Dear Prime Minister,
I hope this note finds you well. I’m writing to you today as a mother of three. As it’s children’s mental health week, it feels like an appropriate time to do so.
Allow me to introduce myself
I’m Reneé Davis. I’m the survivor of a dysfunctional childhood and was failed by the education system in the nineties (I left at 15 with no qualifications). I was also bullied throughout school, so know first hand how much damage it does to one’s mental health. I suffered two breakdowns, and numerous bouts of depression as a young adult. Through sheer determination I have broken the cycle of dysfunction, to ensure that my children have a better start to life than the one I had.
My little family is neuro diverse, which means that we do not fit into a standard pigeon hole. My eldest daughter Polly was diagnosed high functioning autistic in 2015. So far, my two younger children appear to be neuro typical, but I don’t have a crystal ball. Who knows if further diagnoses are on the cards later on down the line?
Polly is a July baby, and sending her to school weeks after her fourth birthday in 2013 felt like throwing her into the lions den. She was the smallest in her year, and due to her sleep problems back then largely wandered around in a little world of her own.
I believe it was a combination of these two things that made her an ‘easy target’. She would often come home with a red note to say that she had banged her head, or injured herself during the day.
Polly suffered low level bullying from the end of reception, and all throughout year one. Not only this, but the ridiculously high expectations of learning were too much for her to cope with. She lived in a perpetual state of anxiety, and her pre and post school meltdowns dominated the happiness of the whole family. My husband and I would plough all our energies into getting Polly on track during the holidays, only to see our hard work being undone almost as soon as she went back to school.
You see she’s a classic high functioning autistic girl. She is able to convincingly mask her autism, and appears to cope in public. All the pretending to cope takes a lot of effort, and is exceptionally overwhelming for her. It got to the point where she would come home, where she felt safe, and spend up to two hours screaming. This was her way of communicating to us that she was unhappy at school, and wasn’t coping as well as she appeared to be.
After her diagnosis we thought we’d get support from the school, but none materialised. Perhaps if she had been subjecting her teachers to huge meltdowns things would have been different? That’s just my speculation though. Going against my gut instincts, I sent Polly back to school and into year two in September 2015. Within a few weeks our lives had once again become soul destroyingly hard. My husband and I knew that if we wanted different results, we were going to have to take matters into our own hands.
We made the decision to not send Polly back after the first half term of year two, and home educate her instead.
It’s not been an easy ride, but in the fifteen months that Polly’s been at home, we’ve made great progress. In addition to her core learning, we’ve invested a huge amount of effort in rebuilding her confidence, and fostering emotional intelligence. She is finally, at seven and a half, sleeping most nights. She is calmer and happier, and more patient.
Now, no two children are the same, and this is especially pertinent in a neuro diverse family such as mine. My other daughter, Clara has always been laid back and mostly happy. I say mostly because no child is going to be sunshine and rainbows 24/7 are they? Especially when they are exposed to some times unpleasant behaviour from their older siblings.
For many reasons, my husband and I made the decision to send Clara to school in September. We figured that being such an easy going kid, as well as being super bright, she would excel and flourish.
Clara loved the first few weeks of school, but sadly it didn’t last.
When she returned after the first half term, things changed for her. She wasn’t so happy about going to school in the mornings, and has a few times, point blank refused to go. She started having meltdowns after school, like her sister used to. She broke out in the same stress eczema that my husband gets on his hands when he is bogged down at work. For the first time, Clara began displaying the familiar symptoms of being seriously overwhelmed.
The decline in our girl has been shocking to witness. She has become highly sensitive, aggressive and inflexible. It’s as clear as day to me that she’s stressed out. She has little patience, and gets very upset very quickly, over things that wouldn’t have mattered to her six months ago. It feels like she’s a shadow of her former self.
One day last week Clara wasn’t feeling well, and had a raised temperature, so I kept her off school. When she saw Polly getting her learning books out, she said she wanted to practice her writing. We got her dry wipe tracing book out, and she started tracing the alphabet full of enthusiasm. By the time she got to F she’d started crying. It wasn’t long before she was completely inconsolable, screaming that she wasn’t doing her writing perfectly. She ended up shutting herself off from the rest of us by hiding behind the furniture, and didn’t come out for over an hour.
Am I the only parent who feels it’s too much to expect four year old children to learn to read and write (in joined up handwriting) from the very first term of school?
I can’t imagine that I am, but know from experience that there’s a lot of turning a blind eye us parents have to do. My husband and I weren’t always in a financial position for me to stay at home with our children. In fact I only stopped working in my part time City job weeks before we began home educating Polly. The combination of a promotion for my husband, and voluntary redundancy presenting itself to me led to me being able to drop out of the traditional workplace.
Since then I’ve been able to make a little bit of money through writing, which has kept me afloat. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have the option of staying at home. If I had financial pressure to go back to an office based job, we would be, to put it bluntly, screwed.
The school system has already failed one of my children, and it’s beginning to look like it’s failing another. The one size fits all approach does not work for so many.
Seeing the change in Clara has been nothing short of heartbreaking. It feels to me that our children’s mental health is being sacrificed for the schools numeracy and literacy statistics. That all the emphasis is put onto their academic capabilities, and very little thought is given to their emotional well-being.
I felt that too much pressure was being put on the kids when Polly was in reception. Now, three years on, I am truly astounded at the expectations put on their little shoulders. Surely at four and five, it makes more sense to invest in our children’s mental health. Wouldn’t it be better to let them learn through play, rather than forcing them to read and write?
For now I have put my faith into the Senco at Clara’s school, to see if there are interventions available to help her. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain. I’m not going to sit back and watch school turn my happy go lucky ray of sunshine into an anxious wreck.
I have signed this petition to make mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools. It currently has over 33,000 signatures, which means it will definitely get a parliamentary response.
At this point, Mrs. May, anything is worth a shot, which is why I’ve written you this letter. To ask you personally to put our children’s mental health on your agenda.