Jamie left school in February 2015 when he was just 11. Now aged 16, he had tried five different educational providers before starting with Red Balloon. He has autism and suffers from anxiety and agoraphobia, and he found that other ‘schools’ weren’t flexible enough to meet his needs.
“I’d been with five different educational providers before starting with Red Balloon. The last time I was actually in a mainstream school was February 2015; more than five years ago. I stopped going because I was too anxious. There were so many people there and I didn’t like it. And at the time I couldn’t eat properly outside of the house, and if you don’t eat then you can’t really learn.
The school didn’t really try to keep me learning. They sent out maybe one pack of work and they came round; but everything they tried felt like an empty gesture.
After I decided to leave in the February, there was about three months of not doing much. I didn’t have a lot of schoolwork because I wasn’t given any at that time, so I had to keep myself busy. I either cooked or cleaned or did some gardening so I had something to do. I had an autism support worker who helped me go out every couple of weeks, to the park or whatever. It got me out of the house, but I didn’t enjoy it that much.
When Yvonne from Red Balloon first came round, she came with a laptop but I didn’t really think anything good would come of it, because all the other provisions I’d tried hadn’t worked.
It took about four months to actually like Red Balloon, and in the end I’m glad I did because it is good and I’m still here. But it took a while to trust them.
I was quite surprised with how quickly I felt comfortable with Red Balloon. The lessons aren’t too long and it was like a proper school, but at home.
What I like is that there isn’t a huge pressure in the lessons or with the homework, so if I’m late for a lesson people don’t get annoyed or frustrated, you just turn up and do the lesson. Also you don’t have to call the teachers Miss or Mr; it’s proper, not formal. Red Balloon teachers are much more approachable.
I still have a mentor, Jo, and she’s really good. At the moment, all our sessions are online because of the pandemic. I prefer them in person, because Jo was the only person I’ve seen from Red Balloon at home consistently. It’s going to be better when Jo can come back here, but it’s good online as well.
I’ve been into Red Balloon’s centre in Winship House. I helped move a lot of their stuff in last year [January 2019] and then I was invited to the Grand Opening, which I went to. I’ve got loads of photos of the event.
But then, within about four months, I had a really bad panic attack going to the Centre, so I didn’t go back. I ended up being agoraphobic but I carried on with the lessons because they’re online.
I’m still agoraphobic; it’s been nearly a year now since I last went out in a car. Although I’ve actually been going out more in the coronavirus lockdown because everyone’s staying away from each other, and that suits me because I dislike people getting really close. It makes me uncomfortable.The fact that there are less people on the street has made it easier for me. I’ve started going out again, and I got a new bike last week. About six months ago I could only go about ten metres from the back gate, and now it’s usually about three kilometres. Yesterday was my longest bike ride, which was 20 kilometres. I’m trying to go up new roads and find different pathways. It was scary but fun.
I was meant to be finishing my GCSEs and going on to something else this year but with my agoraphobia and the restrictions because of pandemic, the best option is to just carry on at Red Balloon and improve my grades. I’m doing three GCSEs at the moment – psychology, maths and chemistry. And then there’s the social things like the online community and PSHE. I talk to other students during the lessons, but I don’t really talk to people outside of the lessons, but there’s the opportunity there if I wanted to.
What I want to do when I’ve finished at Red Balloon changes but the main one idea I’ve had for the past year has been gardening or grounds work somewhere. Art is another interest of mine, but that’s not something that you can easily earn money from. So at the moment, art is like a hobby that could turn into something more. I won’t stop doing it, because it helps with my anxiety. In the meantime, gardening is fun and it’s something that could be more profitable.
Red Balloon is a constant for me.
So even when everything was really difficult last year and I wasn’t engaging quite so much, I was still carrying on with lessons and I didn’t stop. Whereas with other provisions, I just stopped when things got difficult and I had to find something else
If anyone out there is considering Red Balloon, I’d say “just do it.” If the opportunity is there, and it’s going to be more suitable than what they have or haven’t got at the minute, just try it out!”