'Damaged in ways you can't imagine' - A Stevenage mum's fight for her SEND child
PUBLISHED: 06:58 08 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:38 09 July 2019
A Stevenage mother has shared her harrowing experience of "fighting every day" to get her 15-year-old daughter back to school.
Catherine Wood and her Stevenage-based family of three have been through a lot in the last 18 months.
After Catherine's husband passed away six years ago, she started juggling full-time work and being a lone parent to her three children.
Alongside this weight of responsibility, Catherine's eldest daughter - whose name has been changed for this story - has severe learning difficulties and autism.
Vanessa, who is 15 but has the learning age of an eight-year-old according to Catherine, has been in and out of schools in Hertfordshire since January 2018.
Catherine says her daughter was excluded at least 10 times, locked in rooms by herself, removed from all but two of her classes and received three hours of teaching each day.
Before we started our interview, Catherine provided a warning: "When I tell this [story] to people they usually laugh me off."
But for Vanessa, who "loves school and learning," the situation she finds herself in is hardly a laughing matter.
The family's plight started after Vanessa had to leave Barclay Academy in Stevenage at the start of 2018 - as her educational needs had gone beyond what the school could offer.
After securing a place at a different school in the county where pupils have social, emotional and mental health difficulties, Catherine thought this was the perfect environment for Vanessa's needs.
Vanessa's tailored education, health and care plan (EHCP) was drawn up and was agreed upon by Catherine and representatives at the new school.
But Catherine was shocked to find out that, just a few months later, many of the steps on Vanessa's EHCP weren't being fulfilled.
As a visual learner, Vanessa requires visual aids to assist with her learning. Catherine says the new school never provided any in their lessons.
Despite being determined to do her GCSEs, Catharine says her daughter was only allocated three hours of teaching time a day.
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And, after Vanessa started to display violent behaviour, Catherine says there was no effort made to rehabilitate her daughter's behaviour.
The school permanently excluded Vanessa in March and, as of now, Vanessa hasn't set foot in school for more than three months. Catherine says her daughter was excluded more than 10 times for the "most ridiculous reasons".
Catherine goes as far as to say that her daughter "hasn't received an education at all".
"An education is not what she deserves, it's what she is entitled to," Catherine adds.
Now, while Catherine works a full-time job, Vanessa reads through workbooks at home with her brother and support worker.
"Vanessa has gone downhill massively. The longer she is out of education, the worse she gets," Catherine says.
"The last year has damaged her in ways you can't even imagine."
Asked about how much support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) get, she said: "From my own experience, it seems that SEND pupils are pushed to the back of the pile. No child is the same and their approach to learning is different.
"You cannot place a child at an unsuitable provision because it's 'in the county, so cheaper'. Every child is entitled to an education regardless of their ability.
"If a provision is failing, then the authorities need to look at why - not just exclude children. That doesn't work, especially for autistic children who rely on routine."
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For Vanessa, her last glimmer of hope is Red Balloon Learner Centre in Harrow.
After visiting the therapeutic learning environment last month, Catherine said Vanessa was "extremely excited". They put in an application in earlier this year, and Vanessa and Catherine crossed their fingers in the hope of seeing some progress.
After an independent funding panel rejected the family's proposal because a Stevenage-based provider could help, Catherine feared the worst.
But, after lodging an appeal, the family were over the moon to hear that Herts County Council has agreed to send Vanessa to Red Balloon.
Catherine was paying for petrol when she heard the news, and said she "screamed" and then "burst into tears".
Barring any setbacks, Vanessa will start at Red Balloon in October and Catherine will be able to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.