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25th July 2015

Last days of school

Last days of school

By the age of 18, most young people are nearing the end of their tolerance for formal education. For those with additional needs, is age a reason to remove them from meaningful daytime activity? What replaces school for young people with learning disability ?

Dale is wandering around the school, going in and out of classrooms, opening and closing doors, pushing papers off the reception desk and moving people’s coats and bags from their hooks. He is tailed everywhere by a teaching assistant whose purpose is to protect Dale from coming to harm and, apparently, to pick up the items strewn in his wake.

It’s July and almost the end of term; for 19 year old Dale it’s also the end of his compulsory education.  In just one week, he will be leaving his residential school and heading into a new supported living placement. This placement will not involve an element of college or formal learning, nor does it offer him any meaningful employment opportunity. Instead, Dale will ‘access a range of daytime choices’. Those who know him and appreciate his lack of interest in classroom activity also know that Dale will struggle with making those choices himself, and that in a few months, Dale will most likely be trailing a care worker round in exactly the way he is today.

Freedom to opt out

You see, Dale has always had trouble staying engaged with activities. The difference now is that, as a young adult, the teachers have concluded that to keep him in the classroom by persuasion and guile is depriving him of his liberty. So, although he is actually physically in school, he is not part of the school in any meaningful sense. Nor is he happy or fulfilled.

What changed for Dale on his birthday did not have the same effect on Laura who was 19 three weeks ago. She too is in her last days of school, after years of compliant attendance. Laura is profoundly disabled, confined to a wheelchair, non-verbal and with fragile health. Her care team reports that for many months now, she has been very grumpy in the morning on weekdays, often reluctant to be dressed and washed and falling into a deep sleep during lessons. Those who know her well attribute this to her falling out of love with school, since at her age she has no interest in childish things.

For both of these young people, assumptions are being made about their wishes to be educated or engaged, based solely on their chronological age. For Laura, although her carers are convinced she has grown out of school, she still gets wheeled into the classroom every day because her resistance is passive.  Last year, similar passive resistance was attributed to her not liking her teacher, so work was done to explore how the relationship could be improved.

Dale is exactly as fidgety as he has always been, but the difference now is that keeping him occupied in class is not a legal requirement for a 19 year old man. He is then free to meander about in school.

What’s really going on here?

I guess I feel that in both cases, our approach to choice making is very tokenistic. We are using external factors to influence our thinking, rather than looking at the individual needs of young people. The danger for both Laura and Dale is that in three weeks time they will enter a world where education, and indeed all daytime occupation, ceases to be mandatory. There will be no choice for them of whether to participate or withdraw. There is a grave danger that they will be perceived to be withdrawing.

School is not an appropriate means of filling the day for adults with learning disability but there does need to be something else with structure and meaning to replace it. For non-disabled teenagers, merely doing nothing after education is not seen as a matter of personal choice, but frowned upon. Young people with learning disability should be no different.

Ginny Tyler – QCS Expert Learning Disabilities Contributor

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