Josh was one of the first students with Red Balloon of the Air back in 2013, when it was still a pilot project. To mark our 25th anniversary, Josh has kindly agreed to share his journey, talking about what life was like at primary school, his experiences learning online with Red Balloon and where life has taken him since.
Life at primary school
“It wasn’t a happy few years, being in primary school. I felt very left out of the activities, especially around the playground. It became clear, soon after I joined really, that in some classes – especially IT – I knew more about what was going on and how to fix things than some of the teachers did. So they had me rushing around the class like a teaching assistant, helping all the children who couldn’t do it. That meant that although I was seen as quite bright, I ended being friends with those who struggled the most, and I wasn’t able to form a connection with anyone else.
It was quite lonely. I was getting by, and had a really nice teacher in year five who made all the difference. But in year six they switched the classes up so that I was in a class with only about a third of my peers, and the other two thirds were completely new to me. They told me that happened because that was going to happen anyway the following year when we went to new schools.
But that separation was the final straw for me, I guess. I started to cry in class and reached the point when I thought that I didn’t have the emotional capacity to do another day. That day, when I got home from school, I was just crying with mum and she said “that’s it. We don’t want to see you go through this anymore. Let’s take you out of school and give you time to recover.” I was very relieved when that moment came in the middle of year six that I knew that I didn’t have to go back.
It was difficult for all of us, with mum facing some long term health conditions. Dad was helping to look after her at home doing things she couldn’t, so that was something else to think about.
By the time we saw the TV documentary about Red Balloon, I’d been home schooled by mum and dad for a few months.
Starting with Red Balloon of the Air
I live in Eastbourne and that’s why Red Balloon of the Air was so appealing, because there was no way that I could have got to the Centres otherwise. Apart from the lovely Lee Royston and Bob Sproson who came to see me, I didn’t get to meet any of my trainers.
I left school in February 2010 and started at Red Balloon in 2011. It was the right thing at the right time. We never really expected to be able to access this kind of provision, but when I did it was a breath of fresh air to receive a tailored, individual learning journey.
If there was a topic I was interested in, then I had the chance to bring it up and we could explore it in more depth. One day, for example, in Maths I was thinking about 4D shapes and Helen, my teacher, said “great, let’s look into that” and we both went away and looked at some resources. There was this other time in English when I got to read Pride and Prejudice and that opened my eyes to something I didn’t think I’d enjoy or had any kind of competency at. In the end I loved it so much, and I wanted some more, and it helped set the direction for the rest of my studies.
I might have had an advantage at Red Balloon because technology was one of my interests, and it was my overall primary way of reaching other people and connecting with them in a way which I felt safe. So that form of learning and communication was my default and my only way of reaching people anyway.
We were able to spend so much time in wellbeing sessions, dedicated to recovering from what I’d been through. It was absolutely the stepping stone I needed to help me reintegrate and recover.
Going back to mainstream school
I didn’t go back into mainstream education until Year 9, in April 2013. I didn’t go to my local secondary school. I went to one that was about seven miles away, on the bus. Fresh town, fresh school, didn’t know anyone – I just wanted a fresh start.
I had a few moments of anxiety, as I hadn’t expected to be going back. But really it was the best thing that could have happened. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it, but in the end things worked out fine.
At Red Balloon I was expecting to do five GCSEs, but when I stepped into my new school I realised that I’d been signed up for 12 subjects! In the end, I managed to get them all – I got eight A* to C grades. I hardly got any sleep for most of those months!
I tried to continue my education journey at the same college in their just-launched sixth form provision, but at the time I didn’t feel able to do it and left around Christmas. I took some time to step up my caring role and look after my mum. But my friends were still there and I still wanted to do A levels so I went back the following September, and the same thing happened again and I left at Christmas. So it clearly wasn’t meant to be at the time, and I’ve been carving my own path ever since.
Carving my own path
Like many people, my path hasn’t been a straight line from A to B. I’ve tried lots of different roles from pizza delivery to IT support, to table tennis coach. Variety has been the main thing; trying lots of different hats on and seeing how they fit me. Through all of this, I’ve worked with CAMS, accessing their groups. I then became a volunteer peer mentor, and recently I did a training course to be a peer trainer, which is a paid opportunity.
At the end of November 2020, I started a job locally, helping people back into work. I had some reservations about having to go into the office, but it wasn’t long before all the regulations changed again and it was decided to have a working from home rota, so most weeks I don’t have to leave the house, and that suits me better.
I want to emphasise the importance of the wellbeing sessions I received at Red Balloon. If every school spent half the timetable learning and half of it focused on emotional support then we’d all be in a very different place.
I don’t think my progress would have been possible without Red Balloon’s help. It helped to kick start a journey which is still continuing today. When I look back it was really difficult, but if it hadn’t happened and I didn’t have the past that I’ve had…. well, I’m just really grateful.”