I don’t know if I’ve got the emotional energy to appeal it and carry on banging my head against a brick wall, but I also know I’m going to do it anyway because how can I not? I can’t really consider myself any sort of parent if I don’t do everything I can to try and make school better for Katie.

It makes me feel very uncomfortable. I know that we see a different side to Katie at home than anyone else sees. I know I’m probably viewed by anyone in education as a problem parent because I’m always pointing out issues that they don’t see. I don’t know how to convince them that I’m not just being a drama queen and making stuff up. Katie has an autism diagnosis. She is under CAMHS for anxiety and depression (I must do a follow up on my CAMHS post!). She was referred to the Emotional Health Academy for anxiety. It’s on her medical records that she has been through a period of self harm. She has had therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist which she refused to engage with. We’re constantly told she’s fine, but that’s not my definition of fine. The times that she’s been fine have been during the lockdowns when she wasn’t in a school environment, but no school isn’t an option.

I very much hope that the LA are right and that Katie doesn’t need an assessment or an EHCP. I hope that when she starts secondary school I’m eating my words and writing about how happy I am at how well she’s settled in and how it’s suiting her so much more than primary school. There is no part of me right now that believes that will be the case.

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