Home is where the start is

Carolyn O'Grady meets Ann Sherwood, a pioneer of the Portage movement, who was recently honoured by the Queen.

Portage workers are usually among the unsung heroes and heroines of special needs. But last month, the home visiting service for under fives with special needs saw one of its own given public recognition.

Ann Sherwood, senior Portage manager in the London borough of Wandsworth, received the MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list for services to the Portage movement and education. Even more pleasing to the movement must have been the fact that it was parents who nominated her, for parents are central to the whole ethos of Portage.

"They are the most important people in a child's life", says Ann. "We only go into homes for about a hour to an hour-and-half a week. Parents have the child all week."

Portage was devised in a town of that name in Wisconsin in the USA as a way of meeting the needs of socially-disadvantaged children and those with special needs. Its principal concern was helping parents help their children.

Wisconsin is a rural state and it was decided to take the service to families rather than vice versa. It soon became apparent that this approach had merit in its own right - "A very young child feels more relaxed and happy in his or her own home and so do parents. It's common sense really," says Ann.

Home visiting remains a first principle. The programme of work and activities is worked out with parents. "We don't go in like a music teacher and say 'he's got to practice his scales'. Everything is negotiated."

The goal is to provide parents with the skill and confidence to help their children, but it is also to help them through the period, sometimes described as a kind of bereavement, when they learn that their child has special needs.

Often such parents are extremely vulnerable and uncertain, an easy target for administrative bullying. Ann Sherwood remembers a mother who had been told by a local authority that she had to send her child to day nursery: "I was shocked. Would they dream of telling other parents where they had to send their child?" The experience made her unflinching champion of parents' rights.

"We encourage parents to be more in control of their children's futures and lives. If we can tell them what is out there, they can make up their own minds."

She began her work with under-fives after 15 years of bringing up her own four children; previously she had worked as a primary school teacher. "In the Seventies the Inner London Education Authority was developing nursery education really well and it seemed to me that was where the future lay."

She retrained as a nursery school teacher, and began working in a nursery unit in a Lambeth primary school. It was there that she encountered Tom, a child with Down's Syndrome, who was instrumental in bringing her into the Portage movement.

Tom, who with the aid of determined parents was to go right through mainstream education, was a vivid demonstration of the potential of special needs children. He had had Portage teaching and his mother was enthusiastic. Encouraged by her, Ann took a course in Portage, then only a fledgling movement in this country.

Her first job was with the newly-launched voluntary Portage service in Wandsworth. "At one time it was just me in a room in a school", she admits. More than once Portage had to be rescued from oblivion by parents' lobbying. But the service survived and its future in the borough now looks secure.

What was originally a volunteer service is funded by the borough as part of an integrated service. There are one part-time and two full-time workers and three volunteers currently helping 31 local children, many of whom are severely disabled. The service receives weekly supervision from educational psychologists and has a management team which includes representatives from many services and two parents.

"These parents get a chance to meet people who can change things", says Ann, emphasising once again the fundamental importance of parents in the Portage service. It is a source of pride to her that several parents who originally received Portage have now become workers themselves. "No-one can empathise with parents better than parents themselves."

It is a respect which is reciprocated. Caroline Russell was one of the parents who organised the nomination of Ann Sherwood. With her daughter, Catherine, who has Down's Syndrome, she has been having Portage for several years. "It has made all the difference," she says. "It's helped me to help Catherine to achieve milestones which children without special needs usually achieve without help: to take her first steps, to build things with bricks, for example.

"Ann has provided support in every possible area. When you have a child with special needs, it takes your breath away. She was always there; we had her home phone number. She gave advice and support at every step of the statementing process, and came with me on school visits, which can be very daunting. She's a mine of information".

Other parents obviously felt the same way: the majority of those contacted by Caroline Russell, and the other organisers of the nomination, were not only willing to sign the general form which summed up why she should receive an honour, but also wrote individual letters giving their own personal reasons.

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