When Joshua first joined his special school, back in 2011, when he was ten years old, I tried a number of initiatives to try to get parents to meet each other socially. At a special school, typically the pupils are collected from home and are transported to school in either taxis – as happened with Joshua – or by mini bus, as the catchment area can be wider than for a standard school. As a result, parents do not have that ‘school gates’ experience when they have the opportunity to meet each other and to share stories about their children and their experience of school. After several years at the same special school, I asked the Head and Assistant Head, if I could run a coffee morning on site on a regular basis, if it proved to be popular. They were happy for me to use the school meeting room and as my only day off work, one Friday a month, I would host a coffee morning. School would provide the room and the drink-making facilities , while I would bake at least three different cakes or biscuits at home the night before.
There were a core of parents who would always attend, and then others would drift in and out, meaning that it was difficult to judge how many I was baking for. But I used to over-cater as I found that the staff and pupils were always grateful of any leftovers. I would bring Joshua to school on Coffee morning Fridays so that I could set up for a 9.15 start and we would have the meeting room until midday; some parents would arrive at the start and stay all morning, while others would drop in for a short while only. As far as I was concerned, they were a big success as Mums – and it was mostly attended by a core of Mums, with occasional Dads – would arrive knowing that they could moan about the kind of month they were having, and they would always find a sympathetic ear. They could ask questions ,for instance those with younger children were always interested to hear about our transition into 6th form initially, then into adult services latterly as Joshua was one of the oldest children represented there.
School were keen to formalise the opportunity and the Assistant Head kept pushing me to invite guest speakers or allow staff to attend. While I accepted some level of ‘outside’ information, I was clear that I wanted to maintain the group as a social gathering, where parents could gather and simply chat , as that was a group that was missing elsewhere for us. The last Coffee morning that I organised took place in February 2020, and we were already counting down to me stepping down from being ‘in charge’, as Joshua was due to leave the school in July 2020. As it happened of course, due to the Covid 19 pandemic, Joshua’s time at school abruptly ended the month after and he never returned, so neither did those valuable coffee mornings. It was one of the many victims of the pandemic.
I heard on the grapevine that School re-introduced a Parent Coffee morning last week, but that it was their model of event, rather than mine : nobody was home baking – apart from one kind Mum who baked a lemon drizzle cake – but packets of biscuits were supplied and there were guest speakers talking to parents about topics chosen by school. We used to have one large table which we all sat around, so there were mini conversations happening but also it was possible to address everyone at the same time. Last week I was told there were lots of small tables each with three chairs around them, so there was not the same opportunity for everyone to mingle . I know that the pandemic has changed a lot of social events and this may be the only way that school could host a covid-safe parent event and it certainly sounded better then nothing.
I have on my mobile phone a facebook group called ‘School Mums’ which consists of the core Coffee Morning attendees and I have continued to keep in touch with them even since Joshua left school. All but one of them still have children at the special school, another one left the year after Joshua. A few weeks ago, I suggested to this group that we meet for a coffee at a convenient café for a coffee and a catch up and the response was largely positive, they wanted to get together off school-site. We arranged to meet up this morning, next to Joshua’s daycare as I would be in town already, and at least 8 of us planned to meet. Sadly I am no longer able to attend today, but I encouraged them to go ahead and meet without me this morning. Having been the initiator of today’s event, I will be sad to miss it but will be delighted to think that they are all meeting up again and they have promised that we will repeat the exercise in the future ,when hopefully I will be able to join in.
These support groups are invaluable; so much has happened in all of our family lives over the past 2 years, that this will be a safe place to let off steam and to talk openly in front of friends, friends who understand. It is different discussing family issues with other Mums who also have a child with special needs, there is no need to explain certain things, so we all start on the same page, even though our children’s needs are very different.
Four of the mums met together for breakfast and a chat, which was long overdue and there is already talk of the next time!