It’s hard to find a policy document, education report or even an example of recent legislation which does not emphasise the importance of listening to parents, collecting their views and generally encouraging their input if their child is deemed to have special educational needs or a disability.
No doubt some schools are making great strides in engaging with parents and fostering a rapport based on mutual respect and knowledge-sharing. But the reality is that many parents of children with SEND still feel marginalised and ignored, their opinions politely tolerated at best, while the professionals’ pearls of wisdom, in the form of reports, are treated like sacred texts.
At the same time, school staff often struggle to understand how to deal with this disparate gang of parents who, unlike the pupils, don’t all wear the same uniform or sit down cross-legged on the carpet when you tell them to. How to make sense of the persistent phone-calls, the probing emails, the requests for meetings and, worst of all, the questioning of what you are actually teaching their child? Because it’s in these circumstances that parents become labelled as “difficult”, “demanding” or “pushy” ─ or, for those who are the apparent opposite of this: “hard to reach”.
Sharing SEND expertise
Teachers are a dedicated bunch and often pride themselves on having a privileged knowledge, not just of their subjects, but of the children in their care. But, parents who disrupt this precious idyll by challenging what teachers do, or failing to conform to the mechanisms for input set out by the school, become seen as a problem to be managed, just like their kids.
For parents of children with SEND in particular, it is essential that staff ask them how best to communicate and engage, because what works for one parent might not work for another at all. If parents seem too persistent, or even completely disengaged, teachers should try to avoid being judgemental and consider alternative approaches. In these days of increased security in schools, where access is regulated though electronic gates and computerised passes, teachers must not adopt a fortress mentality towards parents. Oh, and if you're sending out a form inviting parental views, do consider crossing out the word “views” and writing “expertise” instead.
Becky Wood is a former teacher and a research fellow in the department of Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs at the University of Birmingham.