A quest for acceptance

28th August 2015 at 01:00

Ten years ago, I was on the hunt for the smallest school uniform imaginable. My son Sam, at 4 and a half, was preparing to start school and the prospect of my offspring entering my world was exciting.

Everything was ready. I'd had long chats with nursery teachers, portage workers and an educational psychologist; it's hard choosing a school for your firstborn, and that's before you add the complication of Down's syndrome - or any other special educational need or disability, for that matter.

As a teacher, I embarked on the search with a kind of smug confidence. I knew exactly what I was looking for. And any school that wasn't within an easy half-hour walk was struck off the list.

But one headteacher forgot himself and told me: "You have to remember what these children take away from the others" (he was talking about funding), thereby ruling his school out, despite the brand new building he was so proud of.

The head who impressed me the most was the one who agreed that it was the job of a local primary school to educate all the children in the community. Not just the smart ones or the pretty ones. Not just the ones from picture-perfect, two-parent families with books lining the walls. Not just the ones who don't have complicated conditions such as Down's syndrome. Not just the ones who are good for school data.

If that headteacher was worried about my son joining their school, they never said it to me. If they were secretly relieved in September when my little boy was kept at home with a case of scarlet fever, they kept it under their hats. After all the medical talk of risk, all the pity and the constant persuading myself that everything was going to be OK, it was a comfort to reconnect with my open-hearted, open-minded profession.

At my son's school I found a buzz: a hum of activity, happy chatter, riotous assemblies that spoke of children who loved their teachers and were loved in return. If there's one thing that I get really tired of - even now that I've developed the hide of a rhinoceros - it's people being afraid of my son, afraid of Down's syndrome.

Maybe I was lucky. Maybe it was Sam's fluffy baby-red hair and his tiny stature that did it. Maybe he embodied the positive aspects of Down's syndrome more in those early days than he does now. Maybe I came across to the headteacher as more vulnerable than I had thought.

Whatever it was, no one took me aside - right at the moment when I was filling in the form for the school jumpers and the book bag and the water bottle and the matching hat - to tell me that there had been a mistake and the funding wasn't there to provide adequate health and safety cover. As a parent, that's not my problem. It's yours.

Nancy Gedge is a teacher at Widden Primary School in Gloucester

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