By Lucy Owen and Ali Mitchell, SNAPS Yorkshire
When the email invitation popped up, we had to re-read it twice. Are they asking us, a local Leeds charity, to go to Westminster to give evidence at an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on School Exclusion and Alternative Provision (AP)? Asking us to share our experiences with MPs and Lords? Yes, that’s definitely what they are asking, so how could the answer be anything other than a resounding YES!
What an opportunity to bring the lived experience of families who have a child with additional needs to the people who can make positive changes to the system. A system that we know isn’t working for so many children and young people.
But once we had fired off our eager reply, then came the doubt, what can we say to make them sit up and listen? We only have an hour and there will be other speakers, how can we fit it all in? Will they listen to us, a charity not set up to campaign or make change, but simply support families when they need us most?
The conclusion was clear to us. They needed to hear our families’ voices directly. They needed to hear the impact that a broken system was having on so many overwhelmed, vulnerable children.
We gathered the experiences we already had and spoke to more parents and carers to ensure our presentation was brimming with lived experiences. It was our job to make sure that our families were heard at the highest level.
The day itself came, we jumped on our train down to London, went through security into the Palaces of Westminster, walked through the impressively grand Westminster Hall and got shown to a small room where the APPG would take place. The MPs and a Lord arrived, and the live link was turned on. This was it. Our chance to make a difference.
Our speech went through examples of the extreme difficulties many neurodivergent children are facing in mainstream settings, why they may suffer emotional dysregulation leading to challenging behaviour and exclusions, some of the reasons why current mainstream provision and APs are not suitable settings for many of these children and how early, flexible, child focused support could prevent many of these issues.
We specifically asked for:
- parents to be believed about their children’s needs
- earlier diagnosis (meaning a reduction in waiting times for the assessment process)
- earlier and more flexible support within mainstream settings whether a diagnosis or EHCP is in place or not (which would only come from more in-depth training for ALL teaching staff)
- and more specialist provision made available that is suitable for neurodivergent children, for example specialist hubs that are attached to mainstream settings
- a keyworker system (from a neutral source) to support families through the whole process
- and extra resources for schools to enable them to provide a broader provision of support.
We delivered our speech, listened to our fellow panellist, answered questions and even pushed back on some views from the group that didn’t align with our families’ experiences. Despite being sat in this prestigious, historic building, with people who run our country, people with intimidating titles, we knew we were there as the experts. We know what is supposed to be happening in policies and strategies set out by the government doesn’t happen for all children and we felt empowered to communicate that to the people who needed this information to make positive change for the future.
Having felt the nerves before the meeting, it was incredible to be sat at this table, confidently sharing the hard realities of our families, and knowing that what we were saying was making an impact. The MPs were actively listening, asking insightful questions and we felt heard.
We had been informed that at the end of the meeting, the MPs would rush off to their many other meetings, but they didn’t. They stayed and told us how powerful it had been to hear direct quotes from parents and young people about a system that wasn’t working for them. They asked questions, wanting to hear more about the charity and our families. This was when we knew we had been understood, we knew they had listened to the reality of going through a school system that is not set up for children with additional needs.
We understand that change can be a slow process and that there isn’t an easy answer, especially in the current financial climate, but we hope that the voices of our parents and young people that we shared will have lodged in the minds of those who govern our country so that when they come to make changes to the system, they will consider how we as a country can help ALL our young people thrive in the education system and not just survive it.