She looked up at me with tears rolling down her cheeks and said “no thank you, mummy, I can’t go to school today”. She doesn’t shout, scream or run away but just says ‘no’ as politely as she can manage through her tears. Her school is firm, that she must be left and they will manage her, one or two friends wonder if I should be firmer with her and make her go, and others say I am making a rod for my own back by giving in to her. I take her by the hand and we walk home, we will try again tomorrow I think. She eventually stops crying and settles at home. I wonder how long it will be before the inevitable phone call will come, questioning why she isn’t there, reminding me of the law and the consequences of her not attending. Despite the imminent threat of Education Welfare, fines and prosecution I know deep down that I am doing the right thing for her. Forcing her to go into the school, risking her being restrained whilst I leave may have ever -lasting consequences. There must be another way.
Two years later, multiple attempts at reintegration to school, an EHCP and OT support, she still won’t go into the building. A visit to the high court and a tribunal hearing results in a bespoke educational package. I am really pleased, at last she will be able to catch up. A few months later, we have a tutor that she has built a relationship with, and an assessment for Autism booked. We were at the assessment all day and at the end, the expected outcome – “Your daughter is Autistic” they say, confirmed diagnosis. “Ok” I respond, but my biggest question is, where can she go to school? “There is a school near Sheffield that might be able to meet her needs” is the reply. The school is over 100 miles away – I sit there somewhat bewildered as to why there are no schools closer to home. I thank them for their advice. The report comes three weeks later and I pore over it looking for clues and set about researching all local schools to find somewhere suitable. The more research I do the more despondent I become. She needs small class sizes, mainstream curriculum, peer group and therapeutic support. I eventually come across Limpsfield Grange and think “this might be it”, until I realise that they are secondary only and my daughter is only 7 - and they are still more than 80 miles away. I sit at my computer late at night, pondering over the dilemma. There must be a school somewhere, that doesn’t involve sending her away?
Despite weeks of research I realise that there is no school that really does meet her needs (academic, social and sensory). Can she have a bespoke package for the next four years? am I doing the right thing? She doesn’t want to go to school but she does want other children to play with. The questions go round and round in my head, what shall I do? I have no doubt that this dilemma plays out in many many households across the country and I now know that there are many other girls out there just like her. After seeing a number of girls who present with severe anxiety in my clinical practice, being part of social media groups I discover how difficult the situation is and how the lack of appropriate provision is impacting particularly on Autistic girls. At this point I ponder on the possibility of opening my own school and the
seed that is now Hope Tree School was sown.
That was over two years ago and little did I know, that setting up a school is an almost impossible task to achieve nowadays. The rollercoaster has had many highs and many lows and there are days when I think that this project may not make it. I am almost there though, I have a fantastic team around me, support when it all feels too much, or I discover there is another thing to do. I have called in favours, asked for help, but no-one has ever laughed at me or told me that I was ‘mad’ for considering it.
Hope Tree School will open its doors to autistic girls in November 2021. It will provide that safe haven that this group of girls need. It will provide the mainstream curriculum, the therapeutic support in a calm and quiet sensory-aware environment and there will be friends to spend time with, socialise with and learn new skills with. There are many people to thank who have supported this project along the way – you all know who you are.