TRIUMPHING OVER CEREBRAL PALSY – A Truly Remarkable Wedding – Discover the Secret of Self-esteem

Meet the newlyweds – Ash & Graham Watts


For years Ashleigh has been my heroine, gaining strength and purpose from her disability. Visit her website and read “Good Health and Cerebral Palsy” and “Working with Disability” to see the substance behind those words, without one ounce of self-pity.

I very nearly missed her wedding day. Earlier in the week I unexpectedly found myself in the State-run Spital Bülach hospital in Zurich watching an intravenous drip push antibiotic medication into my system. I shall write about that and my learning experience there on another occasion. I just got back in time.

The event was to take us back twenty and more years when I was chair of governors of Barbara Priestman School in Sunderland helping the parents, teachers and pupils in their successful campaign to oppose the closure of their school. The policy of Inclusion at the time led to the closure of over 100 special schools, many, I am sure, every bit as good as BPS was and still, I believe, is. Ros, when not in the Tribunal Unit of Sunderland CAB helping her clients claim disability benefit, used to pop into the school to help Pod teach Ashleigh to read.

Ashleigh was always a feisty pupil. I remember her beating her inspirational head teacher, the late Fredwyn Haynes, over the head with a rolled-up newspaper in a piece of play-acting on a hugely impressive Presentation Evening where all manner of personal achievement was recognised. We also saw her acting at the local Royalty Theatre. More importantly she helped to front the campaign to save the school on local TV and in a lobby by parents to David Blunkett and the Department for Education. I still have the snap-shot.

When subsequently I wrote the play Death of a Nightingale to try to flag up my concern at a policy that I labelled civic vandalism and still do, Ashleigh was the role model for Tracy, the narrator in the play. Click Tracy and you can meet her.

We certainly didn’t want to miss her wedding.

We were not disappointed. The venue was a local Inn near Stanley in County Durham, just over half an hour from where we live. A church, a synagogue or a mosque could not have provided a better setting for this wedding ceremony. There were two weddings there that evening.

I would like to try to take you there.

Maybe about 100 or so guests seated expectantly on either side of the aisle. First, under the watchful eye of Graeme Danby of English National Opera fame, a bridesmaid and page boy scattered rose petals on the aisle. Then a group of nymph-like girls danced joyfully up the aisle. Among them Holly Irving, Ashleigh’s dancing teacher and one of her bridesmaids. Then came Ashleigh herself, radiant, her wedding dress sparkling, her electric wheelchair her regular companion. To greet her, her husband-to-be, Graham, also like Ashleigh a twin with a welcoming smile he never lost throughout the rest of the proceedings.

A primly dressed lady, keeping her own joy under tight professional control, asked all the right questions, received all the right answers, Paul, best man and Graham’s twin brother produced the ring and, to untold joy around, she welcomed to the gathering Mr and Mrs Graham Watts.

 Graeme Danby and Valerie with their lovely voices sang All I ask of you from Phantom of the Opera. Ros Mearns, who had been music teacher at BPS recited Dance me to the end of love by Leonard Cohen.

One more song and the married couples retreated to complete the formalities.

Ashleigh had invited Jane Fraser, another of her teachers at BPS and another long-standing friend, along with her husband Gordon to witness the wedding.

There is a little truth here that I hope teachers especially will recognise. Ashleigh was not disadvantaged in a special school. It was not a deprivation of any legal right to be “segregated” with teachers like Ros Mearns and Jane Fraser, with many more like them. It was very good fortune. Parity of esteem is meaningful only to those with an inferiority complex. And it is usually applied to only half of a school cohort and, for the less fortunate, is not much more than a paper-thin qualification with letters after their name.

What is important is self-esteem, being comfortable in your own skin- not easy especially if you are in a mainstream school where bullying children with special needs is chronic, endemic and positively cruel despite best endeavours to prevent it. Now cyber-bullying too! In contrast, self-esteem was BPS’s gift to Ashleigh. By right It should be a gift to every child in every school.

Does the teaching profession see that? Do some politicians properly concerned about suicides, mental health of children and the over-dependence on Ritalin, and exclusions see that? Or do they much prefer to look the other way, any other way? As a regular reader I include Times Ed. For the last forty years no troubling thought at night for them, just what have we done?

Ashleigh recognised it. When we moved to the Buffet, included at her table, Ros Mearns, Jane Fraser, Trish George a parent governor, Victoria Miles, her drama teacher, my wife Ros and me with Graeme Danby & Valerie. We had all provided the add-on value to her life.

Trish brought back a special memory for me. Sunderland Council’s Director of Education invited parents to a meeting to sell mainstream education to replace BPS. I suggested to Trish that she asked for a show of hands. She did. It was a very well-attended meeting. Not one single hand went up supporting the Director. A warning he did not heed.

From Ros Mearns I learnt that Emily, once a pupil, and in their famous Pans, was now the music teacher at BPS. Meanwhile Marcus, another pupil, was now a teacher at Portland School for PMLD pupils.

Jane had now retired from her headship in the Cedars School in Gateshead. After we both lost our links with BPS, I kept myself informed about special needs visiting her there. I invited her to in a discussion on the play on its opening night at the New End Theatre in Hampstead but, not for the first time in my life, or the last, a dissenting voice was denied the oxygen of publicity by people who may be book wise but are certainly not street-wise and rely on their own tiny window to a highly complex world.

Then after the buffet, a dance led on to the floor, needless to say, by Graham and Ashleigh. Graham had been well prepared. Ashleigh had taken him to Dance City in Newcastle to learn the steps with Holly.

This wedding was special, not likely to be forgotten by anyone there. One thing made it even more so.

First a question, especially for the teaching profession. Should teachers care as well as teach? Those at BPS did, and still do even after their pupils go into the outside world. This is the result.

On a wedding day every bride wants to look her loveliest. This day was no exception.

Ashleigh told the assembled gathering that she and Graham wanted to raise £1,000 for Macmillan Nurses and to that end they were shaving their heads to obtain sponsors. You might like to help them meet their target. Please click chip in and join Ashleigh’s fan club.









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