I just want to go to Penryn School and be a part of the sighted world!" Our 14-year-old daughter's sudden, desperate request threw us into upheaval. Zoe is totally blind and when she was five we had made the difficult decision that she would be educated at boarding school, first of all on a weekly basis and then, at 11, full time. It was very hard being away from her but we felt confident that specialist education would enable her to integrate into the "sighted" world, as she put it, from the age of about 18.
Now Zoe was challenging our plans by asking us to let her come home and go to her brothers' local comprehensive school.
Penryn Community School, near our home in Falmouth, Cornwall, is a sprawling, friendly place with 700 pupils aged from 11 to 16, offering very different facilities from Zoe's boarding school, where around 120 visually impaired pupils studied in classes of no more than 10. The school had never educated a totally blind child so Zoe would be finding out by experimentation whether she could cope. There was another problem: at boarding school she was a Year 8 student and at Penryn, if she were to study with her peer group as she wanted to, she would move into Year l0, losing a year's education.
But she was not to be deterred. After a lot of heart searching my husband and I agreed she should make the move.
First we asked Ian Jones, then headteacher of Penryn Community School, how he felt about integrating a totally blind pupil. He thought it would be a great challenge: "I felt pleased Zoe wanted to become a pupil at the school, partly because I saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate that with everyone working together, using a mutual support system, there is no problem that cannot be overcome. I have to admit that after a few weeks I wondered what we had taken on, as it involved an enormous amount of organisation behind the scenes, but I continued to transmit my confidence to my colleagues. In the end Zoe carried us all along, anyway."
An ancillary helper was enlisted, Braille textbooks and worksheets were prepared and Zoe had a lap top computer with speech synthesiser at school, and another, plus a printer, at home. The technical problems were overcome, but the biggest hurdle revolved around the need for staff and pupils to allow Zoe to be herself rather than what they perceived a blind person to be.
Almost everyone assumed she needed much more help than she did and, naturally, her ancillary helper went everywhere with her. This caused frustration for Zoe because she found that people tended to talk to her through her ancillary. She also felt she would find her way around the campus sooner if she could walk around on her own, so we met the head and agreed that it was likely to hinder Zoe's progress if she could not at least be given a chance to try it.
Zoe chose not to use her white stick around the school and I had to admire the way teachers stood back and resisted the temptation to tell her where stairs and doors were. They let her walk freely without intervening even when she crossed the busy car park at the end of the day. It was hard to believe that she was blind as she whizzed around the school and she was exultant at being given responsibility for her freedom. She said: "I knew I would be OK - I just had to prove to everyone else that it would work."
Ian Jones told me later that the initial reaction of a number of teachers had been that the integration of a blind student at the beginning of a GCSE course could not be done. However, he had told them that it could and that it would, and was prepared to accept responsibility if it went wrong. One teacher admitted to me: "I had no idea how I would cope without specialist training, but now I would welcome another young person like her into my class at any time: she added a great deal to the learning experience of those who shared the group with her."
Two years on, Zoe has passed all her GCSE examinations. Would she choose integration again if she could turn the clock back? Yes, although she admits that it has been far harder than she thought it would be, and that comprehensive school was very different from her expectations. She had prepared herself to be made fun of and was thrown by people's "softly, softly" approach.
It was not only the head's and her own determination which made integration a success for Zoe: County Hall ironed out some deep creases along the way, and her ancillary was a great support. The quality of education she had received at boarding school and the excellent facilities they were able to provide gave her an independence which enabled her to stand up for herself.
Zoe says: "I don't think integration would be right for every blind student. It depends on how badly you want it and how far you are prepared to go to make it work. I learned very quickly that I had to fight for my independence, to show everyone exactly what I wanted rather than allow them to make assumptions about what they believed a blind person needed. Someone else would probably have very different needs from me. You need to look at the person first and the handicap second."
We have learned as parents that sometimes young people know what's best for them, even over the big issues. It would take a long time to describe all the problems which were faced and overcome, but it's certainly been worth it. We've gained what we originally hoped for, a blind daughter fitting happily and competently into the sighted world.
Zoe is now at Truro sixth form college. This time she has chosen to have no ancilliary help at all and is amused that, so far, no one has even mentioned the fact that she is blind!