Why take the barriers down?

For 9 consecutive years I gave up 8 full days at Christmas to volunteer at a shelter for homeless people. ‘Gave up’ is a commonly used term for such apparent altruistic behaviours but the truth is, as for most people, my behaviours were reinforced by the rewards I reaped from being part of an project that seemed to really make a difference to a group I genuinely cared about.

I chose the same shifts each year. 3pm until 11pm. The action shift. The drinking shift. The dinner shift. The awake shift. The quarrelling shift. The A&E shift, at times. After a couple of years, I progressed to take on more responsibilities during the week. A ‘Key’ volunteer, with a radio, who was called to either help with a difficult situation directly, or divert likely causes that might escalate, and help ensure that volunteers and other ‘guests’ were kept safe.

There were other strategies for this. Metal ‘event’ barriers could be seen distributed throughout the shelter and volunteers were posted in groups on various exists and entrances areas, as security. Guests were searched upon arrival and items considered potentially dangerous were confiscated. However, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to follow the lead of someone who wanted to change things.

His view was that the barriers, security and searching contributed to the number of incidents. He suggested it enabled the people who used the shelters to abdicate a level of responsibility for their own behaviours. He spoke of the creation of a ‘them and us’ attitude where we were all in fact, on the same side, wanting solutions to the problems these vulnerable people faced. His views were not popular, at the start.

Over the following 7 years that I volunteered he would direct, upon the start of the shift, the barriers being taken down. He insisted guests were served their dinner at a table by the volunteers, respectfully, and not made to queue or bow their heads at a servery to have their basic needs met. He changed the radios from the handheld ‘security look’ to discrete ear-pieces. However, at each new shift we would find the barriers had been put back up by the previous shifts and guests had been queuing for their other meals.

The leap of faith I had taken in his leadership paid off. Over those years, the number of incidences did indeed drop significantly, the ‘them and us’ feel to the shelter became less apparent and the trusting relationships that developed enabled more vulnerable people to access services they may have been unwilling to before. The other shifts, full of equally caring and committed volunteers, changed their practice to copy ours. The guests were no longer searched on arrival. These changes had no cost to implement but significant tangible benefits for not just the guests but the volunteers as well.

I stopped volunteering when I became pregnant with my first child, who was later diagnosed with classic autism at 2yrs 3 months. It was then my turn to experience what it was like to be kept behind a barrier for the protection of those there to help. It was when I learned that I needed to bow to a servery to have my and my child’s basic needs met. It was when I learned that people had overt communication systems they would use to attempt to keep the peace at the expense of our relationship. It was when I learned I must now always wait in line as the things that are most important to me are controlled by someone else.

As is the case for many parents of a child with SEND, I have sadly had plenty of cause to be disruptive and challenging. These barriers I describe are effective for the mostly very good people who control the system, as they were in the example I gave of the shelter, but what if they could be removed? What if we gave parents more responsibility for their behaviours by taking them down? What if relationships were more important than policy? What if access was given to the currently guarded entrances? What then? Who could possibly benefit?

As a parent of a child with SEND I and other SEND parents have about as much power to implement such a suggestion as one of our vulnerable homeless people would have had. If we are to see change such as this is HAS to come from teachers and those who work in Education. Who is willing to take it on?





10 thoughts on “Why take the barriers down?

  1. Great point. Good practice extends from the top down, by example. Sometimes, as in our case, you find people on the lower levels who are prepared to help where they can, but their hands may be tied. As parents, with whole responsibility for our children, we can feel like we are at the top on one side, but there is a solid barrier on the other. We don’t want sides, we want collaborative working in the best interests of the child.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. I think communication is the biggest barrier, and also the biggest control for LAs etc. Parents are becoming more and more knowledgable and armed with evidence to challenge the awful SEND system, but without a means of open communication, parents will always be kept just outside that ever weakening, in my view, barrier, which is where they want us. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying the system is becoming easier to navigate or that accountability has improved, but more parents know they and their children are being shit on from a big height, which hasn’t always been the case).
    I r cent ly changed GP practice, and I saw a poster on the wall advertising a way of patients being able to access their own medical records. I’m going to sign up.

    What if, LAs and schools allowed open access to parents to the system they use for recording where things are up to in the assessment/ EHCP writing process?? (No, I’m not saying we should allow all information to be seen by all parents eg some safeguarding issues). Imagine, parents being able to log on and see when their child’s assessment or annual review had last been looked at? Who was delaying the process by not submitting their report in time? You get the gist. LAs would never agree to this, because by giving info on a ‘need to know’ basis they hold the power. Sorry, that went on for longer than I meant to but your post was very thought provoking, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This reminds me of a school I worked at that had massive internal truancy issues. SLT ‘solved’ the problem by installing fob-controlled magnetic-locking doors everywhere.
    Of course, it didn’t solve the problem. The kids figured out they could force them open, and the challenging behaviour that came with the truancy only got more problematic.
    If you treat people like prisoners, they will behave like prisoners, and treat you like a prison guard.
    It was obvious to me from the start. A complete waste of money better spent on training and retaining teachers. Relationships matter. Relationships built over time matter even more.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So true–sadly, despite the much talked about ‘culture change’ which was supposed to happen as soon as CFA 2014 was enacted, the them and us culture remains exactly the same in children’s disability service provision. I don’t know how many times I raised this. Too many to count, probably. But because I was a parent, nobody wanted to know. Repeating the phrase ‘culture change’ over and over doesn’t make change happen. Examining the culture you have, how it got there and whose interests it serves, might have started something.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very thought-provoking. I agree. Yet sometimes I have found that some people working in the special needs field are very set in their ways about how things have to be, which is sad, as they are in the best position to be implementing change.

    Liked by 1 person

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