Mum’s cancer battle while caring for disabled daughter, 7, who faces a year off school

Carrie Leigh McLachlan is undergoing treatment for cancer at the same time as looking after her disabled seven-year-old daughter during the lockdown (Picture: Carrie Leigh McLachlan)

A mum who is battling cancer says her disabled seven-year-old daughter will have spent a year without having been to school by the time the current lockdown ends.

Carrie Leigh McLachlan has been undergoing gruelling treatment for non-hodgkin lymphoma while looking after Freya, who has not been through the gates since March. 

Carrie says she has not seen the benefits of more than £1billion of funding the Government has allocated for vulnerable families, including those whose children have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Freya, who has cerebral palsy and needs suctioning to clear her airway, has had her schooling disrupted by a combination of her complex needs, infection control precautions during Covid-19 and the national lockdowns.

Carrie, a full-time carer, also has Freya’s siblings William, 15, Oliver, 12, and university-bound Jessica, 19, at home in Wirral, Merseyside.

Primary schools were ordered to close at the weekend in a last-minute decision by the Government as it reacted to surging coronavirus rates.

Carrie said: ‘We were getting Freya ready to go back to school.

‘She has been off since February, when she wasn’t well enough to go in as she had a chest infection.

Carrie Leigh McLachlan wants more support for SEND parents (Picture: Carrie Leigh McLachlan)

‘She was due to go back when the first lockdown happened and then it was decided it was safer for her to stay at home.

‘We had been getting her ready to go back this time round, which included Zoom classes to get her used to her teachers again, and now we are back to square one.

‘She’s quite capable of learning but she’s not being given the opportunity. It’s hard for me as well because you have to make sure she doesn’t choke or vomit or have a seizure, you have to be on the ball.

‘It’s disappointing because we had been looking forward to some sense of normality and I don’t think it’s going to be February that she goes back, I think it’s going to be March.’

Carrie said that while Freya is classed as vulnerable, her school is presently only accepting the children of key workers due to staffing, with staff taking time off after either catching Covid-19 or needing to self-isolate.

Freya’s care team initially said in her Education, Health and Care Plan that she should stay away from school as a precaution against Covid-19.

The guidance changed in November but it came too late to send her back as the gates were shut on Monday.

‘Even if there had been one day a week there would have been something for her,’ Carrie said. ‘But there’s nothing at all.’

Carrie Leigh McLachlan has kept her sense of humour despite fighting cancer during the pandemic and says she will plough on with the help of coffee (Picture: Carrie Leigh McLachlan)

Carrie, 47, who has a supportive partner but is the sole parent in the home, is undergoing treatment for stage four cancer, where the disease spreads to surrounding parts of the body.

She had received 30 hours of free help a week in the home through the NHS continuing healthcare scheme but says this has been cut by a third.

Carrie is undergoing 15 rounds of radiotherapy which culminates on January 20 and will possibly be followed by further treatment.

However she said doctors have told her the outlook is ‘excellent’ as she has responded well to treatment ahead of tests in February which will show if she has overcome the disease.

On top of Freya’s needs, she also looks after William, a gifted student who is autistic and is also off school.

Freya McLachlan has not been at school since March due to the lockdowns and Covid-19 guidance affecting SEND children (Picture: Carrie Leigh McLachlan) has been highlighting the plight of SEND children and their families during the pandemic, with parents saying they feel ‘abandoned’ and ‘exhausted’ trying to cope at home.

Carrie said: ‘I think a lot of my health problems are down to the pressures of having a disabled child and being tired all the time, it comes with the territory.

‘Then you have to deal with not having the right back-up and support, it does have a massive impact on parents.’

Children’s Minister Vicky Ford told last month that SEND pupils and their families are a ‘number one’ priority.

Freya McLachlan has not been to school since before the first lockdown began in March (Picture: Carrie Leigh McLachlan)

Mrs Ford outlined support including a £37million fund for children with complex needs as well as a £1.5billion increase to the SEND budget and nurses, therapists and other professionals who were resuming their duties through schools at the time.

However, Carrie remains unconvinced by the Government’s efforts to support families like hers during the pandemic.

‘We are massively overlooked,’ she said.

‘I can point you in the direction of at least four children with disabilities who haven’t gone back to school.

‘Freya’s school is excellent and they do send learning packs home, but it doesn’t compensate for her not going in.’

Children’s minister Vicky Ford says SEND children are a top priority as she answers campaigner’s concerns (Picture: Vicky Ford/Microsoft)

Carrie is now determined to plough through the lockdown and overcome cancer for the sake of her children.

‘I’m going to keep going with great difficulty and lots of coffee,’ she said.

‘I’ve got to home-school the two boys and Freya again with the cut care hours and no local family. I’m also shielding because I’m classed as vulnerable.

‘Life is on hold again and I’m not even allowed energy drinks because of the cancer, I think the next two months are just going to be sponsored by coffee.’

The Department for Education (DfE) has said previously: Throughout the pandemic we’ve prioritised pupils with SEND including those with Education, Health and Care Plans for whom we kept schools open where it was safe to do so. 

‘We’ve provided more than £37million this year to help thousands of low-income families raising disabled or seriously ill children with the challenge they face staying at home.

‘Our £1billion Covid catch-up fund includes additional weighting for specialist settings in recognition of the higher costs they face. 

‘At the same time, we are increasing high needs funding for local authorities by £780million this year and a further £730million next year, which means high needs budgets will have grown by 24% in just two years.’

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