What keeps me awake at night - I'm ashamed to be a teacher

24th February 2012 at 00:00

Once you have children of your own, your perspective as a teacher is altered. As the parent of a child with special educational needs, that awakening is even starker.

In the couple of years since my child started school, I have been forced to ask myself some searching questions as a teacher and I have had to face an uncomfortable truth: the system I am a part of is failing many thousands of children.

I thought I did a pretty good job of making sure that the needs of my most vulnerable pupils were met. But I have to acknowledge that, however conscientious I have tried to be, my best efforts were woefully inadequate. Either through the incompetence of teachers or through shameful institutional failings, children are effectively being consigned to the scrapheap.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the system is the deployment of schools' least qualified staff - teaching assistants (TAs) - to work with children who have special educational needs. Without wishing to disrespect our hardworking and dedicated TAs, this really is equivalent to asking the hospital porter to carry out open-heart surgery. What's worse is that many teachers seem to think it is acceptable to devolve all responsibility for their most needy pupils to their TAs.

At a recent parents' evening, while waiting for our son's teacher, a TA initiated an informal discussion with us about his recent progress. When the teacher eventually showed up - with another set of parents in tow - she refused our appointment: "You don't need to see me now, you've already spoken to Mrs X." Naturally, our son's teacher was told in no uncertain terms that this simply wasn't acceptable, but I know from my own experience that this kind of abdication of responsibility is not uncommon.

In some schools, this wilful neglect is institutional and shamelessly implemented. I will never forget the time I notified the special educational needs coordinator at one of my previous schools that a pupil displayed signs of Asperger's syndrome. "We try to avoid having the students assessed because it costs too much and it costs us even more if they find something," I was told. A subsequent discussion with the child's parents revealed that they had raised similar concerns, only to get this response: "There's nothing wrong with her, she's just disobedient."

I will leave others to decide whether this was simply an isolated incident or is indicative of a national disgrace that few seem willing to talk about. As a teacher, I know how the system works and I'm able to fight for my child's education. But how many other parents are being unceremoniously fobbed off?

My personal experience suggests a failing system that is only going to get worse because of government cuts. As a teacher this realisation has made me feel slightly ashamed; as a parent, anger and frustration are far more overwhelming emotions.

The writer is a secondary teacher in the North West of England. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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