With huge bare feet, pyjama bottoms and a hoodie, 16 year old Billy returned to college last night, or to be more precise, to the family with whom he lodges in the town where he attends college. He is happier than we’ve seen him for years, in fact since leaving primary school at the age of eleven. The five years he spent in, and sometimes out, of the private school we carefully chose for him because of its supposedly good pastoral care, small classes, and all-round non-selective education, were pretty miserable. He left before completing GCSEs with very little to show for a lot of effort (on our part and that of some of the staff), as well as considerable financial sacrifice. Whether he would have survived our local state secondary school we will never know, but given the complex nature of his problems it seems unlikely. His attendance at college is still patchy but he now has a good circle of support, which includes the college learning-support team, a one-to-one helper in Media Studies, a personal tutor, a post-adoption worker, and someone from the Virtual School with a brief to help adopted children, as well as his parents, and the host ‘mother’ who keeps an eye on him during the week. Billy also had a CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health service) counsellor as well, but they seem to have signed him off after their last meeting, despite my fears that Billy is approaching adulthood with unresolved issues, trauma and high levels of aggression, but on the positive side he is still in college with only one week of term left, and there have been many occasions when that possibility seemed a distant dream.
As Billy is undoubtedly bright and articulate, a million miles from being considered suitable for a Statement of Special Educational Needs, or its successor, his difficulties have largely gone unrecognised and unaddressed. Most adoptive parents will however recognise a familiar package of low self-esteem, poor processing and problem-solving skills, weak working memory, what’s called ‘executive functioning’ difficulties – which amounts to not coping well with everyday life, sensory integration problems, hyper-vigilance, and so on. Add to this, frequent stress-related migraines that migrated from his stomach to the classic visual migraine, and what looks like a pretty addictive personality and it is not surprising that formal education is a struggle. The current ‘pull-your-socks-up’, ‘just try-harder’ league-table, exam-based approach to education is a disaster for children like Billy. He won’t do well in exams, if he does them at all, and most schools and colleges are very quick to get rid of children like him who eat up resources with little to show for it, have patchy attendance and threaten their place in the league tables. Teachers can feel frustrated and de-skilled when their tried and tested methods don’t seem to work. From our perspective growing up and still leading a life not unlike that of his peers is success. We have been lucky to find some excellent teachers committed to Billy and their work, but they are fighting the systems they are in, whether in his private (public) or current state school.