How one SEN school in Greater Manchester is changing lives

A special report by ITV Granada Reports journalist Anna Youssef.

School hasn't always been a happy place for Sophia Wilkinson.

The transition from primary to secondary was difficult. Diagnosed with autism she struggled to fit in and her attendance plummeted.

Sophia, said: "I had meltdown after meltdown. They tried to get me back into school so I could have an education but I would just scream and cry because I didn't want to go back.

"It would put an extreme anxiety in my head. I just thought 'this isn't going to work.'"

Sophia, who has autism, says she felt misunderstood and like a "monster" before she started at her new school Credit: ITV Granada

The 13-year-old said she felt isolated and misunderstood. She said: "I felt like I was some sort of different person. They made me feel like I was.... a monster."

Sophia‘s now a student at Changing Lives Independent Special Educational Needs School in Greater Manchester.

It is aimed at 11 to 18 year olds who have become, or are at risk of becoming disengaged, from mainstream education, or training.

Participants who have benefitted from the programme include those with learning difficulties, anxiety, depression and those dealing with bereavement or abusive pasts.

Students are taught academic subjects as well as practical skills working with horses, dogs and small animals.

Sophia says it’s been life changing. She said: "This school taught me to smile again and be myself."

Rachael Lewis says the school saved her daughter's life and possibly her own. Credit: ITV Granada Reports

Rachael Lewis struggled for years to find the right school and the right help for her teenage daughter who is autistic and has selective mutism.

Rachael said: "Everyone else is getting on with their lives and hitting key milestones and your child can't even leave their bedroom.

"They can’t talk to anyone and you have no hope.  It was just so dark and horrible and unbearable for years."

Rachael added: "This school has saved her life and possibly mine...she is able to come here and be part of something and feel like she is achieving something.

"It just turned everything around for us."

Educational experts are warning many mainstream schools in the North West are close to breaking point because of the increasing number of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

In several council areas, the number of children being given special educational needs plans has gone up by more than 100% in five years but it's believed too many children are still not receiving the specialist support to which they are entitled.

And teaching unions are warning staff are struggling to pick up the pieces of a broken special needs system.

A recent survey by NASUWT found only 3% of teachers felt the pupils they teach who have special or additional learning needs always received the educational support to which they are entitled.

Dan Lyons felt a failure at 14. He said: "It was coming to a point where I thought I was going to do nothing in life because I did get told by one of my teachers I was a waste of space and useless."

Diagnosed with ADHD- he struggled to cope in a mainstream school and admits he was going off the rails

Dan said: "I just was skipping lessons; swearing; running around school and doing my own thing. I was doing whatever I could to avoid any lesson.

"I just didn't have the confidence to walk into a classroom and  sit down and learn because I felt other people were going to judge me because... they could do stuff that I couldn't."

Dan Lyons said he was made to feel as if he had failed at life at 14 Credit: ITV Granada

Dan’s now studying for qualifications and wants to be a horse riding instructor.

He said" "I enjoy coming to school. I enjoy coming to see the teachers.

"They actually help you and come and see if you need them and you can always talk to them."

Each student at the school has a key worker and a timetable tailored to their individual needs.

There’s a maximum of four children in every lesson.

It’s a level of support and attention not possible in mainstream but an approach teachers here believe nurtures vulnerable young people and gives them hope.

James Twyman is a SEN teacher at the school with more than 20 years of experience in education.

James said: "I think education needs to be about guiding the young person. It’s got to be about empathy.

"It’s got to be about saying we want to hear you and we want to guide you and we want to help you and that’s what I love about this place."

"A lot of children (who aren't in education) are falling through the cracks.

"They are vulnerable to county lines, to exploitation, to grooming from gangs and potentially fall into a very dangerous lifestyle."

A record number of children are refusing school since the pandemic and parental prosecutions have doubled in less than a year.

School absences were 50% higher in the past academic year than before Covid.

The rise has been attributed to a number of factors including the post-pandemic increase in children’s anxiety, mental health problems and special educational needs, insufficient school funding, and long waiting lists for CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services)

Mia Alex is 14 and loves working with horses. She has ADHD, autism and dyslexia. She felt singled out at her previous school and her attendance was poor.

Mia said: "I felt very isolated. I felt like I wasn't a person anymore because they didn't treat me like one.

"They treated me like I was some special kid they had to act different with and it just made me feel horrible about myself really."

Mia said she finds the farm environment therapeutic and loves being able to work with the animals.

Mia Alex says she's much happier since starting at the school Credit: ITV Granada

Ian Hindle's daughter, who has special educational needs, stopped attending school in year 7.

Ian said: "It's as if your whole world comes crashing down. Everything you thought was stable suddenly stops. It affected the whole family."

Ian said when his daughter started at her new school the change in her was almost immediate.

He said: "It’s been absolutely transformational her coming here. A lifesaver and a game changer for us."

Ian Hindle thinks the "one size fits all" teaching approach is flawed because it assumes all students learn in the same ways.

Ian added: "I think unfortunately there is a one size fits all mentality when it comes to education - probably partly due to the way schools are funded and when you get children with difficulties and problems... they don't fit into that sort of box so it’s easier to hope that problem goes away - well it can't go away- so this is why (this) school is such an important place."

But there aren't enough places to meet the demand.

The school deals with dozens of inquiries everyday from parents desperate to help their child.

Ali Tottem is the Headteacher and Alternative Provision Manager at Changing Lives Independent School.

She said: "We are a unique place. We are a niche place. We are a calm and relaxed atmosphere and I think that’s the biggest thing these students can sense and feel when they are round us."

"Safety is huge for these students. They need to feel safe. They need to feel they are in a caring and wanted environment.

"They have come from environments where they feel they are not wanted, they feel they are a hindrance, they feel they are different, they feel like they will never be what they call a normal child which is heartbreaking."

Sophia says she feels "lucky" to be at this school. The question is what happens to the thousands of other children still in need of a safe place to learn.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Councils are responsible for making sure there is appropriate education for all children in their area, including for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

"Our published SEND and AP improvement plan sets out how we will make sure all children with special needs and disabilities receive the support they need, with earlier intervention, consistent high standards and less bureaucracy.

"The Government's investment in the high need budget has risen by over 60% since 2019-20 to £10.5 billion, alongside investment of £2.6 billion in high needs capital over this Spending Review and doubling the number of special free school places to 19,000 once those in the pipeline are complete."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...