The school for bul­lied chil­dren

Ev­ery year, 16,000 chil­dren leave school be­cause of bul­ly­ing. Han­nah Let­ters was one of them. She tells Donna Fer­gu­son how she got back on track. Por­trait by Yves Salmon

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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.”

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.

By then, Let­ters was a wreck and could not con­tem­plate start­ing a new school. “I felt worth­less, stupid, ugly and fat – I didn’t see the point in be­ing alive. I had no mo­ti­va­tion to learn.”

Her mother’s at­tempts to home-school her soon floun­dered. Let­ters spent an en­tire year feel­ing too afraid to leave her home in case she ran into any of her old class­mates. Her

weight dropped dra­mat­i­cally and at 14, she tried to kill her­self.

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.

The key to the char­ity’s suc­cess, she says, is that chil­dren are al­lowed to ne­go­ti­ate their own cur­ricu­lum. “Th­ese kids have had a ter­ri­ble ex­pe­ri­ence and been out of school for years. When they ar­rive, they can’t look at you, they fid­get, they shield their faces, they wear hood­ies. We ask them what they are in­ter­ested in. We aim to get them back into a love of learn­ing.”

Let­ters says: “The teach­ers at Red Bal­loon don’t treat you like a child. They teach you so you can progress in what you want to do. It’s very re­laxed. You feel re­spected, and can trust them.”

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.”

It is this as­pect of the course that has had a huge im­pact on Gaby, 16 (not their real name). The trans teenager had suf­fered ver­bal and phys­i­cal ho­mo­pho­bic bul­ly­ing for years at school, de­spite re­peat­edly re­port­ing the abuse to teach­ers. By the age of 14, Gaby had started to self-harm and at 15, at­tempted sui­cide. “I couldn’t see any other way out. Other peo­ple hated me so much, I hated my­self.”

Af­ter the sui­cide at­tempt, Gaby self-ex­cluded from school. Two months later, they started learn­ing on­line with RBAir. Within a month, they had stopped self-harm­ing and ex­pe­ri­enced a dra­matic improve­ment in their men­tal health. “At first the other stu­dents didn’t know I was trans be­cause they couldn’t see me, and then later when we met up, they had al­ready ac­cepted me for who I was. Plus, when you have been bul­lied your­self, I think it makes you more tol­er­ant and open-minded.”

Three months into the pro­gramme, Gaby was dis­charged by the NHS from weekly ther­apy ses­sions. They left Red Bal­loon and restarted main­stream ed­u­ca­tion in Septem­ber.

Let­ters is feel­ing equally pos­i­tive about the fu­ture. “I feel a lot of hope.” Her mother, who has re­cov­ered from her can­cer, is a con­stant source of sup­port.

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?”

2. Don’t take your child off roll. If the school threat­ens to pros­e­cute you be­cause your child isn’t turn­ing up, go with it and say in court: “My child is not at school be­cause he or she was be­ing bul­lied and here’s the ev­i­dence – all the let­ters and emails I have writ­ten.” If you take a child off roll, you are aban­doned, she says. “You get no speech ther­apy, no coun­selling, you can’t ac­cess chil­dren’s men­tal health ser­vices – your child has ef­fec­tively gone miss­ing.”

3. Don’t crit­i­cise your kid. “They hate it. It doesn’t mat­ter if it was sar­cas­tic or a joke. Never ever say it. In­stead, lis­ten to your child. Be­lieve what they say. Un­con­di­tional love builds self-es­teem.”

‘In this coun­try, chil­dren who bully get a funded ed­u­ca­tion and the chil­dren who are bul­lied do not’

Han­nah Let­ters, who now plans to go to med­i­cal school. She hopes to be­come a neu­ro­sur­geon

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