Educating Eilidh: Which school for my disabled daughter?

Sonia McGrath and her daughter Eilidh

Sonia McGrath is researching secondary schools for her disabled daughter Eilidh. But as the Fife mum explains, it's not the academic standards she's most interested in.

I wonder what the local schools make of me. They might think they've got accessibility for disabled pupils sorted, but I have given myself two years to visit them and work with them to make sure my child is well integrated. I did the same before she attended primary school and it worked out well for her.

Eilidh, my daughter, is 10 years old. She has cerebral palsy and needs support to sit, stand and walk, as well as personal care. She is a wheelchair user and has technology to help her communicate. She's a bright wee girl with a wicked sense of humour and an excellent imagination.

She uses an electronic speech synthesiser device to speak in class, but can only use it in the playground if it's not raining. On those days when she doesn't have the device, Eilidh and her friends have developed ways to communicate which involve a combination of signs, facial expressions, pointing, lists and breaking discussions down so she only needs to indicate yes or no.

Socially her current school is great, I'm keen to continue that in her new school.

The barriers in the way of friendships for a child with disabilities are different and are not necessarily obvious until you get in and have a look around. I've been examining every step, every corridor moment and every queue in many secondary schools to make sure she's able to be a part of it all alongside everyone else.

You might be surprised at what I found.

At one school, for example, every subject is accessible but a wheelchair user would have to leave the class five minutes early to make it to the next lesson. But because you need to go a roundabout route, leaving the building and re-entering a far door that doesn't have steps, you will be five minutes late for the next lesson too. She won't share the journey with fellow pupils.

In another school, if you arrive by taxi as Eilidh will, you have to go in a different entrance to the majority of kids (who come by bus) for no obvious reason.

We also saw a school where children with special needs did not attend registration with their class but registered attendance at the pupil support unit instead.

In these three examples, key opportunities for social interactions are taken away. None of them are big issues but they do take a bit of time to identify and find solutions or get practice changed.

I am keen to give her a mainstream education as it'll be "mainstream" people she'll be mixing with in the big bad world when she's older.

Moving to secondary school is a big step for any child, partly because it's usually much bigger. The local one has 1400 pupils, for instance - much higher than the 100 at her current village primary school who all know her so well.

Our local secondary has poor accessibility so I already know she'll be going to one which is further away. As a result, her present school won't be one of its feeder schools and so it's unlikely she'll know anyone there.

As communication is difficult for her and stigma can be disabling, I believe it's important that my daughter has prior social contact with her new peer group so she can hit the ground running at her new school. She needs assistance and the other pupils need support to see past her disability and get to know her.

The school, the education psychology service, Eilidh and me, all have ideas on how we can do this. Mentors, buddies and a day a week at a feeder primary in the two years leading to her arrival, are some of the thoughts we've had so far.

It will take time to set up, and see positive results. So my advice is start the process of visiting secondary school as early as possible and have lots of questions. Be prepared for answers you may not want - or never expected - to hear.

I'm not worried about the actual education. Eilidh will do well and the teachers will get there with support and time. That's a tangible process unlike the randomness of relationships and happiness.

We are gravitating to a school which doesn't have all the answers but is offering the dialogue. I don't expect that we have encountered every barrier by this stage and I don't believe that I have all the answers.

By starting early, however, you have the time to keep revisiting the school and each step of the school day to try your hardest to create as much inclusivity as you can for your child.

Read Sonia's blog, All Born In

You can follow Ouch on Twitter and on Facebook