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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Barriers to Education

Before I start with this post I would like to bring your attention to Blogging Against Disablism Day. For more information on what this is and why it is important here is a link for you to follow http://blobolobolob.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/blogging-against-disablism-day-will-be.html

It is important to think about what the phrase 'barriers to education' means before I go on to talk about my own experience of education. According to the Open University article: Barriers to Learning, barriers can be attitudinal, organisational or practical, although it is important to remember that sometimes there is no way to do this due to the nature of the disability and the problems that are experienced. As a result each individual should be treated differently and their needs addressed in the same way. The article I refer to also identifies that -

"The barriers to learning faced by students with disabilities are many and complex, and differ from student to student and often from day to day."
As such I will be only writing about my own experiences and understand that this may be very different to what others may have experienced.

"The article refers to the 4 A's when wanting to remove or lower the barriers to education, they are -

Access means physical access as well as access to the curriculum
Awareness of the needs of disabled people and the barriers they may experience
Acceptance that you may need to do things differently
Appreciation of the effects of hidden difficulties, such as pain, tiredness and emotional stress"


My experience of education has been very mixed, with some of my experiences and decisions that I have made being directly affected by my disability and the limitations that this brings. I started my education at a special needs school and continued on this road until I was 9 years old. All the experience that I have had through my education in both a special needs school and in mainstream education has influenced my life and the person that I have become now. The time in special needs education allowed me to become more independent and have much more access to services like Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech and Language Therapy sessions than if I had been in mainstream education from the start. Unfortunately the main limitation for special needs education for me was that it did not challenge me at an academic level and if I had continued along this route I would not have had the same opportunities that I have had throughout my life so far. This is not the experience of everyone and there are many people who need that higher level of support that a special needs school is able to offer.

Thirty years ago, children were regularly put into Special Needs School because the provision was there and this view was not questioned, because it was commonly believed that disabled people did not need to be educated because they wouldn't be able to work anyway. The individual was not seen, it wasn't until this was challenged that children with disabilities are now encouraged to attend mainstream schools. This is quite a recent change in my thirty years of life and thankfully more disabled people are able to experience mainstream education and are provided with more opportunities because of this, although there is still a long way to go and still many disabled people do not have the same chances that their able bodied colleagues have through education and employment.

I also have concerns over the plans of the current coalition government including the proposals of the SEN and Disability Green Paper which on first skim reading sound like the government has an understanding of the needs of disability children for example it states-

"give parents a real choice of school, either a mainstream or special school. We will remove the bias towards inclusion and propose to strengthen parental choice by improving the range and diversity of schools from which parents can choose, making sure they are aware of the options available to them and by changing statutory guidance for local authorities. Parents of children with statements of SEN will be able to express a preference for any state-funded school – including special schools, Academies and Free Schools"

Its not until you read further and review some of the language used that it is apparent that the proposals will be bad for disabled children giving them less chances of a mainstream education than they currently do and in turn will increase the barriers to education -

"and have their preference met unless it would not meet the needs of the child, be incompatible with the efficient education of other children, or be an inefficient use of resources. We will also prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools by giving parents and community groups the power to take them over"

The above mentioned sections shows how the truth can be hidden in what they are saying. This above wording allows decisions to be made about a disabled child and what provision they should be provided, finding reasons for disabled children not go into a mainstream school just because the special needs school around the corner meets the needs of the child. I feel this will lead to the over use of special needs schools as it was when I was a child.

My parents were always keen to get me into Mainstream Education and were prepared to fight but knew they had to be realistic about my needs and the red tape that they would have to cut through. So they bided their time until my health improved and they felt I would be able to cope in Mainstream Education.

After a while my parents started the long process of trying to get me into Mainstream School. This took quite a while from what I gather and there was lots of compromising along the way because there was always a school 'more suitable for my needs' than perhaps was the one that my parents wanted me to attend. My parents wanted me to go to the local Lower School but due to there being another school with better access in another village it was agreed that this would be the school that I would attend.

To ensure that I coped I was phased into the school, initially attending once a week, then twice etc. This was in Year 4 of Lower School. I coped well with this and I would say this was a positive way for myself. After a year of phased attendance it was agreed that I would attend the same school for a full year, rather than go up to Middle School with the pupils of my year. I am glad this happened at this point in my education rather than later on because I adjusted to the idea quite quickly. For the rest of my education I was always a year behind but more often than not this wasn't noticeable.

Adjusting to Mainstream schooling was not always easy, I suddenly wasn't the top at everything and had to work at being middle of the class. My teacher for the first full year at Lower School was what I needed. He did not put barriers in my way, he enabled me to be part of education road ahead. I was encouraged to get my literacy and numeracy up to the same level as other people in the class and by the time this year had finished my literacy and numeracy skills had increased immensely and in most areas I was achieving average and above results. When attending the Special Needs School, these weren't seen as important as independence and mobility which meant that at the beginning of the year I was at a disadvantage to many in the class. If you haven't got an education and qualifications to back up the independence and can do attitude that I was encouraged to have then what is the point. The main reason for schooling and education is to prepare and give children opportunities that they might not have if they are not provided with a good education. This year meant I was academically set up for my future schooling and lowered some of the barriers that had been put in place previously.

Although my first year of full time Mainstream schooling was a success academically, there were some tough times. I was quite obviously different to the children who attended the school and although I gained friendships there were still a number of occasions that I fell foul to the children who didn't understand me or my disability which led to times of bullying. This was hard as all I wanted was to be the same as everyone else and be liked by everyone. Thankfully there was little bullying at this time, but it did prepare me for what it could be like. Throughout the rest of my education there were plenty more occasions I would learn what it is like to be at the end of a bullies harsh words.The children I went to school with were part of what provided me with a barrier to full education. I was regularly bullied to the point that I would not want to attend school and would pull a sickie just to avoid putting myself through it. Although I was always good at doing my work and I was able to get reasonable results it made me wary to attend and marred much of my experience of the education I received and limited some of my opportunities.

Before this year was out my parents spent much time discussing what was best for me and the future education that I was going to receive. Another hard decision had to be made by my parents and although they wanted me to go to the same school as my peers, it was agreed that there was another school in a different village which could cater for my needs better. This meant I had to make new friend all over again, I tried to keep in contact with some but this became more difficult the more time that passed. This led to a disjointed education again and provided me with challenges that most children would never have to think about let alone experience. The experience I am describing here is how things are going to be for all disabled children if the guidelines of the SEN and disability Green Paper are followed, with barriers to education increasing rather than decreasing.

The experience was much the same through out the rest of my education, with having parents fighting for the right for me to have the education I deserved and having students who misunderstood me and my disability leading to me being treated differently often due to my disability. 

Once I left school I did not go onto college or university straight away, partly for average reasons like not wanting to and not knowing what I wanted to do but also because it was much more of a challenge for me as I have to think about access issues rather than just what university has the best social scene. A number of years later I decided to improve my prospects through education by completing an Open University Degree. This is something that I have just completed and I am proud of my achievement as it was a very long road. The question of whether this will actually make a difference to my prospects is still unsure but at least I can say I tried and have given myself as much chance to progress in life and get out of a job that has no prospects. 

Many barriers to education I experienced could have been changed to positive experiences if there had been some simple changes in the way my education and my disability was approached. Referring back to the 4 As that I mentioned earlier, to achieve this individuals and organisations need to think about these and through education of adults and children barriers to education no longer need to be an issue. We need to challenge the current disabling attitudes and practices. As a society we need to give ALL our children the opportunities that they deserve not the select few that current government policy is currently giving an advantage to.