When schools let you down…

Living with teenagers is like trying to land a plane when you have never had a flying lesson. You have no idea how to control the thing, but you hope that if you want it to happen badly enough, it might just land in one piece. What we all want for our children is that they will grow up to be confident, happy, independent adults – hopefully with qualifications and skills. Enabling this to happen requires a phenomenal amount of patience and compassion. 

Living with a teenager with mental health problems and special needs adds another dimension altogether – like the plane’s engine has a leak and you’re flying above the jungle at night in fog. There are some occasional intense moments of clarity and connection and then you are back in the debilitating fog. I continue to try my ‘hands off’ approach to sleep, allowing my 15 year (not in school) to get himself out of bed with just one wake up call every morning rather than ten increasingly angry ones. Some days he works hard with a tutor or with me, some days are not so good and he rarely sees daylight. But my over-riding feeling is one of disbelief that this is happening at all. 

Last month ITV and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported there was a crisis in provision of education for children with special needs. That children were ‘locked out of learning’, parents felt ‘completely let down’ and ‘gaslighted by the system’ with councils facing a black hole in budgets. This is not news to anyone who works in education or lives with a child with special needs. There is clearly a problem of funding and total indifference on the part of the government, but there is a wider issue that the system of education we have is outdated, totally uninclusive and unfit for the age we live in.

Our children are growing up in a highly complex world where are there are very few certainties. People are far more likely in this generation to have multiple jobs and careers than our parents who often had a job for life. In an age of uncertainty – creativity, confidence and self awareness are important skills to foster in children. Yet our secondary schools seem to be going back to Victorian era style factory production of students who can learn vast amounts of information by heart without any passion or understanding of their context in the wider world. There is no time to develop creativity because of the pressures of getting through the curriculum and even less time for teachers to get to know and build confidence in children who are struggling. 

For a neuro-diverse child, or as we still like to call them ‘special needs children’, this world of large classrooms, intensive learning and schools of a thousand or more children is utterly overwhelming. It is no surprise then, that when funding is cut for learning mentors for children with a SEN diagnosis, they are no longer able to concentrate or engage in the classroom, and teachers in turn struggle to cope with classroom behaviour. My son was one of the many neuro-diverse kids that went under the radar for years, a genius in ‘masking’ or pretending to be normal, with no special support and decent grades at school, he made it to year 10 and then, overwhelmed with low self-esteem, gender dysphoria and isolated from friends, just stopped attending altogether.

There is currently a tidal wave in diagnoses of children with special needs – autism, adhd, dyslexia, pathological demand avoidance and more. And thousands who are on waiting lists of months or years to be diagnosed. Without the anxiety of lockdown and the freeze on social-emotional development during the covid pandemic, many of these children, my son included, would have continued to struggle on at school and many mental health crises may have been avoided. But the pressure cooker learning environment of secondary schools and the wolf pack mentality of large groups of teenagers in these massive schools just compounds the problem. This needs to be addressed. We need systemic change throughout the school system to create an inclusive environment that nurtures all children.

The ITV news report found that councils with no other options were sending children hundreds of miles every day to special schools, creating an even greater black hole in council budgets. We are creating a two tier system where neuro-diverse children, whose brains are wired slightly differently from the average, but who can be highly intelligent, creative and even gifted, are being denied an education because they cannot cope in the current system. So many of the children my son grew up with are missing days of school every week or are out of it altogether, are self-harming and see no prospect of getting GCSEs or going to college. Many of these children I knew at primary schools as bright, confident and sociable. So many children have lost their way in a system that just doesn’t cater for diversity. 

Imagine a world where schools celebrate neuro-diversity, which encourages children to pursue their individual skills and teaches compassion and understanding so that children that don’t fit the norm are able to thrive and make friends. Isn’t this a world that we encourage among adults?  As I fly that plane low through the jungle in the fog, I hope that there is somewhere to land eventually that is welcoming and inclusive and that we won’t crash before we reach it. 

Emma Charvet is a mother to two teenagers, co-founder of Children’s Yoga Tree and passionate about supporting children’s mental health. She has a weekly online Wellbeing Class for Tweens and Teens.

You can contact her at emma@emmayoga.com