A long way to go

4th December 2015 at 00:00
To get an education, some special school pupils face arduous journeys – more than 90 miles a day in one case. And these vast distances are merely a symptom of the fragmented state of specialised provision. Headteacher Jarlath O’Brien is demanding urgent change – for the sake of our most vulnerable children

Joseph started at Carwarden House, a special school in Surrey, on the same day as me (he as a student, me as headteacher). He’s now in Year 11, and in the intervening four and a half years he has not missed a single day of school. That’s pretty remarkable for any pupil, but for Joseph it is even more so: his journey to school is 21 miles. That’s a 42-mile, three-hour round trip every day.

The long journey is particularly problematic for Joseph. He seeks sensory feedback in ways that people can find challenging: pinballing down corridors, bouncing from wall to wall; slamming doors as he passes through them; using a very loud voice. These behaviours can be particularly noticeable when he arrives at school and when he gets home in the evening, after he’s been required to sit passively in a car with two other students for an hour and a half. You would forgive him if, on the odd morning, he decided he simply could not face it.

You might think that a journey such as this is regrettable but pretty rare. Six schools turned Joseph down before he came to my school, so surely it’s simply a case of necessity? But anyone who works in the special education sector will tell you that Joseph’s story is typical. They’ll tell you that for many children the trip to school is even longer. They’ll tell you that these travel times are symptomatic of a fragmented special school system that is in urgent need of change.

We need to reconsider how we provide schooling for our most vulnerable students, and we need to do it soon. These children deserve the ease of a local school – such as those provided for their mainstream peers – coupled with the benefits of specialised provision. So why aren’t they getting it?

Easy for some, not for others

My own two children walk less than 100m to their local primary school, which has a catchment area of a neat square mile. That’s more than 200 children, all within walking distance of each other. Their journey to school is as hassle-free as it can be. Play dates, sleepovers and emergency childcare are simple to arrange.

Our local secondary, meanwhile, has a dog-leg-shaped catchment area of six square miles. It has 1,400 students, who can all get to school on foot or on two wheels. Again, the journey is straightforward. Again, all those extra elements of school life are simple to arrange.

But the situation at my school is very different. We have 115 young people on roll, aged between 11 and 19. These students have a variety of learning difficulties and needs, as well as associated conditions such as Down’s syndrome and autism. The size of the area within which these students live – our catchment, if you like – is a staggering 1,200 square miles. When I did the maths, it surprised even me.

For our students, journeys to school are neither quick nor hassle-free. Arranging play dates, sleepovers or emergency childcare is a logistical nightmare, and the distance means the first two rarely happen.

So, what are individual students’ experiences? I asked the headteacher of a nearby secondary school for the greatest distance travelled by his pupils. The answer was 7.3 miles, although the headteacher stressed that this was an anomaly.

By comparison, the furthest distance travelled by a student at my school is 24 miles. The average journey of 8.8 miles among my pupils exceeds the greatest distance travelled by every one of the 1,200 students at my colleague’s secondary school.

How typical are we? I asked other special school headteachers across the UK for the furthest distances travelled by their students. The replies came in: 13.2 miles, 17.7 miles, 31 miles. And then an email arrived from a school in the South of England: “The longest distance travelled by a student to our school is 46.47 miles.” That’s a round trip of almost 93 miles.

Although a few secondary schools could potentially compete with these numbers, they will be exceptions. In special schools, these figures are the norm. Clearly, we have a problem.

How did we get here?

Why do the most vulnerable students in the system, some as young as three years old, have to criss-cross counties and cross borders up to 380 times a year to get to school?

It is partly down to the definition of “nearest suitable school”. A child with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) should be sent to the nearest school that can reasonably be expected to offer everything required to meet their needs. Those needs are not easy to define, and the definition is often argued over fiercely by parents and local authorities.

Local authorities may well want a child to go to the school at the bottom of the street, or to the nearest special school, but parents may disagree. Families can argue, sometimes with the assistance of a barrister in a tribunal, that their child’s needs cannot be met at the authority’s preferred school. I’ve attended those tribunals a number of times – my 36th birthday was memorably spent being savaged by a barrister: “Call yourself a special school? You don’t even have an accessible toilet!” We won, and hastily installed an accessible toilet.

This is not me blaming the parents – quite the opposite. Parental choice is crucial. Rather, it is me pointing out that specialised provision is complex. Some special schools look like mainstream schools, some don’t. Some try to cater for a broad range of SEND, some specialise in one particular need. Some are residential, some are not. And two schools catering for the same students on paper can take incredibly different approaches.

The diversity of provision would be manageable if there were one of these schools in each area to choose from. Unfortunately, that is not the case (and neither would it be practical). Therefore the special school landscape is a patchwork of different provision in different areas, with no overarching vision: there is no national picture. Instead, every local authority does things differently.

“Postcode lottery” is an overused phrase but unfortunately it is apt in this case. It’s pure luck whether you have a school in your area that you believe suits your child – unless you move, of course, which some parents feel forced to do. So, if you do argue the point that the school chosen by the local authority is not suitable, you might find that the nearest suitable one is 48 miles away.

The tightening of budgets will make things worse: authorities will be forced to change the way they’re arranging their provision. Recently, Brighton and Hove announced proposals to merge its six special schools into three, which will inevitably lead to less parental choice and greater travel times for some children. And it could be a sign of things to come. Long journeys to school are already inevitable under the current system. But even further distances could become the norm.

Just some of the problems

How damaging is this for the education of children who attend special schools? The answer should be pretty obvious, but here’s a brief rundown of the key issues.

l Social isolation. It’s almost self-evident that having 115 young people spread across 1,200 square miles means that few of them will be within easy travelling distance of each other. Even if they are, the chance of them being friends and in the same year group is smaller still. This means that social isolation is commonplace, especially when coupled with almost inevitable delays in acquiring the independence to travel safely and the difficulties that some children encounter with being included in sports and other types of after-school club.

l Medical concerns. Long journeys can be a real concern for parents, as they worry about their child having an epileptic seizure, having an issue with their tracheostomy or tube-feeding kit, or slowly becoming hypo- or hyperglycaemic while on the way. Neither the driver nor the escort is trained to deal with the medical care or other challenges, such as behaviour, of children who have additional needs.

l Stress and fatigue. Special school pupils wake up far earlier than many of their peers and arrive home far later. It’s a long day and fatigue can set in, which sometimes makes learning tough and behaviour erratic. Consider also the issue of arrival at school. A journey involving the collection of maybe four or five children, plus the unpredictability of the motorways, can make judging arrival times an art form. One student found it very difficult to understand why she couldn’t immediately get on with her day when she arrived at school 45 minutes early. It caused her to become very distressed, so much so that she would bite herself repeatedly.

l Parental involvement. I wrote for TES in the summer (bit.ly/NeverVisit) about parents who have never been to their child’s school. Living in poverty, without access to a car or the funds to reach a school more than 20 miles away, can make parental engagement tough.

Finding the answer

Is there a solution to all this? There will always be a small number of young people whose needs are so complex that they have to travel some distance to access the highly specialised provision to which they’re entitled. I am wholly unconvinced, though, that the current stratification of the system is necessary. It seems that the presence of so many niche provisions – my own included – creates demand when needs could be met closer to home.

One option that I strongly support is to increase inclusion. But, as Nancy Gedge has written in these pages (9 October), things appear very much to be moving in the opposite direction.

Another solution comes from what was the Darlington Learning Village and is now the Education Village. Three schools – one primary, one secondary and one 2-19 special school – all occupy the same campus and are part of the same organisation. It’s an example of what happens when you combine the luxury of planning an education provision from scratch with an ethos based on making a local offer to local children. It provides almost everything to which nearly every local child is entitled (see panel, left).

Nine years after the Education Village was opened, I can barely find a similar example and this saddens me. But, of course, that school was built in the middle of the Building Schools for the Future and One-School Pathfinder projects; we don’t have that sort of cash now.

And yet, with academisation, free schools and a growing pupil population, there may still be an opportunity. We should consider mandatory co-housing of specialised provision with every mainstream school that is rebuilt on its current site, or with every brand new school. This would mean primaries with specialist units, and secondaries with provision mostly for young people who have moderate learning difficulties and/or high-functioning autism. Given that, by my estimate, 50 per cent of my students could be well educated in any mainstream school with the right curriculum and support, this would stop many children with moderate learning needs having to travel excessive distances.

There is money to help here, if we cut down journey times. The cost of transporting children who qualify for funded transport to special schools, specialist centres and mainstream schools is estimated to be £20 million a year in my local authority alone. That amount of money would build you a state-of-the-art residential special school, complete with a hydrotherapy pool, sensory rooms, ceiling-mounted tracked hoisting throughout and eye-gaze communication technology. Or a brand new secondary school. Or a number of shiny new primary schools. Every year. But will this happen? Again, the tide seems to be against us.

Another way

There is a third option: a pretty simple solution that we could introduce immediately. We could stop using traditional labels that subliminally limit expectations of students who have SEND and make parents’ search for schools much harder. We should not be looking at what a child “is” but what they can “do”. Having Down’s syndrome is not the defining characteristic of any child, but it appears so when they are referred to as a “Down’s child”.

By teaching parents, schools and government that labels for young people who have SEND are limiting, and that we should instead be looking simply for a school that suits each child, we can begin to even out special school provision and open access to mainstream education. For example, a child who has autism does not necessarily need to attend a school for autistic children – in fact, most do not. The system is guilty of putting children in boxes and most people take their lead from that. Take away the box and you immediately free up choice.

These changes won’t happen in Joseph’s time at school. But he has been a success despite the trials and tribulations of travelling 42 miles to and from school every day. That should not be an excuse not to act: it is just a testament to him, to his stamina and determination. But it has come at a cost, to Joseph and to the taxpayer.

I fear plenty of other students, unfortunately, will need to show the same stamina for years to come.

Jarlath O’Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. @JarlathOBrien

Joseph’s three-hour round trip – in his own words

I get up at 6am. I can find it difficult to get up in the morning. An alarm clock doesn’t help because I’d ignore it, so my aunt has to try really hard to get me out of bed most days.

I have my breakfast at 7am, just before my taxi comes. It takes me ages to get washed and dressed before that. I am supposed to tidy my room every morning but I don’t.

I am supposed to be collected at 7.15am but the taxi is often late, so I sit waiting for it to arrive. This can make me stressed.

I am the first of three people to be collected. It’s boring in the taxi. Sometimes I talk to the others but I mostly listen to music. The journey is long, so I sometimes fall asleep.

Another of the students used to punch me a lot in the taxi when I first started doing the journey four years ago. I would sit in the front and he would punch me in the back, the head or the arm. Once, I lost it and hit him back. It was not easy to sit in a taxi for a long time with someone like that.

Normally I get to school just before it starts at 8.45am. Sometimes we arrive early, so I go to breakfast club. Sometimes we arrive late because we got stuck in traffic.

I sometimes start school in a bad mood because of the journey. I can have arguments with my friends, which makes my mood worse.

We go home on the M25 and there’s normally bad traffic. Because I am collected first in the morning, I’m the last to be dropped off in the evening, so I get home at around 5pm. Sometimes I’m late for dinner, which makes me grumpy because I like my food.

Joseph is in Year 11 at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey

Education Village: three schools in one

Mike Butler, chief executive of the Education Village Academy Trust, writes:

More than a decade ago, Darlington Borough Council was wrestling with what to do about three separate school buildings that required, at the very least, significant repair and refurbishment. An innovative solution was dreamed up to co-locate Springfield (a mainstream primary), Haughton (a mainstream secondary) and Beaumont Hill (a 2-19 special school) in one PFI-funded new-build – the Education Village, which opened in 2006.

Alongside the obvious benefits of shared facilities – from a hydrotherapy pool and sensory room to a TV studio – the opportunities to develop effective inclusive practice have been many and varied. Examples include: children who attend specialist provision, such as those with autism, accessing mainstream classes and vice versa; staff moving between different settings, collaborating and sharing CPD; Beaumont Hill’s early years pupils using Springfield’s nursery facilities.

The benefits to students’ education and development are significant. Stigma is removed, understanding of others’ needs is increased, friendships are formed and engagement is improved. It is a true village community.

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