Anger and disbelief as parent campaign against school funding cuts gathers force

school funding cutsYesterday I went to the Fair Funding for All Schools meeting at Larkmead School in Abingdon, and came away shocked by the cuts to funding per pupil that are on the way over the next four years. It’s a double whammy caused by the new funding formula and cuts to real term funding per pupil (which breaks a manifesto promise). There is a lot at stake: funding cuts are likely to affect numbers of teachers and teaching assistants, and the range of subjects offered, particularly music, visual and performing arts, design and technology and languages. Support for vulnerable students is also at risk and small schools in rural areas are likely to be hit particularly hard. It’s a cross-party issue – the meeting was chaired by the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth. (Funding per pupil is set at a national level.)
However, there is plenty we can do about this. The Fair Funding For All Schools website http://www.fairfundingforallschools.org/ has lots of info plus a template letter you can send to your MP http://www.fairfundingforallschools.org/…/letter-to-mps2.do…. There’s a change.org petition https://www.change.org/p/stop-school-funding-cuts-all-our-c… Also, we have county council elections coming up in May, so it’s a good issue to mention on the doorstep if anyone comes round canvassing for support. Here’s the website with details about how much individual schools across the country are set to lose http://www.schoolcuts.org.uk/#/ and the Fair Funding For All Schools FB page https://www.facebook.com/fairfundingforallschools – there’s also an Oxfordshire FB page https://www.facebook.com/fairfundingforallschoolsoxfordshire/
Yesterday night was the first meeting of the Oxfordshire Fair Funding for All Schools campaign  – the first meeting was in Haringey and the second in Wokingham, where I grew up. The Oxford Mail reported on how Nicola Blackwood MP has joined calls for a review of the funding formula, while the chairman of governors of Larkmead School has left the Conservative Party over the school funding issue.

Temple Grandin, autism and the power of early intervention

There’s an amazing video on the National Autistic Society website of Dr Temple Grandin giving a speech. The video is amazing not just because of what she has to say, but the fact that she can say it at all.

Most of us would be pretty scared of addressing a hall full of people, but here is someone who is autistic, for whom communication is particularly challenging, speaking in public at length, fluently and lucidly and with such authority… She’s incredibly impressive.  And it just goes to show what someone with autism can achieve with the right kind of support early on.

You can find the video of Temple Grandin’s speech, and some more about her, on the National Autistic Society website.

Temple Grandin: early encouragement, later success

Temple Grandin didn’t speak  until she was three and a half, and when she was diagnosed her parents were advised to put her in an institution. They didn’t. They found a speech therapist for her. A childcarer played endless games with her and her sister. In the speech recorded in the video, which took place in June this year in Reading, she says that one-to-one attention is what autistic children need in order to learn.

She gives some insights into what it’s like to live with the sensory perception difficulties that often go with autism: the pixellated vision, the challenges of trying to interpret other people’s apparently super-speedy speech. She also makes the point that autistic children need to be stretched, and looks back to her own fear about going to stay on her aunt’s cattle ranch.

Encouraged to go by her mother, she went, loved it, and ended up forging a career as a designer of livestock-handling equipment, and becoming one of the best-known people with autism in the world. I haven’t seen the film about her (Temple Grandin) starring Claire Danes, but I want to – her story is so inspiring, and Claire Danes is such a good actress, it should make for a great film.

Changes to the system for children with SEN: cost-cutting masquerading as efficiency?

But what about all the children with special educational needs (SEN) who don’t get that intensive help early on? We know that early intervention makes a big difference, but the system for allocating resources to children with SEN in the UK seems to be designed to slow up access to help.

Applying for a statement is a long and bureaucratic process; evidence of need needs to be absolutely watertight, and gathered over time. But once you’ve got a statement, it is legally binding; the level of help identified in the statement has to be provided.

Now the government proposes to sweep the system away. It says it wants to make things better, but there are so many unanswered questions. Will whatever replaces statements also be legally binding?

Ofsted seems to have decided that too many children are labelled as having SEN. How did it decide? Did it ask the parents? And if children need help, they need help, don’t they, regardless of why? Are they going to get it? Or is this really just another cost-cutting exercise, masquerading as improved efficiency?

A tale of two creative writing courses (with an Arvon happy ending)

‘So…’ The two middle-aged men in jumpers regarded me dubiously. I tried to look back at them like a Writer. Like the existentially serious black polo-necked youth I’d met while I was waiting for my interview, who had left me feeling like a bit of a fraudulent dilettante.

‘Are you sure you shouldn’t be trying to become a journalist?’ said one of the creative writing course tutors. The other looked down at the printout of the short story I’d sent in with my application and added, more in sorrow than in anger, ‘There’s a repetition in your first paragraph, you know. You wouldn’t get away with that here.’

And so I lost my chance to do a highly-regarded creative writing MA, and went off to do a journalism course instead. I’m not surprised the jumperish men turned me down, really, as I hadn’t written enough or regularly enough, and had pretty much scraped together the story with the offending repetition in it at the last minute. (In The War Against Cliche Martin Amis says it’s a sign of bad writing to iron out all your repetitions, but alas, the habit is ingrained now and I can’t help myself. See? Scarred!)

Anyway, if I had got in I would almost certainly have spent the best part of the year-long course feeling horribly insecure and clueless. So it all turned out for the best. And some years later I went off to do a week-long Arvon course, which was a very happy creative writing course experience, and here’s why:

  1. I stayed at Lumb Bank, which is this fab old house that used to belong to Ted Hughes, with little writing shelters in the garden. When I went I hadn’t been out of Zone 2 in London for months. Pastoral bliss.
  2. When you’re on an Arvon course you get looked after and shopped for so that you can Write. In the outside world this is, alas, not usual.
  3. We had a lovely person looking after us who went out and bought me The Sun – I was obsessed with my Mystic Meg horoscope at the time. All those valuable things that were going to turn up in my attic! Where are they, Meg? Where?
  4. Everybody was lovely! It was a week of otherworldly loveliness!
  5. Evenings involved lots of red wine consumption (money in the honesty box) and drunken singalongs featuring lots of Frank Sinatra. (Someone had brought a guitar.)
  6. You’re put in little groups to take turns at the cooking, but luckily there were enough people who knew what they were doing for my incompetence not to matter.
  7. You have to write stuff very quickly and read it out, and everyone has to do it, so you just have to get over yourself. And then you see that you can actually do something in as little as five minutes! The start of something, at any rate.
  8. I came back all fired up.

I did an evening class at a local college some years later, and that was good too, and I’ve heard good things about online courses run by the Open University and various other universities, which don’t cost the earth and can fit in round other things.

There is definitely something to be said for spending time with other people who are interested in the same thing. Especially with red wine, Frank Sinatra, Mystic Meg and pastoral bliss thrown in.

Happy 50th birthday to the National Autistic Society

I renewed my membership of the National Autistic Society today. I’m the mother of an autistic child, and when I was trying to find out more about autism in the run-up to getting a formal diagnosis, the National Autistic Society website  was where I ended up – and I’m so glad it was there!

Pretty much all I knew about autism before that was what I’d gleaned from watching Rain Man twenty-odd years earlier. Clearly I had a long way to go. I needed information, and the NAS website is a brilliant source of that, right through from the basics to the latest research and what’s going on in your area. The charity does loads of other things too, including running six schools and a helpline, and it has lots of local branches.

The NAS turns 50 this year. There’s a video on the about section of the NAS website in which Ilse, one of the founder members, describes how she and other parents got together in the early days of the society.

The psychiatrist who diagnosed Ilse’s daughter with autism suggested putting her in a home. That was not something Ilse and her husband wanted to do. The psychiatrist also suggested getting in touch with the then very new society for autistic children. Their daughter went on to be a pupil at the embryonic National Autistic Society’s first school, which taught ten children.

It used to be thought that autistic children couldn’t be educated, and now we know that isn’t true. But if that group of parents hadn’t got together in the early 1960s, it might be a different story.