First Step: Affected families speak out on the closure of Hornchurch charity’s education service
PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 September 2020 | UPDATED: 18:13 11 September 2020
In the days following the news that First Step’s education service will not reopen, a number of families have spoken out about how this closure will affect their children.
A week ago it was confirmed that the Hornchurch charity couldn’t sustain the service, which offered childcare for around 30 youngsters aged two to four with special educational needs or disabilities.
The charity’s chief executive first warned in May that the service was in jeopardy as a result of having to use its own reserves to continue operating since March 2017.
This was the point at which Havering Council stopped providing financial support, with its leader Cllr Damian White recently confirming that no funding is forthcoming.
The outcome is that several families across the borough have lost a vital lifeline.
Linsey Worgan is one such parent; her three-year-old son Eddie Mylroi was due to return to the service this year after a six-month stint prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, she was dismayed to discover on September 1 — via Zoom call — that this would not be the case.
For Eddie — who has cerebral palsy, brain damage, a sensory processing disorder, a global development delay and suspected autism — the service has been “transformational”.
Linsey says her son, who is also blind, non-verbal and not mobile, made “amazing progress” during his period with the service, “particularly in terms of his communication skills, and in terms of tolerating more adults”.
This latter development was a relief to the family, with Eddie previously only content with Linsey and her mother.
Her concern is twofold: firstly, she fears that Eddie’s progress will stall, or worse, he may regress. Secondly there are huge question marks over whether there are other facilities in the borough to accommodate her son’s needs.
The impact on progress feels inevitable, says Linsey.
“While at First Step, he had access to a music room and a sensory room, key to children who are blind. Staff members also worked with him one-on-one. They have facilities which most homes don’t.”
Alternatives are also few and far between.
The mother-of-two is clear that “somewhere is not better than nowhere”; it is not merely a case of “warehousing” Eddie, he must be comfortable in a suitable space.
Finding such an environment is proving difficult, with most mainstream nurseries unable to afford the specialist staff required.
“There are so few providers that have the expertise to help children like Eddie grow and develop.”
Grace Lloyd has had to look at alternatives for her two-year-old daughter Meadow Lloyd-Sale.
Meadow — who was due to start at First Step this week — has been involved with the charity since she was 14 months old.
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Grace explains how she and wife Grace Lloyd-Sale would regularly bring Meadow and her twin sister Raine to the parents group, finding it a vital outlet at this early stage in her life.
“Although she had physical health problems, Meadow didn’t have any learning diagnoses at this point, though we knew something wasn’t quite right. The parents sessions were really good. When you have a child with disabilities it’s difficult to go and join a typical mother and baby group.”
First Step was a lifeline for the entire family long before Meadow was allocated a nursery place, which is part of what makes its closure so hard.
The lack of alternative options is another difficulty; Grace and her wife are “not comfortable” sending their daughter — who is unable to walk or talk — to a mainstream nursery.
Of the council decision not to offer funding, she says: “This situation makes me feel like they don’t care — ‘because your child has specialist needs they don’t matter’.”
Grace also found out about the closure of the nursery via Zoom, leaving little time to explore other options.
The alternative mentioned by both mothers is the Lime Academy Ravensbourne in Harold Hill; however, this would require Linsey to take three buses from her Hornchurch home, and Grace to travel each day from Rainham.
Hollie Boulter says “Havering has lost an absolute gem”.
Her three-year-old son Jenson Scott started attending First Step’s family sessions just over a year ago, and was due to start in their PACC sessions (Promoting Attention, Concentration and Cooperation) twice a week this month.
Hollie believes one of the most valuable aspects of First Step — now lost — is its early intervention care, which has been particularly helpful for Jenson, who has social communication difficulties, delays in speech and language, obsessive interests, repetitive behaviour and rigidity of thought: “Early intervention is absolutely crucial, yet it seems when parents seek it, we are faced with waiting list after waiting list. First Step were there at the very beginning.
“They give that necessary early intervention and support, taking the strain off of other services and settings whilst supporting the child and their whole family at the beginning of their journey.”
She adds: “How can the council not fund such a highly regarded, vital service, desperately needed by our most vulnerable members of society?.”
In describing the family as “heartbroken” by the closure, Hollie struggles to imagine a future without the charity in Jenson’s life.
She also laments the loss of emotional support for her as the parent of a child with special educational needs, saying that First Steps helped her navigate what can be a “very frightening, frustrating, daunting and lonely experience”.
For things to change, £200,000 worth of funding would have to be found for the next two years.
Otherwise, the facility recently-rated as Outstanding for a sixth successive year will remain closed.
In a statement, Havering Council leader Cllr Damian White, said:
“It is always very sad when any service is lost to our residents. This is especially true of First Step, who we know has provided a good quality education service for so many families over so many years.
“Since the announcement of closure, the council has moved to provide reassurance and support to the families affected. The vast majority of children that would have returned to First Step this term are already known to the council, and we are following up the other residents through our health contacts, as well as liaising with First Step to ensure that no family is left behind.
“Council SEND Co-ordinators have already started to work with families to fully understand their needs, and are helping them to find alternative options where necessary. For families who have already identified an alternative provider that can meet their needs we will be supporting their transition. We are also helping residents who used First Step along with a second provider, and we are working with those organisations to see if they can increase their hours.
“Training and support is delivered on an ongoing basis to all providers to ensure that they can meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable children.”
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