A right to education whatever your needs.

Cerys Owen explains why additional learning needs units are vital for her family.

If you had asked me even 12 months ago what ALN meant, I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. If you had explained it was Additional Learning Needs I would have then taken an interest.

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be examining the upcoming reforms to the provision of additional learning needs in Wales. This year the Welsh Government published a white paper and opened a consultation on Welsh provision, suggesting a rebranding of special educational needs to additional learning needs and other reforms.

On Click on Wales this week, a series of experts, service users and charitable organisations respond.

Monday: Nathan Davies of Sinclairslaw says Wales is getting a raw deal

Yesterday: Denise Inger of SNAP Cymru argues that legislation is just the beginning of reform of additional learning needs provision

Today: Cerys Owen, a campaigner from Powys, explains why additional learning needs units are vital for her family

Thursday: Mike O’Neill, an additional learning needs teacher, shows why reforms will impact positively on his work

Friday: Professor Ruth Northway asks whether these reforms amount to more than a name change.

I am Cerys Owens, and my husband and I, Rob, have 2 boys Evan, 7, and Alun,  4. Evan is the reason I would have taken an interest in Additional Learning Needs as he has developmental delays:  as yet undiagnosed but we suspect he lies on the autistic spectrum.

I welcome any moves that will increase a right to equitable and fair provision of education to all regardless of skill and ability. I strongly believe every step should be taken so that all parties, including parents and where possible the child, are involved in any decisions and should work together in the best interests of an individual child. There needs to be very strong and clear guidelines accompanying the proposed law for Additional Learning Needs which sets out how communication should work.

There should also be enhanced provision put in place for those parents that either don’t have English as their first language or who have additional needs such as dyslexia themselves. Not everybody knows their rights or how to express their needs. Indeed it even goes against some people’s norms and cultures to be able to express themselves in these situations. If we could empower more people now we can empower a future generation.

I know first-hand however that whilst a law can achieve many things, it isn’t the whole answer. This debate needs to be about what a law can help achieve and what provision is needed to meet the needs of pupils with additional learning needs.

On Feb 3rd this year Powys County Council announced plans to close down all the Additional Learning Needs units across Powys, including the one my son attends.  This would have placed all children into mainstream class regardless of ability. Horrified, I turned to Facebook to vent my anger and there I found a group called HOOSUP: Hands Off Our Specialist Units Powys.  Through this group I met some amazing kindred spirits, parents in the same situation who have had to fight all the way for their child. Our motto is “education is a right, not a fight!” That stayed with us our whole campaign and is really what this debate is all about for me.

You may ask why we were so horrified? Would you tell a person who needed a wheelchair they couldn’t use it anymore because someone else’s didn’t work or Mr X didn’t have one? Each and every child has a right to an equal education, a right to go to school and to be able to achieve their potential. The proposals to close specialist learning units would have stripped this away.

Welsh language provision for pupils with Additional Learning Needs is another huge issue, and one I hope a new law can address. There is only one school with a Welsh unit across Powys, and no outside bodies including educational psychologists offer their services in Welsh in the area. There are no learning resources in Welsh available which means teachers have to spend time translating which they could spend in the classroom. Every child has a right to an education in Welsh regardless of their abilities.

During our campaign we were invited to meet decision makers and a delegate from each of the schools affected cae. Despite most of the delegates never having met and only talking through Facebook the meeting was amazing. Parents had a common agenda, we had always had to fight for our children’s right to an education in the setting right for them.  Each parent told their story,  some were heart-breaking. These were no longer units with “learners”; these were our children. I took Evan’s school photo in held it up whilst giving his story with the words “This is Evan. He is not a number. He is not a learner. He is my Son!”

No parent or indeed teacher chooses to put a child in an additional learning needs unit . Their needs,  emotional as well as educational, state they need to be there. A lot of parents said “It doesn’t affect me, my child is in mainstream class.”.  This is clearly wrong,  each child’s education was under threat if the Additional Learning Units were closed. How could teachers be expected to teach a class where they may have several autistic children in one class , and children at different stages in their education despite being the same age.

By the consultation deadline we achieved an unprecedented level of responses, 719 formal replies plus an additional 135 pupils voices.  On June 16th Powys County Council demonstrated they had listened, their final recommendation in their report was “we do not recommend the closure of any of the units”. This was then agreed unanimously by the council.

We’ve won this fight for now, but we know that a lot could change with the proposed law for Additional Learning Needs. Where and how our children are educated needs to be part of the debate and conversation, to make sure that all children are able to realise their right to education whatever their needs.

Cerys Owen lives in Powys with her husband and two children. She is a campaigner with HOOSUP: Hands Off Our Specialist Units Powys.

2 thoughts on “A right to education whatever your needs.

  1. My grandson Ioan is 5 years old, can’t talk properly, is uncoordinated in his movements, can’t bear noise or change.
    The thought of him going into mainstream school frightened me to death. It would have been like putting a budgie in a room full of cats.
    I am so happy and relieved the closure was overturned and Ioan now has the chance to develop and gain confidence and some independence to enable any kind of a relatively normal existence.

  2. These units play a vital part in our mainstream schools, a specialist unit is often the only thing standing between children attendting a local mainstream school or being bused up to an hour away to attend a special school. I too campaigned with HOOSUP.
    My son is on the autistic spectrum and has always attended mainstream school, my son was not entitled to any additional help due to his IQ – this is quite the norm for some autistic children, school funding politics mean that as they score well on tests it is deemed they do not require additional help. My son was 7 when he was placed in the new ASD unit in our area, he had very little writing ability and scored just below average on national tests.
    I have watched him flourish in the last 2 years, he now does written work every day and is achieving above average for his age group.
    After watching him fall further and further behind his peers for some years I now have new found hope that my child will be able to reach his full potential, he was a little lost lamb and now has been found and it is all through the help and support he has had from the unit.
    He now spends around 80% of his time unassisted in his mainstream class, but has the unit as a fall back on bad days, I cannot thank them enough for what they have done for my boy, I now have a happy child instead of a frustrated angry one and two years ago I could only dream we would be at this point.
    Good job Cerys!
    United we stand strong!
    Education is a right not a fight!

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