From education to employment

Young learner with rare illness overcomes the odds to win national award

A 17-year-old who had to be home-schooled due to a range of health conditions has won a prestigious national education award thanks to her determination to succeed.

Gabriella Fox, from Kingston-Upon-Thames in Surrey, was born with a rare syndrome that affects various areas of the body and resulted in her missing part of her left arm and hand, as well as her oesophagus, meaning she can sometimes struggle to swallow food.

Despite these challenges, Gabriella was determined to get an education and remarkably chose to study for a remote cookery qualification through the distance learning provider Technology Triumphs.

It’s this impressive resilience and commitment that has seen her named Against All Odds winner at the Aspiration Awards – a national celebration created by the educational charity NCFE.

Gabriella said: “The way I think about taking on new challenges is just to give everything a go and see what happens. I don’t let anything stop me. I am enjoying [the qualification] but it’s been a lot of hard work. It was good to be able to do something more practical than a GCSE paper.

“It feels nice to be recognised. Once I’ve done my cookery qualification, I want to go to college to do animal care. After that, I’m hoping to work with animals. I’m quite excited to go to college.”

Born with the rare syndrome VACTERL (Vertebral defects. Anorectal anomalies. Cardiac defects. Tracheo-oesphageal fistula/oesophageal atresia, Renal abnormalities, Limb defects), Gabriella has had more than 35 operations and also has an unrelated health condition which means she spends up to 10 days each month in bed, unable to move, eat or drink.

At the age of 10, Gabriella’s parents were advised to remove her from school and educate her at home so that she could continue to learn when she was well and pause her education when required. Having started the NCFE Level 2 Certificate in Creative Craft (Cookery) last year, Gabriella can find preparing food a challenge, but will always find new ways if the conventional method doesn’t work.

She also has a permanent feeding tube for extra nutrition and medication but has still attempted to cook and taste all the recipes given to her, never refusing to try something new. 

Louise Fox, Gabriella’s mum, said:

“Her VACTERL affects her day-to-day in terms of physical limitations. There’s her height (she’s obviously very small for her age), her hand differences, dexterity – so any fine motor skills she finds difficult. She plays it down all the time, but she still has to have regular operations to widen her oesophagus.

“Her future is actually looking really good. She is now on some medication, so she has gone without having an attack for a year and a half – which for her is amazing considering up until that point, she was in bed every month. To have such a long period of time where she’s been well has just been incredible, which is why she can now look to go into college. Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable.

“I’ve seen her at her lowest, but I’ve also seen her overcome that and achieve amazing things. For her to have won this award just makes me incredibly proud of her as now a young adult. I’m very proud to be her mum.”

Outside of her studies, Gabriella is achieving against the odds in other areas too. In 2021, she was crowned the Riding for the Disabled National Dressage Champion and spends time going out on operations as a Police Cadet. She is also a keen rock climber and joins other home-schooled learners to explore this passion each week.

Created by the leader in vocational and technical learning NCFE, the Aspiration Awards are now in their sixth year and celebrate learners, educators, and educational organisations across the UK.

Philip Le Feuvre, Aspiration Award Judge and Chief Strategy Officer at NCFE, said:

“Gabriella’s determination to gain a qualification in cookery, against adversity that few of us will know or can comprehend, is both inspiring and humbling.

“She has battled with significant barriers to learning that have meant she can only access education from home, and yet she has adapted and thrived. Her desire to gain skills and knowledge, primarily so she can bring food and joy to others, makes her a worthy winner of this award.”  

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