In April, Barnet Borough Council slashed money for disabled play activities at Mapledown School. A month later, the activities given a stay of execution for another year, but teachers and parents are fearful for its future. Times Series reporter Anna Slater spoke to families about what the service means to them.
When disabled play activities at Mapledown School in Claremont Road, Cricklewood, were cut in April, teachers and pupils were forced to face a “cruel” reality.
It meant many parents would have had to give up work to care for their children, and would have had dramatic repercussions on the youngsters' physical and mental health.
The £45,000 scheme was slashed to help Barnet Borough Council save cash – but weeks later, Barnet Borough Council's overview and scrutiny committee ordered it to be sent back to the drawing board.
The ruling Conservative group then agreed to keep the funding for another year, saying it had created a “constitutional blunder” by effectively freezing £1.9m of its services.
But to parents, teachers and children at Mapledown, keeping the play activities was anything but a blunder.
As I am given a tour of the school by lead learning support advisor Sweeney Chand, a corridor fills with the sound of the Rihanna song What’s My Name.
We follow the sound to a classroom, where I am greeted by teacher Crista Lewis. She is finger painting with a group of five children, and offers me a rainbow-coloured hand.
Cradling 13-year-old Lauren in her lap, she said: “They have so much fun. You can see it on their faces.
“It gives them the emotional stimulation they so badly need.
“But when the activities didn’t run, they stopped concentrating in class. It was heartbreaking.”
Next to her is Baruch Cramer, 12, who is bopping up and down to the music in his wheelchair. When Rihanna finishes he requests his favourite – the Black Eyed Peas, I’ve Got A Feeling.
Next, I meet 12-year-old Kazim, who is bouncing a ball in a large classroom. He’s visually impaired and struggles to walk, but he’s being looked after by teacher Helen Wells. As I’m talking to her, he leaps up at me with a friendly smile.
“You could see how upset they were after school when the club’s stopped. Some of them can’t afford to miss it. Sending them home was tough,” she admits.
Kazim is getting ready to go into splash and play – where pupils are given one-to-one sessions with a teacher in a warm hydrotherapy pool.
They can chose from a range of lively or calm music, and gentle lights flicker to help heighten their senses.
Inside the pool, lead learning support advisor Lucy Myland is supporting little Hannah Ahmed in her arms. The minute Hannah's body hits the water, a wave of relief passes over her face.
“For the children who are in a wheelchair, it’s one of the only times a day they can actually relax their muscles," says Lucy. "They’re usually very tense.
“Their personalities come out in the water. It does more than help them emotionally – they need this physically, too.”
Before I leave, I stop in the sports hall to meet some of the more physically able children, most of whom are autistic.
Sweeney tells me it’s one of their most important features, as many of the children here have no sense of danger, so the energy build up can cause problems at home.
The minute I walk in, 17-year-old David comes running towards me to give me a high-five. “I love coming here, it’s where I can make friends. My favourite thing is the bikes.
“I was sad when I couldn’t come, it was boring.”
For some, the reaction was stronger. Sweeney said: “When the club stopped and the children knew they weren’t coming, they refused to get on the bus. It ruined their routine.
“It’s amazing to be back up and running but we’re worried for the future, for their future.”
As she helps pile the exhausted yet happy children into the school bus, Sweeney adds: “Just look at the smiles on their faces. It’s like their second home.”