Lesson 14 An Early Lesson in Inclusiveness
When I went to work at the convent I was astonished, that for an ex-grammar school, the pupil population seemed remarkably diverse. Although we were only just a comprehensive, this change of status did not appear to have had a huge effect.
On meeting my pupils I found that three of them came from a nearby School for Delicate Children. Such establishments were a hangover from the grim past when children who suffered from a range of medical conditions were deemed unfit for mainstream schooling and therefore became the responsibility of the Health Service. The amount and quality of education they received was therefore variable .
Please don’t imagine that freedom from central government regulation in the past resulted in a universal educational paradise of innovation and good practice. A lot of places were mindblowingly crap.
In some schools, however, a well-led staff did take the opportunity to tailor provision to the pupils’ needs. For instance, when I enquired from other staff at the convent how my “delicate” pupils had come to us, it was explained to me that Sister Agnes had her own admissions policy, sanctioned by the school governors, which she operated without any reference to the council’s Education Department.
Basically, if a Catholic family wanted a Catholic education for a child labelled with some kind of disability, then we would pull all the stops out to take them. This was clearly our duty and stuff the local authority, end of story.
One such pupil was a girl with severe epilepsy, who was in her examination year by the time I arrived. I was told that her condition had caused many concerns among the staff when she first joined.
“But how will we cope, Sister? And won’t it upset the other pupils?”
“Her parents and brothers have coped for 11 years!” replied Sister Agnes. “We will take their advice and follow their example!”
And that is exactly what happened, Amanda’s classmates and her teachers learnt how to deal with her seizures and took them in their stride. She sat her GCEs and A levels in a quiet room next to the school office, with individual supervision.
My “delicate “children had entered the school under the same principle. If I was in any doubt about their needs, I simply spoke to their mothers.
Nor was this the only example of Sister’s iron rule.
At that time if a girl became pregnant she was hidden away and banished from school. Not at the convent! The few girls who ended up in this situation were encouraged to attend classes until the last possible moment and to continue their studies after the birth. The baby was brought into Domestic Science for demonstration lessons in childcare.
Sister Agnes herself communicated with the parents to ensure that whatever counsel or practical support the family needed would be forthcoming.
Everybody was frightened of Sister Agnes. She was a fierce and authoritarian head who brooked no opposition.
But when it came to inclusiveness, before such a thing was even thought of, what an unlikely force for the Good!