I was at a meeting about Transition Year at my son's school last night. But of course not all of you will know what that means, so it's definition time again...
Transition Year is the Irish education system's answer to the Gap Year except it takes place between the two sets of state exams during the secondary school years. It's a bit like Marmite, some love it, some hate it, and that's just the parents.
It's also compulsory at my son's school, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. This isn't a fancy well-equipped school in a leafy suburb, it's in the inner city and caters mainly for teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it does not resemble the typical media portrayal of inner city schools. They mostly seem to feature disinterested parents, exhausted teachers and feral teenagers. My son's school couldn't be more different. and last night the room was packed with parents and their children; extra chairs were pushed into every corner to accommodate all the people who turned up. The teachers are mostly young, and they are all enthusiastic and passionate about education and committed to getting the best out of the boys in their care. As for the boys, well I defy you not to be impressed. Despite many of them living in very difficult circumstances, they were all well turned out for the meeting: nicely dressed, clean shaven, smart hair cuts. They sat quietly and attended to the presentations. They didn't interrupt, but asked intelligent questions at the end about the plans for year, which include studying more than 30 subjects, project work, a mini company, weekly work experience and career guidance, and a national award scheme that includes community work and sport.
If any of this this sounds patronising, I apologise. I'm just trying to show how the education system in Ireland does succeed and does make a difference, even in those schools that fall beneath the radar and don't appear in the league tables.
So why does the education system keep failing those on the autism spectrum, even schools like the one my son attends that are supposed to cater for them?
The clues are there. I thought about what I know about autism and realised that all those things I saw in the boys in the room can be very difficult for people on the autism spectrum. Sensory issues make haircuts and self care painful, classrooms and corridors overwhelming, smart clothes uncomfortable, where a well-washed track suit is not.
Sitting still for long periods can be hard.
Executive functioning difficulties mean that managing 30 different subjects and projects may seem impossible.
And even if they manage to deal with all these problems, they still have to navigate the social environment in the school and the community. All day they have to decode the words of other students and the pronouncements by teachers, which are currently squarely aimed at the majority in the class.
And once something is said, it cannot be unsaid, and all the reassuring messages in the world won't make you forget being told that ninety per cent attendance was required to get the Transition Year Certificate, and if you you didn't get the certificate you "may as well not do it."
My heart sank into my trainers when I heard that.
Autistics are literal thinkers, remember. And some of them struggle with regular attendance.
It's just another example of the disconnect between what schools provide and what autistic students need.
Anecdotally, many autistic teenagers who were looking forward to Transition Year as a break from the pressure of exams, found the new challenges even more difficult.
In most mainstream secondary schools in Ireland autistic pupils attend mainstream classes with a special needs assistant (if they're lucky) and sometimes it's like chucking them into the sea with a rubber ring and hoping they won't get mauled by a shark. Some schools also have an opt in asperger units where the pupils gather at break times or if they are sitting out a class, and a lucky few have units where the teaching takes place for those pupils who cannot cope with mainstream classes.
I do think that is the answer for some pupils. Because I'm wondering are mainstream schools and teachers willing and able to change everything about the way they do and say things to accommodate a small number of autistic pupils, or would it be better for those children to be educated separately, at least for a while? Of course this goes against the mantra of inclusion...
Real inclusion would require a complete mind change. The whole education system would need to be examined and all future policies disability proofed. I'd love to see that happen, and I hope it will, but it will be too late for my children. And I still believe that some children will never be able to cope with mainstream school, and there need to be options for them too.
It's back to the need to make the system fit the child, not the child fit the system. As it should be everywhere in life.
Reasons to be Cheerful - Happy Mothering Sunday #R2BC - Lucky me, the girls made me breakfast in bed Happy Thursday friends, How are you doing? I'm having a funny old week. there is nothing particularity wrong...