Video and Gallery: Forces Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn meets Suffolk children

CHILDREN from a Suffolk school which was threatened with closure met the musical legend who came to their rescue yesterday.

CHILDREN from a Suffolk school threatened with closure have met the musical legend who came to their rescue.

The School for Parents, which works with children with cerebral palsy and their families, welcomed Dame Vera Lynn and soprano Hayley Westenra to their official relaunch yesterday.

It was a chance to celebrate the school’s new bright future and thank the charity headed by Dame Vera and the young New Zealander for stepping in at the 11th hour.

“It was great to meet the children,” said ex-Forces Sweetheart Dame Vera, 93, after being shown around the Sproughton school.


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“It was lovely to see them attempting their games and their songs and I was tempted to join in with them.

“Music is a great medium for teaching. The singing helps them understand to a certain extent.”

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Head of Early Years, Alison Stonham, said the Burstall Lane school was just weeks from closure after struggling to raise enough funds to keep it going. “In July, we started winding things up because the funding situation was so dire we thought we would have to close,” she said.

But it was thrown a lifeline when the Dame Vera Lynn Trust, which runs a similar school in Sussex, offered to operate its fundraising activities. It has now taken over as a parent organisation.

The trust has brought in a professional fundraiser to arrange large-scale events, seek corporate sponsors and apply for grants to ensure the school can continue offering hands-on support for youngsters with special needs.

“We have realised that fundraising is a full-time job,” said the specialist teacher. “You cannot do it alongside your normal work in the classroom.”

The Suffolk School for Parents, which runs the schools, takes a unique approach to working with children with special needs – they have a maximum of six children in each class and they work with the parents.

They spend half of the weekly session working on physical skills, learning through song, movements and touch and then have a snack session so parents can learn the best way to get their children to eat.

The school can take up to 60 children a term and teaches those aged from around three months to five years, however, they currently only have 13 families registered because they did not think they would be running this year.

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A MUM who took her daughter to weekly sessions at the school for four years described the near-closure as tragic.

Hannah Mitchell, now eight, was just nine months old when she first joined the school. “It was the friendship that helped me more than anything else,” said her mum, Alison, of Bramford.

“The school gives you a chance to meet people who are in the same situation as you. You can bounce ideas off the other parents.”

She added: “It was so disappointing when we heard it was going to close. It would have been tragic if children like Hannah were unable to experience such a great school.”

Hannah now attends the Thomas Wolsely School in Defoe Road, Ipswich, four days a week and spends the fifth day at Bramfords Primary School.

“Going to a mainstream school once a week gives her the chance to socialise with other children and it makes them aware that we are not all the same.

“There are people out there who are different.”

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DAME Vera Lynn was born in East Ham, London, in March 1917. She was named Vera Margaret Welch, but adopted her grandmother’s maiden name of Lynn.

The singer’s career flourished during the Second World War, when she was nicknamed The Forces’ Sweetheart.

She said yesterday that the most cherished song in her repertoire is We’ll Meet Again, one of the best-known wartime songs. “That song has gone around the world. It is a wonderful expression and it speaks of home.”

Dame Vera is one of the last surviving wartime entertainers. It was through the world of entertainment that she became involved in the care of children with special needs.

“In the 1950s, I belonged to a theatrical organisation which fundraised for charitable causes. We used to have big concerts at one time, but they cost so much to put on that we had to forego those concerts and find other ways of raising money.”

In 1982, she established the Dame Vera Lynn Trust and �1m was raised to open the Sussex school for children under the age of five.

They introduced conductive learning, established in Hungary, which sees children working with their parents.

“The parents can continue the idea at home, it is really a matter of signing or acting, anything that the child can understand.”

Hayley Westenra, who was chosen as vice president because her music and image are similar to that of Dame Vera, added: “It is a critical age and it is important that they get this support at this young age.”

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