So last week we had to submit our application for a secondary school place for our daughter. Our bright, funny, bubbly daughter. Our terrified daughter.
Last Monday night, only the decision remained. A decision that had to be made by clear heads, but also by one small and precious heart. We had visited the three local mainstream secondary schools, last year and this year, in the evening and during the day. We had talked to the Heads and SENCO’s and the pupils. We had asked our questions. We had seen what we wanted to see.
The schools had their differences. One had a large intake; another very small. Two were a bus ride away; one was a walk. One school had an above average Progress 8 score; another was below average. Two were schools where she would definitely know other Y7 children on the first day; at the other we couldn’t be sure. There were also differences in uniform (her sensory needs mean there are certain styles of clothes she just can’t wear) and in sports facilities (she needs to move – a lot) and in the format of a typical day.
So far, so measurable. But what happens when your logical, rational daughter wants to make a decision based on emotion, based on fear? What happens when you and your partner can’t agree on which school seems to be – from the outside looking in – the best school for her? When you can’t agree – for the first time – on something this big?
Our conversations with the SENCO’s were notable. Partly the words they used; partly the support they said they could offer; partly how much they clearly knew (or didn’t) about autistic girls. At one school the SENCO talked about ‘ASD’ and ‘girls with autism’; my daughter would have a ‘social story’ (everyone who gets extra transition gets ‘the same one’); they’ll let her ‘get on with it’ because girls ‘cope’ in school. At another school the SENCO talked of the transition week (a ‘pioneer’ week) that was held for all Y6 pupils offered a place there, with extra days each half term for those who needed them; of the twice weekly check-in’s my daughter could have with a learning support assistant, to help with organisational skills and homework and anxiety. One school was definitely walking the inclusion talk; another school couldn’t even do the talk.
We know that the time between applying and finding out where she will be offered a place is going to be a time of great anxiety for her. Change is difficult. Knowing that things are going to change but not yet knowing how is awful. Not knowing is awful. The waiting is awful. How do you stop the fears and worries from building and growing, when there are so many, when you have to wait so long?
The four and a half months, waiting for an answer.
Then. The six months, waiting to begin.
There are some pretty simple changes that could be made to reduce this anxiety, which is not exclusive to autistic girls. Local authorities could reduce the waiting time between parents making an application and receiving an offer of a place. All secondary schools should begin transition plans much earlier for those children who are terrified of the unknown, provide a ‘pioneer week’, and give children multiple opportunities to build relationships with new people at secondary before they leave their primary school.
We were reminded of how well her current school knows our daughter; of how safe she feels there; of how supported she has been to get to this point where she is such a brilliant ‘her’. I phone the Head. She listens to my concerns, to the discussions we’ve already had. She doesn’t rush to answers, but builds in thinking time. She knows what won’t help my child, and what might. By the end of the call she already has the beginnings of a plan (now already in action).
Before we completed her application for a place, I came across an interesting study by McNerney, Hill and Pellicano on choosing a secondary school for an autistic young person. This was a multi-informant research project, which identified the things that parents, school professionals and young autistic people thought were important for a successful school placement. It was striking that whilst the children said how important their friendships were to them, this was commented on by only a few of the parents; a conclusion of the study was that children should have a bigger say in the decision.
We listen to our daughter and her views every day. Why wouldn’t we listen to her voice in taking a decision that ultimately will affect her life the most? We pooled our information. My daughter made her choice. My husband and I made our choices. One of us agreed with her, so that was the school we chose. Are we all happy? No. But my daughter’s anxiety is no longer dominating her life and impacting on her ability to live it.
None of us can actually know which school is really the best choice for her; there is no one ‘truth’. But we can all support her and help her to make it work.