We thought it would be great to hear from members of our forum and also the people working in the services that we work alongside. So you can get to know us and what we do a bit better.

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Anna Cheesman

Chair of SEND

Tell us a bit about your early life?

I was born in the north east of England and was raised with good strong Geordie values, I believe in honest, straight talking, if something doesn’t feel right, I won’t be silenced on it. In my teens I moved to the south east, my Mum was a teacher and we resettled here to give us a better chance at life, at the time there was a recession in the North of England and life was harder I am married with 3 sons who are 16, 14 and 3, so cover quite a lot of the 0-25 children and young people. Two of my boys have a diagnosis of ASD one diagnosed very late and one quite early. So along with my husband, kids and crazy dog, life is never boring in our household.

What has been your career to date?

I trained as a teacher and have spent most of my working life teaching, I have a passion for religious studies, philosophy, early years, dementia care and SEND. I was not a parent when I began my teaching 18 years ago, my approach to teaching has evolved since having my own SEND children. A sticker chart won’t fix it, it’s not about the parenting of the child, sometimes children and young people just need help and how you see their behaviour in the classroom is not a true representation of that individual. I appreciate that children can mask their feelings and behaviours at school, as adults we ourselves become quite different people in our daily lives and can be different again when we get home. I believe that children and young people experience this same system and they can express themselves very differently at school/college to how they would at home. I wish to challenge the professionals who do not understand this. This would mean all children and young people would feel able to be themselves, both in education and at home. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could achieve that?

What have been your own experiences?

I understand from my own experience the overwhelming frustrations when navigating the EHCP process. Over the years, I have learnt a great deal about my children’s strengths and weaknesses and we celebrate every strength and I look for support for them with their weaknesses. Sometimes the support is not available and I have learnt to become creative in whom I have asked for support from. I have also learnt there is often battle to receive it, and it's not always received in an appropriate time frame. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

In my parenting journey so far, I have learnt, by far the most from other SEND parents. They are remarkable folk! Resilient, accepting, strong and straight talking. From them I have learnt how to ask for things we need as a family to support the boys, where to ask for things and they’ve taught me to be realistic and accept there can be barriers to accessing appropriate support that shouldn’t be there.

What does SSIF do? (Southend SEND Independent Forum)

Being a member of SSIF is a voluntary role, we are completely independent and regardless of the diagnosis of my own children, I am passionate to make change for all disabilities and all SEN. I want to improve the lives of children so that the experience they have is easier, simpler, better and above all else families feel supported appropriately.

At SSIF we all have one thing in common, a drive to change a broken system. Our role in the community is not to be a support group, there are plenty of groups in Southend that do this extremely well. We are all working hard in the background gathering intelligence about systemic problems in Southend. We synthesise this information and challenge the various organisation that we have the privilege to work in partnership with. We challenge the various departments to look at their decisions and explain how the decisions that are made and the strategies that are put in place for SEN children really look in the family dynamic. Our team is already like a small family. We work hard together, as volunteers. We scrutinise the current protocols and practises in Southend and develop new ways of working with the various department leads. At this moment in time I am very interested in making positive changes to the Lighthouse centre, social care criteria, neurodevelopment diagnostic pathways, EHCP provision, introducing sensory occupational therapy to Southend and mental health provision. I am a strong believer in early intervention as this can make dramatic improvements for children and young people and in their family lives too.

Why did you want to take up the challenge?

I have a strong need to nurture and a positive outlook. I want children and young people with SEND to have the same opportunities as everyone else. I want them to grow in confidence, self-esteem, to be successful and ambitious with out limitations. The opportunity for inclusion looks different for different people it cannot be a blanket term as one size most definitely does not fit all.

Every child should have an opportunity to learn and have access to an education regardless of their needs, however to do this we need to ensure we have the correct support in place that is easily accessible. I have a strong sense of community from early childhood and I think it’s important that our members are valued and included, this is why the forum exists so we can bring this community together and shape the future of Education for SEND families in Southend. An opportunity to pool all of these incredible parenting journeys, strengths and experiences together to make positive changes.

So being busy with SSIF and your family how do you find time to relax?

Being the only female in our house can sometimes be tough. Before Covid hit I would spend time with friends out of the house, having coffee and catching up. Theatre trips and Comedy clubs are most definitely back on the agenda once we get back to some sort of normality. I love going for long walks, as it gives me some space and also allows the children to run free too. I use Makaton signing with my youngest son and have enjoyed it so much I have joined a signing choir. I am also a member of the local church and spend a lot of time working on my role of safe guarding officer.

Having some other interests is paramount for me, I also love being part of other communities and meeting people who share my passions but most of all I like keeping things light-hearted and having fun.