"I still don't understand how the school could have done this...It's just heartless..."
Nicola Newns has been at her wits' end since her son, Ben, died of a very rare form of asthma three years ago, aged just twelve. At the time, the community and his school, Buile Hill Visual Arts College, mourned such a tragic loss of life at such a young age.
"The teachers cried at the time but those there now don't know what we as a family went through" says Nicola. Ben had one of the worst forms of asthma imaginable, and his older brother, Jacob, has the same serious illness...
"Our consultant told me three months before Ben died to make memories with my children because the asthma is that bad" she recalls "In intensive care they have to incubate them and that is becoming more difficult. The last time I took Jacob in, they couldn't get a vent down and we nearly lost him. So I'm lucky every day that Jacob wakes up...but the school was more 'Education, education, education'..."
Understandably, Nicola was consumed with her son's health and if he was feeling ill kept him off school... "My action plan states 'Keep him at home, keep my eye on him, make sure that he doesn't deteriorate, and any sign of deterioration send him to the hospital, no questions asked'...and that is what we did" she explains.
"If he was bad and I'd sent him to school, and he'd had an asthma attack in the corridor or bathroom I would never ever forgive myself or the school" she adds "And that was my concern and why I kept him at home and kept my eye on him. I think any parent would, when you've got that hanging over your head... 'What if, what if'...when he's in my eyesight I know he's ok. I wanted to keep my son here so that eventually he can have an education and he can have a life."
The school took a different view, recording 'unauthorised absences' and, says Nicola, refusing sometimes to believe that he was ill at all...
"Because I didn't have a letter of proof to say 'This is what happened', the school thought he was just not turning up" she adds "It got to the point where I felt so threatened and bullied by the school that I refused to call them because they would literally insinuate on the phone that I was a liar...
"They'd say 'Oh no, we've seen him out', and I'd go 'Ok you've seen him going to the shop and coming back maybe because the child can't go far out of sight'. They'd say 'He's been seen talking to his friend'...but he wasn't going out enjoying himself, he was actually at home trying to breathe. With the history of losing Ben surely they should have realised that it was important for me to keep my eye on him."
Finally the school fined Nicola £50 for 'unauthorised absences', which she refused to pay on principle... "I thought 'I'm not paying this, Jacob is a genuinely poorly child, he's not wagging it'" she explains "Jacob did go a bit wobbly after Ben died, and that is understandable because he'd just lost his brother and thought he was next. So he didn't want to go into school. He had panic attacks and cried himself to sleep but the school didn't see that, and I had to put up with all that."
The case went to Manchester and Salford Magistrates Court last month but a solicitor got the hearing adjourned for further medical reports. On the court papers the school catalogues the absences, including one occasion a few years ago when it couldn't contact Nicola for two hours. The papers document the response from Nicola at the time, saying she was in an ambulance on the way to hospital after Jacob had suffered a severe asthma attack.
"Then they complained that they couldn't get hold of me for four days, and that was because he was in intensive care fighting for his life" she explains "Yes, they couldn't get hold of me for four days, because I was sat by my child's bed praying he gets better. They did not give a damn. It was just 'We need to know'. To be honest, I didn't care. I just wanted my son to be okay because this incident happened almost ten months to the day since I'd lost Ben."
The case was due to go back to the Magistrates' Court this month, on Jacob's 17th birthday, but in the morning of the hearing, the judge reviewed the medical evidence and threw out the charges. In the process, the school was saved from an embarrassing public hearing.
"I still don't understand how the school could have done this" says Nicola "I had to pay for my son's funeral and now they wanted to fine me? It's just heartless. All through this, the Head Teacher, Mr Inman never spoke to us. There was nothing from him; it was all through the attendance office. I didn't understand why he didn't get involved."
Jacob left Buile Hill at the end of the last school year... "We to the clinic last week and they said 'He's got no hopes, no dreams'...I feel like he's giving up educationally wise and now he's backed off" says Nicola "It's awful to see. No-one wants that for their child. They want them to be happy and fulfilled. I don't want him to give up on his hopes. I just feel so sorry for him..."
The Salford Star contacted Buile Hill Visual Arts College about the case. The school responded...
"To get any case to court, schools have to go through rigorous systems of checks and consultations which involve multiple agencies and of course, the family. It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the range of intervention we adopted with Jacob and his family other than to say that it was extensive.
"Throughout this process the school have put Jacob's safety, welfare and education at the centre of all the decision making" it added "Jacob is a lovely young man who has huge potential, really bright prospects and as a school, we have always endeavoured to support him with all of our available resources..."