An Aberdeen mum branded the education system a ‘mess’ as she prepares to join hundreds of parents of autistic kids in a march on Holyrood.
Stephanie Vavron has more than 330,000 followers on TikTok, after she set up an account 18 months ago to chronicle life with an autistic child.
Formerly a hairdresser, the success of her social media means she is a ‘full-time TikTokker’ and campaigner for a better education for children with special educational needs (SEN).
Underfunding and closing of schools for autistic kids ‘disgusting’
She branded the Scottish Government ‘disgusting’ for what she sees as ‘criminally underfunding’ SEN schools, meaning autistic kids risk misery in mainstream education.
Her son Max, four, has non-verbal autism and cerebral palsy. Last year, Stephanie managed to get him a nursery place at Orchard Brae, an SEN school in Aberdeen.
Max was previously in a mainstream nursery, which Stephanie described as a ‘nightmare’.
And with him due to start school next year, Stephanie is worried about what the future holds for him.
Eight hundred parents to march on Holyrood
Along with a group of mums in a similar situation, Stephanie has organized a national protest outside the Scottish parliament on June 21.
As many as 800 parents with autistic children will march on Holyrood to demand action by the Scottish Government to ensure all autistic children are entitled to a place at an SEN school.
Stephanie, 36, says the bottom line is that autistic kids can’t cope in a mainstream educational setting. Something she found out when Max had to attend a mainstream nursery.
“The staff couldn’t cope, they just couldn’t meet his needs,” she said. “They were understaffed and not educated in autism at all.
“It wasn’t the staff’s fault – they were amazing. But they just didn’t know how to cope with him.
“I’d get phone calls at work about him, it was just so stressful.
“I was dreading going up to the nursery. I’d get letters about things he’d done.
“He was in the completely wrong setting.
“I fought and I fought and managed to get him into an SEN school and in the year since then he’s just flourished. He’s come on leaps and bounds.”
‘They’ll just shove him wherever they can’
Max risks being placed in a mainstream setting again when he starts school next August. Something Stephanie says is simply not an option for him, and thousands of kids like him.
“In January, Max’s case will go to a panel, who will read the paperwork and decide whether he will go to an SEN school.
“If there isn’t space, they’ll just shove him wherever they can.
“But mainstream school doesn’t work for kids like Max, you need a specialized way of educating these kids.
“Their behaviour is very complex and can be aggressive.
“I’m still learning every day, but staff in mainstream schools get about 24 hours’ education on autism.
“It would be like sending a kid from Scotland into a French school, it just doesn’t work.”
Petition reaches 40,000 signatures in a week, with celebrities on board
Stephanie and the other Scottish mums’ choice of June 21 to protest is deliberate.
A protest had already been organized at Westminster on the same day, and Stephanie felt parents north of the border needed to make their voices heard too.
A UK-wide petition has amassed 40,000 signatures in just a week. Signatories include celebrities such as singer Stacey Solomon, TV presenter Gregg Wallace, and influencer Sophie Hinchliffe, better known as Mrs Hinch.
Stephanie said: “The Scottish Government have criminally underfunded SEN schools and closed them up and down the country. It’s disgusting.
“I can only assume the rates of mental health problems in disabled kids in mainstream schools has soared.
“There’s no support for SEN workers and no support for parents of SEN children. It’s a big mess.”
Parents of autistic kids supporting each other in the middle of the night
Far from setting out to be a TikTok star, Stephanie set up her account simply to connect with other parents of autistic kids.
What followed was a snowball effect, with thousands of parents who had previously felt alone finding connection with Stephanie’s daily struggles, which included the breakdown of her marriage.
“I didn’t know where to turn,” she said.
“So I started the TikTok as a place to vent, and soon realized that there were hundreds and hundreds of parents in the same situation who weren’t getting any help.
“I found myself doing live streams at 2am – because Max wouldn’t sleep – with other parents who were also up because their child wouldn’t sleep.
“We’d sit there with a coffee and talk about our frustrations. What can we do? Why do we not have a voice?
“We’d get upset, and have a cry, but it meant we didn’t feel so alone.”
‘No-one is going to fight this for us’
Groups are being bussed down to Edinburgh from all over the country for next month’s protest.
“The support has been phenomenal,” said Stephanie.
“We need to fight this, because no-one else is going to do it for us.”
Scottish Government responds to criticism
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the number of pupils identified with additional learning support needs had increased markedly since 2010, and there continues to be a year-on-year increase.
She said: “Spending on additional support for learning by authorities reached a record high of £830m in 2021/22.
“We have also invested an additional £45m since 2019/20 and provide over £11m of funding to directly support pupils with complex additional support needs and services to children and families.
“Children and young people should learn in the environment which best suits their needs and there is a range of provision available to support the needs of learners.
“It is for education authorities to determine the most appropriate educational provision.”