As Scottish schools begin breaking up for the summer holidays, many pupils and teachers will be rubbing their hands with glee, picturing the weeks of glorious freedom that stretch before them. But for families who have children with additional support needs (ASN), the long summer holiday can be one of the most difficult times of the year, and the source of stress and anguish.
Families struggling to hold it together can fall apart when schools close and the support systems that they rely on fall away, say headteachers. In the most extreme cases, the strain can exacerbate mental health issues and lead to domestic abuse or substance misuse.
According to one headteacher, the summer break puts the families of children with ASN in jeopardy; another calls for special schools to be open 52 weeks of the year and says she would gladly sacrifice her six weeks off.
Children – particularly those on the autistic spectrum – suffer when the routines that help them make sense of the world and bring comfort suddenly change, says Carole Bowie, headteacher of Campsie View School in East Dunbartonshire. She estimates that it takes roughly a month after the summer for the equilibrium to be restored in school.
Some councils have schemes in place to help combat the problem. In East Renfrewshire, the school year is extended by two weeks for pupils with ASN in the authority’s Isobel Mair School. And in East Dunbartonshire, the council gives Ms Bowie the funding to deliver a two-week summer school.
But not all families benefit from this kind of extended provision. In Glasgow there is a summer club in the city for children with ASN, but parents are obliged to attend.
This does not give families the respite that headteachers say is critical and working parents cannot make use of the provision (see box, page 18). Mainstream holiday clubs are an option but parents question if, given their children’s very particular needs, they would be safe.
The main benefit of the extended school year in East Renfrewshire is the continuation of routine for a few extra weeks into the summer, says Sarah Clark, headteacher of the Isobel Mair School – everything from hanging up coats in the morning to keeping physiotherapy sessions going.
Ms Clark says: “It also gives [pupils] the opportunity to do fun things together with people who they trust and staff they are used to being with. It’s a time when we are not heavy on timetable and targets, and official teaching time stops.”
She also highlights the benefit of the extended school year to families. They do not have to search for six weeks’ worth of things to do but, most significantly perhaps, the extra time gives parents and carers alike some much-needed breathing space.
Ms Clark adds: “For some families, it gives them that support they need to have a bit of respite and they get a bit of time to spend with their other children when they can do things that might not be possible if the other young person [with ASN] is at home.”
The senior management team at the Isobel Mair School remain in school for the fortnight, and some teaching staff opt to join them for the extra two weeks – five teachers are doing so this year.
Staff from the inclusive support service then help to make up the numbers and go on to deliver the holiday club that runs for the rest of the summer break.
Ms Clark says that she does not begrudge her shorter summer holiday. The extended school year is part of the deal when you take on the job, she says, and staff are able to get the time back.
Deborah Davidson, headteacher of a special school in Fife, would gladly sacrifice a longer summer holiday if she could better support families, she says.
Open year round
Fife Council runs a holiday club for pupils with ASN over the holiday at Ms Davidson’s school, Calaiswood, in Dunfermline. However, she believes that special schools should go one step further and be open year round.
She says: “We shouldn’t be closed over the summer holidays. For our most vulnerable families, the provision should be 52 weeks a year like we have in early learning centres for younger children.
“To tell our families to cope for six weeks over the summer without the routine of going to school and getting our support is really difficult. The pressure on families is huge.
“There is little provision outside of school that our children are able to access – these are the pupils with the most complex and profound needs. They can’t go out to play or to the local sports centre or take part in clubs alone. Our children require 24-hour adult care and sometimes there is no respite.
“You see families quite stressed before the holidays. Much as they love to spend time with their children, it’s a really difficult time.”
Children at Campsie View, in East Dunbartonshire, have a wide range of needs, says Ms Bowie, which make school holidays very complex for parents or non-specialist carers.
Some have eating and drinking plans; some have tracheotomies to help them breathe; behaviour can be challenging; there are physiotherapy needs to consider; and differences in the way the children communicate – for instance, some use Makaton sign language. There are 91 pupils in the school and they have just one thing in common: very early developmental levels.
Ms Bowie says: “How could you expect someone in a mainstream club to understand all their needs? Pupils run away – there are tons of things to consider – in some ways the logical thing is for us to do it.”
And that’s what Campsie View has been doing since Ms Bowie can remember. This year, the school will run a playscheme over the summer holidays for 15 days, with every family at the school entitled to attend for nine days. The school receives £35,000 from its local council so that it can hire more than 30 sessional employees – usually students – to staff the holiday provision. They are joined at the special school by some of the child development workers who support pupils during term time and the school’s senior management team, who are there to make sure everything goes to plan.
Ms Bowie says: “The needs of our children are so particular and, I suppose, significant, I would be worried that if anybody else delivered the playscheme, come August, we would end up picking up the pieces.”
Like children in mainstream schools, children with ASN forget things they have learned over the summer holidays. However, the main issues they face are being away from their routines and their peer group, says Ms Bowie.
“A routine is particularly important for those children on the autistic spectrum and while they don’t need to be routine bound, they need routines to support and comfort them,” she continues. “Our world is difficult for them to understand and the removal of some of these supports is probably pretty drastic.”
This can place families in “jeopardy”, she says: “Our families face the same kind of pressures that all families face over the long summer break, but these pressures are amplified by the needs of the children.
“If you have got a family that is walking the fine line between coping and not coping and suddenly all the things that support them to cope are removed, issues like alcohol or substance misuse, domestic abuse, or mental health problems can arise.”
Ms Bowie is set to retire this year but, rather than leave Campsie View in June at the end of the academic year – the natural end point for many retiring teachers – she will go in September, instead. She wants to make sure the ship is steady following the disruption of the summer break.
‘Life gets harder when school is closed over the summer’
Kate’s son Callum likes to walk around clapping his hands; he’s a water baby who loves music and food, and his face is frequently lit up with a smile. But Callum can’t feed himself or go to the toilet on his own, and problems with his stomach can cause mood swings.
Callum, who is six years old, has a rare form of epilepsy called West syndrome, which has led to developmental delays. His Glasgow school has been wonderful for him – his mum, Kate, has nothing but praise for the staff who, she says, have enhanced his development far beyond her expectations.
However, come the end of June, when Callum reaches the end of P1, all that support, which includes occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and physiotherapy, falls away when the school shuts for summer.
Kate says: “The reality is school is my first port of call for support and life gets harder when it’s not there.
“Callum is 6, but he still frequently gets up at 4am and you are knackered. You can’t bribe him with a sweetie to go round the supermarket or get him to behave with the promise of a sticker on a chart.
“School is a safe and stimulating environment, and gives parents the chance to work, to have time to themselves and to do the practical stuff.”
A charity will be running a holiday club in Glasgow over the summer, delivering activities for ASN children, but parents have to attend. As a working mother, Kate has never used the provision and while some mainstream holiday clubs might be an option, she questions whether Callum would be safe, given that he also suffers from severe allergies.
“Sometimes his skin is red and itchy from his eczema but he could also be having a reaction because he has been exposed to nuts. You need someone who can tell the difference when a child is not capable of telling them ‘I’m struggling to breathe’.”
This year, to ensure Callum is cared for over the summer, Kate will take four weeks off work and enlist the help of her parents, who live on Islay. But it is not a sustainable solution.
“My parents are getting older and he is getting bigger and stronger,” she says.