“This school’s gone right downhill since you started here.”
A parent said this to me in my first term as a headteacher, back in 2011. I had asked to see the parent to discuss some concerns I had about her son. She walked in to my office, asked her son to pick up his things, spoke those nine words and left.
I resolved there and then to improve my work with parents. What choice did I have? It probably couldn’t have got any worse.
Fast-forward to this week. For various reasons, I have spoken to many more parents than would be normal in one week. The tone of the conversations got me thinking and reflecting.
The parents were thanking me and my colleagues, sometimes with tears in their eyes, for things that we are paid to do. Be in no doubt, I’m not humblebragging here – literally thousands of schools do what we do, day in, day out. But the fact that these parents – all with children with a learning difficulty and various other conditions – felt they had to thank and praise us for not being rubbish at our job tells you a lot about SEND provision in this country.
Parents 'seen as part of the problem'
The confidence of parents in the SEND system is sickeningly low. A recent Department for Education survey found that only 35 per cent of parents of children with SEND were confident that the right level of support was being put in place for their child. I’ve heard from some people on social media that they are surprised it is that high.
Any school getting that kind of response in a general parents’ questionnaire would move heaven and earth to put things right. And yet parents of children with SEND are too often walked over, ignored, mocked, labelled "pushy" or, according to last week’s survey of teachers by GL Assessment, seen as part of the problem.
The GL Assessment report says: “As our survey of teachers makes clear, there is a widespread feeling in schools that there is a misdiagnosis of SEN and that parental anxiety, however understandable, doesn’t always help with an objective evaluation.”
We are fools if we don’t build the strongest possible relationship with parents of children with SEND. They are experts in their child. They want the best for their children, just like any other parent, but sometimes they have to advocate a bit more firmly than they would like to just to get the basic entitlement that the rest of us get without even asking.
Parents shouldn’t feel eternally grateful for people like me just doing the job for which we are well paid. It is right that they should expect it, and be intensely irritated when people like me don’t deliver.
Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey and the author of Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow, published by Independent Thinking Press