Friday, 6 June 2014

Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3

I recently recounted the story of how my son had received a damning report from school and how disappointed I was with the circumstances through which we received that report (as well as some of its contents). This time around I would like to trace back a little to the events that got the ball rolling with school in the first place. I'm doing it because this happens to be the most burning issue for us, parents; my son's problems at school are merely a reflection of generic problems he/we are dealing with. Perhaps more importantly, I would like to do so in order to demonstrate how we seem to have been marginalised by our school.

The wheels started rolling when we first heard school was assessing kids for lagging in their reading/writing performances. Shortly afterwards we were told our son was identified as such, and to ensure there are no underlying problems we were referred to behavioural optometrists and audiology experts. That’s when shit started hitting the fan.
I took my son to one of the recommended optometrists for an eye test – an ordinary eye test that is generally funded by Medicare. The results turned out to be fine, but we were recommended to come again for a Visual Processing Assessment. This time around there was no Medicare support but there was a $200 out of pocket expense. We went ahead with it anyway.
For an outcome, we received a written report that gauged our son’s performance against 8 categories and found him to be below average on 2. Given that the average person is below average on half the things out there, I took 2 out of 8 to be a good result; however, the behavioural optometrist disagreed, recommending visual therapy. It seemed as if one has to be a superman in order to avoid receiving such a recommendation, or at least be above average in 8 out of 8 categories. Note only one of 256 people would qualify there; that is, it seemed as if out of 256 people going through this test, 255 would receive therapy related recommendations. Or, in other words, we're all sick in the eyes of the optometrist.
But I'm digressing. I was very close to booking this therapy. Very. The alarm bells started ringing only when the optometrist started detailing its terms & conditions: we will have to buy a special software licence prior to starting at a cost of $350, plus we will have to book and pay for a series of sessions in advance. In other words, we would be some $750 out of pocket before we even knew what’s going on. I paused.
In order to validate my concerns, I called on another behavioural optometrist. They did not want us to buy any software, but they did insist on us paying for 10 sessions in advance – a $550 affair. And oh, they’d have to do their own assessment first, so there go another $250.
The demand for substantive advance payments made me go back to the drawing board. I already read Wikipedia to know that visual therapy is considered unproven; now I went back and read it again, properly this time. Some Googling (actually, DuckDuckGo-ing) revealed prominent criticism of behavioural optometry, both in the forms of scientific papers as well as what seem to be substantial paediatrician organisations. Given these inputs, I could see why the therapists insisted upon getting their money first. I became a proper sceptic.

Yet in all of our interactions with school thus far, visual therapy is exactly what they have been pushing at us the most. Whenever I asked why they do so given what Wikipedia, the lowest common denominator, has to say they always appear confused; obviously, they haven’t read it. The reply we got, “everyone can edit Wikipedia”, goes both ways: if the optometrists have something to say in their defence, then why aren’t they doing so?
Then we were told that “visual therapy did wonders to some of our kids”. So, are we expected to put our eggs in the visual therapy basket based on such anecdotal evidence? Haven’t they heard of the placebo effect, for a start? If the medical system as a whole worked this way we’d all be dead by now.
The reality is, we don’t mind taking our son to visual therapy sessions; as anyone studying behavioural psychology would tell you, my son’s situation is bound to improve just by virtue of the attention he would be getting. The point, however, is to ensure he will be getting the most suitable care for his condition, whatever that may be (and at this point we have no idea what that may be). The point is not to be sending our child to the first kind of therapy that comes into mind.
Through blatantly wrong comments such as “dyslexia is diagnosed by visual therapy optometrists” it became clear to us that our school, the school that’s been telling us to go to visual therapy first and ask questions later, does not really know what it is talking about.

The audiology scene was not much better.
The audiologist our school had referred us to informed us there is no point in running their test until our son is significantly older, as the results would have no statistical significance. School’s feedback was “do the test anyway”, so we went ahead and paid top dollar out of pocket for what was, generally speaking, a general hearing test we could have otherwise been bulk billed for. The test, by the way, found nothing wrong.
The most telling artefact of the audiologist experience has been the report our teacher had to fill as input to the audiologist’s test. That report was very damning of our son, including many issues we were never informed of previously. That was the report I mentioned here, the report that left us wondering why we were never told of these things before at the “everything is alright” parent-teacher meeting we took part in just a fortnight earlier.

If so far it seemed as if there is an industry out there that is set to make money out of anxious parents’ paranoias and is aided by our school, our perceptions changed a little upon discussing our experiences with fellow parents.
It turns out we were not alone. Several – indeed, many – fellow parents received the same inputs from school and – surprise surprise – found themselves experiencing similar frustrations to ours. There also seemed to be some common ground: we were all the parents of boys.
This learning has led to develop my own hypothesis as to what is really going on in here. Our school has its own agenda on how well kids of my son's age should perform in their reading and writing, ideas that are shaped through the goal of receiving high NAPLAN scores. High NAPLAN scores will imply better status for our school, thus more students and more funding. In other words, it is all about the money, stupid.
In order to achieve that funding goal, our school is ready to marginalise a significant portion of its students, all of them happening to be boys – no coincidence there, given that at my son’s age girls are very obviously smarter than boys. Instead of the school taking responsibility for its lost boys, it tries to handball that responsibility over to the parents by using the best weapons it could ever hope to yield: parental anxiety.
Well, color me disappointed.

I have already been given the “what do you expect, you’re sending your child to a state school” speech. But would a private school do any better? For a start, I would not dare send my child to a catholic school with all its 19th century concepts of discipline (to name but one gripe); those would guarantee mental scarring for the duration of my son’s life.

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