The Queen’s Award for Volunteering.

Last Tuesday I had a wander down to Chelmsford where @IPSEAcharity were picking up the Queen’s Award for Volunteering. It was a small gathering of staff, volunteers and a couple of teenage girls who reminded us of why we were there!

It was a major honour to receive the award from the Queen’s representative, Lord Lieutenant of Essex, John Petre. I have to admit though, full dress uniform complete with sword and spurs was a bit of a shock! Maybe it is one area in which a touch of modernisation wouldn’t go amiss.

IPSEA has very few members of staff, it is a charity which runs on its volunteers, grants and donations. We do need some staff to keep us all in order though! Oh, and to continuously look for new ways of funding the services. IPSEA is very much independent.

I’m hoping for contact from the local paper to run a small piece about the award and what IPSEA do – not that I’m one for having my face in the papers, but parents (and professionals) need to know their rights and responsibilities as written in Law, not in the urban myths that sneak about or some strangely written and misleading local policy.

IPSEA could be likened to an army of volunteers, fully armed with legal knowledge, let loose on the country. Not so much waging war, more like quashing indigestion!

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Volunteers are well trained, initially by working through e-modules to gain underpinning knowledge and to check for understanding, then via face-to-face training for two days. New volunteers are also mentored and usually broken in gently! Well that’s what I’m told anyway, my entry into volunteering was more like a runaway train threatening to derail or crash in to the buffers at any minute!!!

To explain, I had kept looking at the ‘click here to volunteer’ button on the website for ages, maybe six months or more. I had no idea what to expect, or what would be expected of me – and could I do it? Would I cope with the work both practically and cognitively? Could I commit? One day I stopped thinking and just hit that darn button and never looked back, well, I never got the time to! I’d embarked on doing a degree with @OpenUniversity and was therefore used to doing e-modules at home, so the IPSEA ones didn’t faze me at all.

The initial three were quickly done and submitted. Another three were soon dispatched and then I was asked if I could do the rest – in two weeks!! There was some face-to-face training imminent, so if I could get them done, I could be signed up straight away. So I did. I didn’t need to, I could have taken my time but that’s not me. The date was set and I didn’t want to miss it. The OU took a back seat while I had my nose in legal stuff. I remember that I spent a lot of my face-to-face training standing up. I have fibromyalgia and my coccyx was the target for pain that day/week/month, actually, about a year…. My train was on track and it was full steam ahead, the fibro wasn’t going to stop me!

So, I committed to taking on a handful of tribunal cases for the next two years, that was six years ago. Like all the other volunteers, I’ve been through extensive retraining over the last year or so to accommodate the new Law. Even better, new ‘stage 2’ learning modules are about to be launched. I’m busy reading my way through the briefings, in fact, I downloaded some onto my tablet and was reading them on the train down to Chelmsford. When you’ve been used to being an OU student, you tend not to waste ‘learning time’!

Unless you’re directly connected to children with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, you really can’t understand what parents go through. I’m not talking about the general parenting your children, the two teenagers at the ‘do’ were wonderful, no trouble at all. It’s the other stuff, the stuff that happens ‘outside’. Usually, parents get to drop their children off at school all day, from the age of 4 or 5, even younger if they are at nursery. They can go out and get jobs, keep house or join friends for coffee. What do you do when you’re constantly being called to the school because your child is having a fit, or an incident has happened and you’re asked to collect your child (usually, an unlawful exclusion)? How can you work?

For me, it was the diagnosis of diabetes that put paid to work. While I had the full support of my husband and parents, something had to give. School was problematic enough as it was without being told to expect hospitalisations. As it happens, my son has only been hospitalised once in the ten years he’s been diagnosed, but I was expected to be at the beck and call of the school. Not long after, there was a serious incident where my son was incorrectly ordered to take insulin and he then voted with his feet. He refused to go back.

This week in the news was an Academy which isolated students for having the ‘wrong’ ruler in their pencil cases. They were kept in isolation until their parents came to the school with the ‘correct’ one. Parents complained of the pettiness and how they were forced to leave work and sort the issue out. How would they feel if it was a weekly or even daily occurrence? How would their employers feel?

It’s one of the very few times they will have been put out, one of the very few times they get to come close to experiencing life as we too often do. What would they do if their child becomes excluded from the system? I don’t mean expulsions, I mean the wider exclusions. Some children with SEND are out of school long-term, often with emerging mental health problems caused by their situation. It was a full year before my son re-entered full-time education. I had savings to draw from, but how would others feel about losing a year or mores wages?

So I volunteer. I do my bit to even the playing field, as do the other 250 or so IPSEA reps who I’m sure would have loved to have attended on Tuesday. Now that would have been a sight to behold! However, as quick as we can be trained up, the demand for our services increases. Seven out of ten exclusions are children with SEN, mostly from mainstream and you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s a huge amount of unlawful practices behind them.

Proud to receive the award? You betcha!

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