New West Sussex learner centre will offer alternative to school for young people with severe depression and social anxiety

A woman who dropped out of school due to severe anxiety is planning to set up a Red Balloon Learner Centre in Worthing for children who are unable to engage with mainstream education due to severe depression and social anxiety.

The charity offers an alternative to school, enabling young people affected by bullying or anxiety to grow as individuals, restore their confidence, develop resilience and build the skills they need to successfully handle returning to education, work, or further training.

Rachel Munday, who attended a similar alternative provision centre in Lancing in 2016, before it was closed down due to lack of funding, says this provision is desperately needed in West Sussex.

She said: “When I was 14, in 2014, I experienced some friendship difficulties and, coupled with deteriorating mental health, ended up with severe anxiety, which prevented me from attending mainstream school.

Red Balloon is an alternative to school which enables young people to re-engage with education

“I was out of school for over a year, until finally we were introduced to West Sussex Alternative Provision Centre for children who suffered from school phobia.

“This particular ‘medical’ unit closed in 2017 due to lack of funding, in favour of extending the unit for excluded children with complex behavioural issues.”

Rachel and her father came across Red Balloon Learner Centres earlier this year and they have been working flat out ever since to get something up and running in Worthing.

Rachel explained: “My father and I are working on a project with the charity to open a learner centre in Worthing for children who are unable to attend mainstream school due to severe anxiety, being victims of bullying or having experienced trauma.

“It will provide for the children who, like me, want to attend school but simply cannot physically attend due to severe anxiety.

“This provision will be a lifeline for children who are all too often forgotten by society, because they are unable to leave their bedrooms to access the support they desperately need. Being able to reach these families is essential.”

There are five Red Balloon centres established so far in the UK and Rachel hopes Worthing will be next.

Initially, the children will start on the Red Balloon of the Air programme, timetabled online learning with teachers and therapists based in Cambridge, presenting remotely.

Rachel said: “Typically, this is via text-based chat but there are options for voice-based if the child struggles with typing or writing.

“In the new year, we will open the learner centre and initiate a staged integration for the learners to start attending. We are in the process of securing a house that will become the centre.

“It is important for the young people that the centre looks as least like a school as possible, as it is often the look and smell that can evoke severe fear reactions.”

Red Balloon Learner Centres are an alternative to school, with a revolutionary programme offering 50 per cent wellbeing and 50 per cent academic focus.

Centres usually have a capacity of 20 children, with small classes and a team of experienced teachers, mentors and therapists. The aim is to reconnect each child with their community, as well as securing qualifications for the next stage of their lives.

Rachel said: “Red Balloon has 25 years of experience and has a 95 per cent success rate of children returning to mainstream education, training or employment.

“As part of this programme, a local mentor based in Worthing will be in contact with the child. This will be an individual trained in the Red Balloon philosophy and practice, who can visit the child at home. Often, at first, this means talking to the child through a closed door or from under the bed!.

“The mentor will support them while they do their online programme and help them to develop confidence by taking them on social outings. We already have private pupils on this provision and are in discussion with West Sussex County Council to build a relationship with them.”

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