Dame Vera’s school is a beacon of hope

Finding out that your child has an unexpected disability can be hard to cope with. Sheena Grant visits a school in the Suffolk countryside that offers hope – and vital practical help

It’s a school unlike most others.

Housed in a single-storey building with an office at one end and classrooms at the other, it’s reached via a narrow access road bordered by fields that sit under big Suffolk skies.

The setting, at Sproughton, has something of the feel of an old airfield about it, which is fitting because the School for Parents is part of the Dame Vera Lynn Trust.

The ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’, president of the trust that bears her name, visited Suffolk two years ago when the school was relaunched as part of ‘her’ organisation and is hugely supportive of the work that goes on there.

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Staff work with families of pre-school children with movement and co-ordination difficulties, providing a holistic form of early education inspired by methods used at the Peto Institute for Conductive Education, in Hungary, to stimulate and awaken the child’s senses in a fun way. Conductive education is about making the most of a child’s potential by breaking down the complexities of learning with structured and achievable targets, which are repeated until the child is able to do them independently.

But without Dame Vera, now aged 95, the school could well have gone under by now.

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It was actually set up in 2000 by Scope as the Suffolk School for Parents, but became an independent charity in 2005 when Scope withdrew funding. By 2010 it was in severe financial difficulties.

“The recession hit small charities like ours first,” says head of early years Alison Stonham. She approached the Dame Vera Lynn Trust, which already ran a similar venture in West Sussex, to ask for advice.

“I wanted to know if they knew of anywhere I could apply to for emergency funding,” she says. “They came down and met with us and were impressed by what they saw so they offered to merge with us. We would have closed without that link-up. We are still a free-to-use service and rely 100% on voluntary contributions to keep the school running but now we come from a larger organisation with a bigger infrastructure.”

Being part of the Dame Vera Lynn Trust may offer more security but it has not reduced the never-ending need to raise funds - it costs about �7,500 a year for every child on its books and there are currently 22 of them.

They include three-year-old Sebastian Konrath, who has a form of cerebral palsy called hemiplegia, which affects the right side of his body and his speech and language development. He has been attending the school since he was just a year old.

He and his mother, Juliet, travel from their home in Bury St Edmunds to Sproughton each week for a morning session of exercises and pre-school education based around songs, craft activities, games and toys.

Sebastian’s difficulties were not picked up at birth but became obvious when he was just a few months old.

“At five and a half months he developed infantile spasms, which is like a baby fit, where his muscles would tense up,” says Juliet.

His condition was diagnosed after an MRI scan and before long, the Sproughton school was recommended by someone who knew of its work.

“They are focused on his needs and getting him to use the weaker side of his body in a fun kind of way and because it is classroom-based it is getting him prepared for what he will experience in school. Sebastian is certainly growing in confidence and it is good for him socially to meet other children too. We feel the sessions are so worthwhile for him.

“With hemiplegia because it is such hard work and effort to use his weaker side he tends not to and I find it difficult to get him to do that. Being in this environment gets him to do what he should be doing. It just reinforces everything you would be doing at home anyway in a positive way.

“He will always have a weakness in that right side but this work is encouraging him to use it to the best of his abilities. He is still very young so by learning these things now they will become habitual. If we did not spend time now getting him to use his weaker side he would never use it and would end up in a contracted and fixed position.

“The staff here are fantastic and very encouraging. You get a real sense that they are really keen for all the children to progress.”

It’s certainly true that Alison’s passion for what the school does comes through immediately she starts to talk about the methods used and the children’s achievements.

“What we offer is a holistic form of educational school for parents, because we are teaching them as well,” she says. “A child comes here for one session a week and is put into a group according to their needs. The important thing is that parents and children are involved together in the learning process and everything that is done in the classroom is closely related to what they would do in the home.

“With a lot of these children there has been damage to the brain which means that the pathways that should have connected haven’t connected. By repetitively completing exercises we can help children form new pathways in the brain. We start as young as six months and children can stay with us until they start school at four or five.

“By instructing the parents it is something that gets incorporated into the daily routine and the chances of success sky rocket. Children are little sponges, desperate to learn, and if you can increase the opportunties for learning, parents get to see what their children can do rather than what they can’t do. We are trying to break down the barriers because when parents are first told their child has something like cerebral palsy they can go to a bleak, dark place.”

The school works with children with a wide range of conditions, including chromosomal disorders, Down’s Syndrome and autism, as well as cerebral palsy.

“For most of our parents, no-one knew in advance there would be a problem with the child they were expecting so there is a certain amount of loss and grieving involved and also, they don’t know what to expect,” says Alison. “There is not a lot of information out there for a parent whose child doesn’t fit into the same category as most children.”

Most families are referred to the school by a paediatrician but there are some who find their own way to its services.

“When they are offered a place that is their place until they don’t need it any more,” says Alison. “We look at a child’s holistic needs, not just their health needs, and deliver the National Curriculum in our sessions. In that sense we are like any other pre-school institution. We deal with every area of a child’s development.

“Conductive education is about awakening a child’s senses. It is a way of learning that is good for anyone with motor disorders. It helps build self-esteem as you experience success on a daily basis, it develops physical stamina and independence.

“The real difference with conductive education is that we approach the lack of physical skills from an educational prospective rather than a medical one, helping new pathways form in the brain. It is active learning.”

* To find out more about the Dame Vera Lynn Trust and the Suffolk school visit www.dvltrust.org.uk/

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