Dear Children’s Commissioner…about that home education thing.

Dear Children’s Commissioner…about that home education thing.

The Children’s Commissioner has started to weave a dangerous and harmful web in the minds of society that home education is a choice made by people who simply don’t want to toe the line, who may be up to no good, and who must be put under state surveillance.

Katherine Kowalski, On The Mother Hand

On Monday night, I sat up in bed to watch your programme about the huge increase in home education. I was interested as we are one of the families making up the numbers. Unexpectedly, my daughter is now one of the estimated 58,000 children in England being educated at home.

I felt a glimmer of hope that you might be speaking for my daughter in your report about “an unforgiving school system which appears to have lost kindness, skill and patience’… leaving increasing numbers of families to home educate as ‘a forced response to difficulties’…’the child struggling to cope with noisy corridors and classrooms .’

My daughter is that girl. Academically gifted with a love of learning. Kind. Empathetic and caring. Well-liked. The girl who never put a foot out of place at school. The girl who looked out for the vulnerable ones ignored or left out by the trampling crowds in the playground.

She should have an exceptionally bright and interesting future ahead of her.

And yet, for now, school is not part of that future. She is part of an ever-growing group of thousands of children battling with school-specific anxiety.

My daughter has endured years of escalating fear about going to school that has impacted not just her mental health but her physical health too.

In that time she has bravely managed two school moves with hope in her heart that ‘this time it would feel different’.

As a parent I have patiently encouraged and supported her through morning after morning of crippling panic. And night after night of sleep-prohibiting distress. For years.

Until one day she just couldn’t do it anymore. And even the SEND Co-Ordinator at school agreed that forcing her to come to school would be harmful. So we stopped. It was then expected that we would simply de-register her from school and home educate.

I asked for help. Asked for work to be sent home from school while we sought support from the GP, from CAMHS, and focused on re-building her emotionally. I contacted Education Welfare, I even spoke to my son’s Disabled Children’s care team about it. No help came. No school work came. We were left entirely alone.

So I went online and found thousands and thousands of families in just the same circumstances. Children effectively excluded from school by way of school-specific anxiety that nobody knows what to do with. Children without mental health support because in most parts of the country the system now only helps you if your child is suicidal.

Or children, like my daughter, whose sensory difficulties within the school environment were ignored and overlooked because they hid them behind a mask. The quiet, clever ones, who don’t attract attention, while silently choking down a panic attack.

And yet, desperate and sad parents who have asked for help, like we have, are instead threatened with prosecution as if they are colluding in some kind of feckless truancy.

Conversations with educators and local authority staff, the people who are supposed to help, are instead peppered with thinly-veiled threats and implications of abuse.

‘How do I know you’re not just hiding her in a cupboard?’

It is these desperate and sad parents, with children who have been let down by mainstream school, who need your help, Anne. And I’m afraid your call for a register of home-educated children and termly monitoring are light years far of the mark.

You call for increased monitoring on the basis that children are falling out of school at alarming rates and you are concerned about their welfare in the face of religious extremism and the potential for child abuse behind closed doors.

I don’t doubt those risks.

But what your programme did on Monday night was to spuriously imply that the massive increase in children leaving school to be home educated is led by a desire to religiously indoctrinate children in unhealthy ways or to conduct other forms of abuse.

And by choosing the inflammatory language that you did (Skipping School?), both your programme and report also perpetrated the falsehood that children leaving school to be home educated are truanting.

Whether this was your intention or not, you have painted a picture of thousands of children dropping out of school because their parents are reckless, weak, religious fanatics or abusers.

You have started to weave a dangerous and harmful web in the minds of society that home education is a choice made by people who simply don’t want to toe the line, who may be up to no good, and who must be put under state surveillance.

I’m not a parent who is anti-monitoring. Since I have another child who is disabled I’ve had to learn to live with social services being an almost permanent fixture in our homes and lives as it is the only way my son gets the support he needs.

But what you have missed is that monitoring home education (while perhaps necessary for other reasons) is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted for the thousands of children who are leaving school because they have been harmed mentally and emotionally by being there.

If you want to stem the runaway tide of increasing thousands who are leaving school to be home educated, you need to shift your focus to schools. Look closely at what is happening behind those closed doors.

Help teachers and educators to view parents with less suspicion, not more. Help them to really listen to parents when they have a concern. Not to brush it under the carpet. Because I believe that’s what most of them really want to do. They want to help, but are hamstrung by a system that prevents them from doing so.

Help create more flexibility in the system, not rigidity, to support children for whom noisy, group-based, peer-supported or classroom-based learning just simply does not work.

You talk a lot about the rights of children. So help protect the rights of those children who are telling us that they are not coping in school and need to learn in different ways.

Help put in place processes that enable children who cannot learn in the current mainstream school environment to be provided with access to the curriculum at home, if their family is unable or unwilling to build a programme of home education by themselves. (For us, we have found a brilliant online school called InterHigh, and plenty of social and enriching opportunities at local home ed groups for sport, art and music).

Help overhaul the school system first before you go looking outside of it.

Yours,

A parent who needed help and didn’t get it.

If you’re a parent or a teacher of a child who is #notfineinschool you can find help by visiting Not Fine In School.

If you’re a parent in similar shoes who is receiving no help with educating your child who is at home due to school phobia, and wondering how to go about home educating, you can find lots of well-informed help and advice in the Facebook Group: Home Education UK.


Escapism, and a Great Escape, at Camp Bestival 2018

Escapism, and a Great Escape, at Camp Bestival 2018

 

A sky high pile of envelopes addressed to ‘the parent/carer of’.

Walls wearing unfinished paint jobs, countertops aloft with leaning towers of ironing and a smattering of wrinkly spring onions in the gritty bottom of the fridge.

Trump on the news again doing another something or other terrifyingly ridiculous.

Brexit doom.

The life/work merry-go-round in perpetuity.

Sometimes I want to get off. To run away from responsibility. To hide from the underbelly and coarse features of humanity that are thrust at us from all directions around the clock. International politics. War. Poverty. Bureaucracy.

Sometimes I only want to see colour. To be part of something free and joyful. To feel  warmth of spirit and carefree human connection. To be in the moment, enjoying the present without fear of what the next moment may bring.

Of course those colourful moments exist in the everyday without having to throw oneself off the merry-go-round at full pelt. But to bask in it, to linger in the reverie and emerge renewed, there’s nothing quite like packing up your family and most of your belongings into a van, pitching a tent in a field, donning a pair of neon mermaid leggings and dancing like a maniac for a weekend.

Unlike most of my friends, I was never a Glasto-goer in my twenties. Until about five years ago the closest I’d got to a festival was a muddy, shouty, teenage weekend wearing my one-of-a-kind G’n’R spray painted DMs at Donington Festival of Rock, pretending to enjoy the sepulchral screeching of ‘Pantera’ as fully grown men hurled flagons of lager-piss above the crowds.

When we moved to Cornwall, we discovered the glorious Port Eliot Festival. Literary heaven, quirky music, colourful theatre, boutiquey food and drink, secret midnight discos, wild swimming and fashion life drawing. A weekend of magic, right on our doorsteps, that we could flit in and out of to our hearts’ content and come home to a warm bed.

We’ve been every year since 2012. But this year, we stretched our festival legs a little further afield to Camp Bestival at Lulworth Castle in Dorset.

It was our first ‘proper’ festival experience as a family. Full on camping, complete with festival loos and zero electricity. Wholly immersed in the festival, on site and in deep.

We henna tattooed and braided ourselves.

Wore silly hats.

Ate incredible food.

Drank gin slushies and rocked out to the DJ BBQ.

Sat under blankets in the shelter of a neon-lit castle chilling to Clean Bandit and snacking on churros.

Discovered music we didn’t know we loved in the alluring voice and songs of Rae Morris.

Re-discovered music from our childhoods in the 80’s shaped ham of Rick Astley and marvelled at his cameo drumming partner, (who knew Mary Berry could play?).

Re-connected with old friends over G&Ts and made new ones over a delicious communal dinner at the River Cottage tent.

Watched panto.

Made slime.

Rode on the swing carousel approximately 800 times.

Giggled and boogied to Indian brass band music.

Met Max and Harvey (if you’re 9, you’ll know this is pretty much hitting the big time).

Sat in the sun and chilled in the beautiful castle grounds, with music and festival fun all around us.

Cried with absolute joy and delight at our boy revelling in every second of Mr Tumble at the Castle Stage.

A life moment none of us will ever forget.

Unable to tell us with words of his excitement, he showed us instead with a beaming little face and bursting-at-the-seams dolphin kicks. We took turns to hold him as he went full on.

Cheering and flapping and lurching in our arms, electrified by the real life stage show of his TV hero happening right in front of his eyes.

There was absolutely no doubt in our minds that, for those forty jubilant minutes, our boy was enraptured.

Moments like that are not easy to come by when your child can’t talk or walk, when he can’t enjoy or perhaps even understand many of the regular common-or-garden things that bring magic to a typical childhood…

…Writing Christmas lists…The tooth fairy visiting…Winning pass-the-parcel at a birthday party…Fairground rides…Unboxing Shopkins…Climbing to the very top of a tree and hiding…

But there he was, partying like a pro and completely spilling over with joy and excitement.

Sheep dipping ourselves into festival life for a weekend also felt a little like rediscovery.

Remembering who we were before the small people arrived.

Remembering who we were before we tripped over the cliff into a world we knew nothing of and where we are still finding our feet, navigating childhood disability and the melee of physical work, admin, persuasion, fear, re-building, trauma, dusting-off, over-organising, isolation and emotional baggage it brings.

In a world where just leaving the house for a day out involves a major planning exercise, for a few days we could just be spontaneous.

But we couldn’t have done that at just any festival. Camp Bestival made it easy for us to  do this because they have worked hard to be inclusive.

The accessible campsite was perfectly sited up close to the action but sheltered from noise. With enough showers, toilets and space around us to make it manageable for a family with a wheelchair user.

The Mobiloo was on site with its changing bench and hoist so we could comfortably and safely change our boy. (Although next year we’d LOVE to see a second a third Mobiloo on site at the Castle Stage and down at the Big Top to save the schlep back to camp).

The wheelchair platforms at the Castle Stage make it possible for wheelchair users to see the main acts in comfort and safety.

The main thoroughfares are all step free and wheelchair accessible. We saw many a person zipping about the festival in electric wheelchairs and the terrain was perfectly manageable in our all-terrain buggy.

And most of all, it’s a friendly, understanding and judgement-free kind of a place.

After three days of unadulterated glitter-strewn fun in the sun, we were of course deeply gutted to have to cut it short on Sunday as the wind and rain called an abrupt halt. We weren’t quite done.

As campers across the castle grounds made a Great Escape from the brutal conditions, we glumly packed up our belongings and headed back west along the A35, exhausted, but brimming with the topped-up feeling of a great time had.

At that moment we could have quite happily stayed in festival mode forever.

The laundry pile, however, says otherwise…

Until 2019, Camp Bestival.

Camp Bestival 2018

 

 

 

So, who wants a holiday then?

So, who wants a holiday then?

If you’re in the UK and you’ve looked out the window pretty much any time at all since 2016 began (or what feels like since the dawn of time) you’ll have noticed that it has been grey, rainy and distinctly dismal. And there’s nothing like a bit of dreary British weather to spark off a little holiday browsing.

It’s been over seven years since we went on a holiday abroad together. It’s something we have never done since Orange arrived, partly through fear of what may happen while we are abroad, partly because other financial priorities have prevailed and partly because it’s been so long we’ve got a little decision phobic – if we’re going to fork out for a holiday abroad after so long, it had better be a damn good one, but where to start?

When I was growing up, we didn’t go on what I would call normal holidays. Most families we knew would choose a week in France, perhaps Spain, maybe the States or the Caribbean or a winter ski trip. Whereas our family holidays were distinctly more rustic and, er, character building. Usually involving tents and fields, often in force ten gales. Or if we were lucky, a really ancient house with mice that ran around in frying pans in the night or lobsters that arrived on the front doorstep in a bucket, still alive, ready for us to literally boil them to death and hack them to pieces with a hammer.

Often there were lots of very long walks. Not because they were supposed to be long, but because someone thought it was a good idea to go off-route and promptly got us lost. Pretty much always in the rain or a thick blanket of fog. And nowhere near a pub.

These holidays obviously struck a chord somewhere because now we live right on the shoreline in Cornwall so we can experience these interestingly windswept meteoroligical conditions and wildlife encounters any month of the year.

2015-03-23 10.46.46 HDR

One of the lovely things about living in Cornwall though, is that when the sun does come out, we are right here to enjoy it. We have been very lucky and had some cracking summers since we moved here and I guess this has allowed us to fall into a certain malaise about actually booking a holiday.

2015-04-06 12.25.13

Image for PR With a View

We’ve been able to avoid the difficult questions brought about by Orange’s needs such as special assistance at airports and whether the accessible rooms in the hotel are up to scratch.

The thing is, though, we want our children to experience the world just like their peers do. But browsing for holidays knowing you need to factor in an Orange is not straightforward. My hopes were high two weeks ago when I found a beautiful resort in Greece. Ikos Resorts – everything I would want from a holiday. A little luxury, eco-credentials, great food and enough activities to swerve couch-potato-dom. We really liked the look of their bungalow suites with private pool. Spacious, perfect for all of Orange’s kit. Private pool, spot on for two little water babies and two exhausted grown ups. Stylish too. Excited, I got in touch.

“Sorry, our bungalows are not accessible” was the reply. “You might be interested in our disabled bedrooms in the main building. But they aren’t for families.” Oh.

And this has pretty much been the story of my holiday search so far. Even the legendary Scott Dunn didn’t have anything that would suit. Almost unanimously, what ‘accessible room’ means is a room for an elderly couple. Not a family with a complex little dude and a riotous seven year old.

Slightly crestfallen, I started looking at tour operators who specialise in holidays for people with disabilities. But their ranges were limited in a whole different kind of way. Call me spoilt, but I don’t want to spend my summer holiday in a static caravan in Wales or in a Costa del Complex that looks like something out of Holiday Nightmares.

We haven’t yet found the perfect holiday for us, but the whole experience of searching has got me thinking about what would make the perfect holiday for us:

  • Guaranteed sunshine and just enough warmth to make swimwear the outfit of the day. Not too much though as Orange won’t cope.
  • Luxurious accommodation of the white fluffy towel variety. Infinity pools with a pool hoist. Space. Peace. Quiet. A few well behaved children from naice families for Bea to play with.
  • A gentle, flat stroll in to a pretty marina, with waterfront restaurants that will welcome the children, accommodate a wheelchair and spoil us with gastronomic delights. And wine. Lots.
  • A nanny on hand who has experience of complicated little dudes, is confident using a hoist, feeding small people who can’t chew and administering medication (I know, I know).
  • Flights and airport transfers that can accommodate a tiny wheelchair user with ease and confidence. With dignity for Orange, and peace of mind for us. And a huge luggage allowance.
  • Simple arrangements to send equipment and supplies ahead of time – special milk, medication, nappies, specialist car seat, a beach buggy and a specialist bed. Probably a mobile hoist too.
  • Four hours or less flight from the UK, with sensible flight times that don’t involve hauling ourselves out of bed at sparrowfart.

All of this, but for less than a gazillion pounds, please.

Mark Warner are looking for ambassador families to be part of #MarkWarnerMum and #MarkWarnerDad. I guess this post is a little bit of an inclusivity challenge for Mark Warner, as we have found that most luxury travel companies (and non-luxury travel companies too), don’t really acknowledge that there are families with more complicated requirements than the average who want to go on lovely holidays too.

It would mean the world to us to be able to travel on a lovely holiday as a family. To do normal things, in our slightly abnormal circumstances, but also to make memories too. We don’t know how long we’ve got Orange with us, being brutally honest. And while it’s hard to think that way, we must remember that life is often short, sometimes shorter than you might anticipate. And if we want to do things like travel as a family, we must find a way to do them now.

****This is my entry to become a #MarkWarnerMum for 2016. Wish us luck****

What would be your ideal holiday?

Sensory Advent Day Six: A lesson in Candy ‘Cranes’

 

The night before Advent

You could say that, in this house, we’re rather big fans of Christmas. In years gone by I would never have been one for even thinking about mulled wine and mince pies until December was well into its second half. All that changed with marrying a man with a great propensity for silliness and a childlike love of all things merry, and becoming mother to a girl who thinks July is a perfectly appropriate time to don a Santa hat and belt out Jingle Bells at high volume.

As soon as Mr Mavis’s birthday in mid-November has passed (35 now, ha ha), it’s time, in our house, to start getting festive. While this year, sheer volumes of work and other commitments have stalled the merry making so far to just a Pinterest board of present ideas, a school Xmas fair and a few jars of Christmas spiced apple chutney maturing in the larder cupboard, that unmistakable Christmassy feeling is beginning to surface. When The Fairy Tale of New York or Last Christmas pops up on iTunes shuffle, I’m no longer irritably trying to switch to something less festive. Embracing the jingle.

Our village does Christmas very well indeed. Parties-a-plenty, lantern parades, carols and barrel-loads of mulled wine and, if we’re lucky with the weather, a crisp beach walk or two. It’s a wonderful place to be at this time of year. Christmas here is about having fun with friends and family. Lots and lots of fun. Lots and lots of wine.

The Beep is already supercharged with Christmas spirit. In her world, Father Christmas has been living in the lighthouse since at least the first week of October, watching over the coast from his offshore turret to ensure every child in the village is being very good (even if that doesn’t always include her…). She’s practising her songs and her ‘line’ for the Nativity play on an hourly basis and, today, wouldn’t leave the house without reindeer antlers, a red nose and a bell. It would be fair to say that where the festive fizz is concerned, the girl is certainly feeling it.

The magic of Christmas is not lost on The Beep. She positively lives for it. And now Orange is nearly three I’ve found myself wondering how can we help him feel the magic too?

I remember with almost time warp like clarity my younger brother, himself just three, freshly laundered Christmas shirt and chinos on, smart side parting in play (sorry bro), stepping into the living room wide eyed and sparkly on Christmas morning and declaring triumphantly ‘It’s CHRISTMAS!’ The delight and wonder in his tiny voice was a perfect moment.

More than anything I want Orange to feel that wonder. To experience the anticipation of counting down the days until Christmas, and the excitement of leaving a mince pie and a glass of whisky out on Christmas Eve. To go to bed dreaming of Father Christmas fleeting through the night sky with sacks full of gifts and cheery, snow-dappled reindeer. At nearly three, children of Orange’s age would typically be jumping into the Christmas spirit with both feet.

But Orange can’t jump and neither do we know what he understands, if anything at all, about Christmas.

It would be easy to let Christmas become synonymous with everything that Orange can’t do or say. It’s such a marker of time, after all. A point to which every year returns. Comparisons are drawn, tales of Christmases gone by are told and plans for the future made. I have often found myself thinking ‘maybe by next Christmas Orange will be able to feed himself his Christmas dinner…maybe by next year he’ll be able to open a present, or sing along to Jingle Bells with his sister, even if it’s in July…maybe by next year he’ll understand what Christmas is all about.’ Or, maybe, he won’t.

This will be Orange’s third Christmas and for the first time, instead of clinging on to maybe’s and what if’s, I’m letting go a little of hoping for normality. After all, I could be waiting a long time, perhaps forever, for Orange to understand Christmas. And it would be too unbearable to think of him not experiencing a magical Christmas because we’ve failed to adapt to his way of being.

In many ways, I realised that really all that’s required is for us to think about Christmas in a different way and to appreciate that Orange can enjoy the magic of Christmas in his own way. A few carefully planned activities is all it takes to make sure he feels included, and can take as full a part in the Christmas experience as the rest of us.

While Orange may not understand who Father Christmas is, he’ll sure as hell enjoy story time with the elves in the Yurt at Eden and have a good old grab at a white beard or two. He’ll watch wide-eyed as the lantern procession weaves up the coast road through the darkness and listen with wonder to Carols from Kings (forever known as Carols and Kings in this house, thanks to the Beep). No doubt the boy will wolf down his goose and roast veg on Christmas Day, (even if mashed to a microscopic degree) and chuckle along to a Christmas film or two while Mr Mavis nurses a Boxing Day ‘beerache’ (another Beepism).

He may not understand Christmas, or be able to get excited about it, but I know now that he will feel the magic in his own way.

So instead of feeling sad, and a little guilty, that only Beep could partake in the daily December delight of picking open little cardboard doors with a fingernail and tearing away silver foil for a pre-breakfast chocolatey treat, we’ve decided to do Advent a little differently too.

Last year, one of my fellow swan mums came up with a fabulous idea to do a sensory advent calendar for her little boy. Like Orange, Freddie can’t chew so chocolate is off the agenda, and Advent seemed like the ideal opportunity to indulge in a little sensory play. Children with difficulties like Orange struggle to make sense of their world. Taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, can all be hugely overwhelming, or thuddingly underwhelming, so exposure to a variety of sensory experiences is vital therapy. Of course Christmas, sparkly, music-filled, cinnamon-scented Christmas, is almost the perfect sensory playground.

So today, The Beep and I have raided discount-stores for tinselly, glittery tat, kneaded gingerbread play-dough, filled bags of rice with vanilla and peppermint, stuck clove faces on oranges, covered boxes in Christmas paper and selected stories and Christmassy instruments (jingle bells, of course) to go in a Sensory Advent Box for Orange.

Each morning until Christmas, she’ll help me to pick an item for Orange to squidge, shake, listen to, smell, touch and (if we’re lucky), taste. And you know it was fun. Heaps of fun. I can’t wait to see Orange’s sparkly little eyes light up each morning as Beep hops up and down helping him partake in his Advent activities.

Beats the hell out of a Cadbury calendar, don’t you think?