Education: Closure threat for school that provides breath of fresh air for asthmatic pupils

Britain's only school dedicated to helping children with severe asthma and eczema is to close after 42 years. Parents told Lucy Ward, education correspondent, of the miracles Pilgrims School has worked.

Two years ago, Katie Faulkner's asthma was so bad that she gasped for breath after a few steps uphill. When her family went on holiday, they had to take an extra suitcase just to transport the drugs and nebuliser she needed to keep her condition under control.

Today,15-year old Katie, from Colchester, Essex, is able to run, swim and canoe and has just gained a bronze award for trampolining. Instead of pulling a nebuliser mask over her face every two or three hours, she uses small hand-held inhalers whenever she feels breathless.

The improvement, she and her family say, is down to her move to Pilgrims School in Seaford, East Sussex. Housed in a former school for children with tuberculosis who benefited from the sea air, the boarding school has, since 1955, been working educational and medical wonders for young asthma and eczema sufferers unable to attend mainstream establishments.

At the start of this term, however, parents and children were devastated to hear that the school is to close in December. I CAN, the small charity running Pilgrims, claims a dramatic fall in pupil numbers and a resulting operating shortfall of pounds 400,000 a year have made the school unviable.

Though there is capacity for 56 pupils, all of whom have access to round- the-clock medical care as well as a full education from 43 staff, only 21 places were confirmed at the start of the academic year. I CAN blames a combination of changes in the management of asthma and eczema, with an increasing emphasis on mainstream schooling, and severe funding pressures in local health and education services.

A statement yesterday described a "difficult decision taken with great sadness" but added: "Unfortunately to date nobody has been prepared to help us and we simply do not have the resources to continue to support the school alone."

Parents of Pilgrims pupils, who yesterday held a 25-strong demonstration outside I CAN's London offices, reject the charity's conclusion. They claim it allowed the school's profile to slip, doing too little to raise awareness of its facilities among parents of asthma suffers until it was too late. With each pupil bringing pounds 28,000 annually in funding from their local education authority, a full school would be perfectly viable, parents insist.

Patricia Faulkner, mother of Katie, said the school had immeasurably benefited her daughter, who had been struggling with just three hours' home tuition a week after illness forced her to leave her mainstream secondary school. She now faces a search for a suitable alternative school prepared to accept her, but fears she will have to return to home tuition.

Despite yesterday's protest, the closure plans remained unchanged last night. The families are now considering whether they could take over the school themselves.

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