A mum who decided to take her daughter out of school because its early start time was damaging her mental health has encouraged other parents to do the same.
Amy McInerney, from Blackburn, is fighting to push back school opening times after watching her daughter India struggle each weekday.
The now 10-year-old suffered from leg cramps, itchy skin and would tearfully gag on her breakfast – so severe was the thick, miserable morning cloud that descended over her.
After years of being scolded by teachers for turning up late, the mum-of-three decided to home school India, who has autism and dyspraxia.
Amy says that the change in her daughter has been so “astronomical” that she now wants other parents to do the same and ditch the morning school commute.
“Every morning she would wake absolutely exhausted from lack of sleep, or groggy from her sleep regulating medicine when it did work,” the 30-year-old single mum said.
“She would cry so hard as she tried to function, tried to get dressed, battled with the pains in her legs as her cramps attacked her.
“(Since we started home schooling) The change in her has been astronomical. Her social skills have improved, she’s caught up in her learning.
“She’s found out who she is, what she’s good at, and she’s learning about things that interest her.”
Amy says she knew from the first day her daughter went to school that it was going to be an uphill struggle.
Even though the early years of primary school are play based, India found the days long and stressful.
“I noticed an instant regression in her learning and a change in her personality,” Amy said.
Over the following years India was diagnosed with a series of learning difficulties which, along with her leg and joint pains, partly explained why she’d often struggle to sleep until 3am.
Catching just a few precious hours of sleep a night during those important formative years left India exhausted and highly emotional.
The school day would begin at 6.30am to 7am, with India typically taking half an hour to wake up and then another 30 minutes to groggily eat her breakfast.
Amy would then help her sleepy girl get dressed and put her hair up – a “mammoth” task because of her sensory issues.
“She’s got thick frizzy hair and she would scream, even after using detangle spray and soft brushes,” Amy said.
“India would have to be out the house for 8.20 to miss the morning rush, but we were never out of the house before then.
“The road to school was always busy, past the hospital especially and we would always be late.
“She would be stressed, overwhelmed, crying begging me not to leave her.
“The school gates closed at 8.45am so for them to make it on time it would have to be before that.
“Some teachers were more understanding than others. But at the end of the day schools have a target to meet and when children like mine are consistently late or absent it has a negative impact on the school’s reputation.”
After several years of fighting the good fight each morning, Amy decided to take India out of mainstream education and teach her at home in January 2020.
Now India’s days unfold very differently.
She wakes up at 9.30am to 10am and “learns as she goes” throughout the day, with no set learning hours, no school uniform and no need to tie her hair up.
“We bake, craft, forage out in the woods, make things, grow things, talk about life, the world, how to pay bills,” Amy said.
“Maths is done through shopping and baking. India loves to tell stories, sing, play on her keyboard, write my shopping lists, play on her computer and she crafts magic wands and sells them.”
Amy says India is now learning at the age of a nine-year-old for most subjects, having previous lagged several years behind, and excelling at science.
She is so happy with the results that she wants other parents to do the same, and for schools to be more flexible with their start times.
She continued: “I think that a 10am start would hugely benefit the children that need it most.
“Obviously this would be a personal choice on behalf of the parents whether they send their child on time or whether they send their child that hour later in order to give their child time to come around in a morning.
“It may only be an hour, but that hour makes a huge difference to a child that needs it.
“There would be no later finishing time because let’s be honest, that first hour in a morning is mainly settling the children in, taking the register etc.
“Any learning that they do miss could be taken home. Usually it’s a spelling test. Or at least it was at my child’s school.
“Their mental health and well being is so much more important than being a number in a bunch of statistics.”
Amy added: “Don’t get me wrong being home educated doesn’t take away her autism or her dyspraxia but what it does do is allow her a safe place to be exactly who she needs to be.”
The idea of starting school later in the day is not a new one.
A four year study of an English state school last decade found that pushing start times back to 10am from 8.50am saw illness rates drop by half after two years and academic progress jump 12%.
Numerous studies in the US, where schools often start at 7am, found similar results among younger, primary aged students.
Amy has been inspired by such research and motivated by the relaxed attitudes of schools during the Euro 2020 finals – when kids were allowed to come in later after England games – to push for change.
“If schools can easily send out a text to allow tired children a few hours extra in bed for their wellbeing after a football match, why then couldn’t this allowance be made every day for those children with physical and mental disabilities that torment them every day?” she asked.
“It’s time schools started making exceptions for those children who really need that extra time in the morning.”