‘Our pupils would have been on the scrapheap’: the school for bullied children

The bullying started when Hannah Letters was 11. “I struggled with the transition to secondary school and found it hard to make friends.” Her classmates made snide comments about her appearance. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, the comments got worse. She was sent messages on social media, telling her that no one liked her. “One of the girls turned and said to me, ‘If you had looked after your mother better, she wouldn’t have got cancer.’ I had such low self-esteem by then, anything she said I believed. I started to blame myself.” The Guardian reports.

By the time she was 13, Letters was self-harming. The bullies were constantly on her mind and she would wake up screaming from nightmares. She wasn’t happy with the response she got from her school, and “each time my mother or I complained, the bullying got worse”. When the bullies physically attacked her, it was the last straw for Letters’ mother. She took her off the school roll. That meant her school was absolved of its legal responsibility to provide her with an education. She became yet another statistic: one of the 16,000 children aged 11 to 15 who, each year, “self-exclude” from school due to bullying.

Letters is now 17. Confidence radiates from her. She is a healthy weight and speaks so articulately and with so much dignity, it is difficult to believe she is still so young. A year ago, she started a BTec in applied science and is planning to study medicine at university and become a neurosurgeon. The calm assurance with which she says this makes it clear she will allow nothing to stand in her way.

Her transformation began when an education charity, Red Balloon, took Letters on as a student at one of its “learner centres” three years ago. The charity combines educational programmes with therapeutic support and is the only one of its kind in the country. Each year, it helps traumatised and severely bullied children – most of whom, like Letters, have self-excluded from school – to get back on an academic track, make friends and reconnect with society, with the aim of them returning to mainstream education, training or work.

“The chances that they would do that on their own is negligible,” says Carrie Herbert, a former teacher who founded Red Balloon 22 years ago in her own home. She had seen these children failed, repeatedly, by the education system – and she knew that without any qualifications they would suffer negative consequences from the bullying potentially for the rest of their lives. “In this country, children who bully get a funded education and the children who are bullied do not. Our students would have been on the scrapheap. They go back out into the world rescued.”

The charity receives no government funding but has managed, over the past two decades, to set up learner centres in Norwich, Cambridge, Harrow and Reading, where students are taught in groups of five. It also runs an online programme called Red Balloon of the Air (RBAir) for children across England, supported by regular face-to-face visits from mentors. Many of the 200 students it educated in 2017/2018 have been away from education for a year or more and arrive suicidal and self-harming. Diagnoses of depression, acute anxiety and eating disorders are commonplace, with 88% of parents describing their children’s mental health as very poor. By the time they leave, this figure has fallen to less than 6%. Nine out of 10 students are able to continue their education elsewhere, get a job or do an apprenticeship. “We have saved children from killing themselves and families from breakdowns,” Herbert says.

Teachers go by their first names and there are no uniforms. Half of each school day is devoted to nurturing the child’s wellbeing, involving therapy sessions and group communication. “Our aim is to return them to mainstream school, knowing how to build relationships and how and why relationships break down,” Herbert says. “They arrive with no self-esteem so we want them to leave with a good track record in education, knowing they’re competent and can problem solve. And finally, we want them to leave with friends.”

How to parent a bullied child, by Carrie Herbert of Red Balloon

1 Talk to the school, and try to get alongside them. “Tell the head, ‘I’m really interested in having my child in this school and being educated.’ Then talk about their strategies for tackling bullying. Ask how you can help. Education is free in this country, but sometimes you have to fight for it. If the school says it is your child who is the problem, ask them: why aren’t they dealing with the problem then?”

Read more about Red Balloon and their tips  ‘Our pupils would have been on the scrapheap’: the school for bullied children

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