Developing an autism school

The National Autistic Society’s Anderson School in Essex will open in September 2017 to autistic students aged 11 to 19. This interview with the Headteacher Gary Simm, first published in Your Autism Magazine, explains why the school is focusing on developing pupils’ employment skills. 

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Author: Gary Simm

Developing an autism school

Why is the school putting such a focus on employment skills?

Only 16% of autistic adults are in full time employment. We believe that much more can be done to improve outcomes and life chances for autistic people. The whole ethos of the school is based around giving students the skills to allow them to be successful in employment or higher education.

What will this mean in practice?

Teaching will not only focus on delivering the National Curriculum but will actively seek to base learning around real life contexts. Curriculum time will explicitly focus on delivering skills for developing social understanding and the school will deliver the ‘Bridges’ curriculum which is a structured programme specifically targeting social development.

The school will also provide opportunities for students to develop confidence in putting themselves in new situations. This will very much be a structured programme based on the needs of individual students. This programme will enable students to try new things in a safe and supported manner and, as skills develop, the amount of support will gradually decrease as students become more independent.

At the forefront of this level of challenge for students will be the adventure-learning curriculum. This programme will use a range of outdoor education providers to enable students to experience activities that can initially be daunting, such as:

  • horse-riding
  • swimming
  • rock climbing
  • high ropes courses
  • mountain biking
  • kayaking
  • sailing. 

For some students, travelling on the minibus to attend activities can also be a challenge.

Staff will participate in the activities alongside the students. This lets the students can see that it is all right to have some anxiety when doing activities, and that with support you can overcome these challenges. The key to success is ensuring that staff are fully committed and involved in the programme. As the students get older the programme will shift its focus from outdoor education to work related activities.

How will you help your pupils decide what they want to do in the future?

Our life skills programme will help students to have a greater understanding of themselves, their skills, talents and aspirations. The  programme will help to prepare students for the leap into employment and will focus specifically on skills for employability, which include:

  • careers guidance
  • independent living skills including cooking, personal hygiene and independent travel
  • first aid

We will then create personalised programmes for students in which they have the opportunity to try a range of different work related roles, giving them first-hand experience and understanding of what is involved in a particular line of work.

We very much want to students and their parents to ensure that the choice of future careers is aspirational whilst at the same time provides a long-term career path.

What vocational skills will you teach?

The school will support students to:

  • identify careers that they aspire to
  • develop generic skills such as preparing for interviews.

Careers preparation will be delivered through the life skills programme and the school will build partnerships with local companies to provide work placements. Employers will be given autism training, and we will support the students to prepare them for the work placements.

We will also be running our own social enterprise schemes from the campus which young people will be fully involved in.

What do you see the pupils going on to do?

That choice is down to students and their families. My role is to ensure that I give all students the skills and confidence necessary to take the next step in their lives. This may mean going into employment or moving to university, whichever suits them. I see the potential of young people as limitless and I have extremely high aspirations for their success to meet their interests, talents and aptitudes.

Can you tell us more about the Anderson School?

The school will have small class sizes, typically six students in a class. Each teaching room has a smaller room off it which can be used for students to withdraw into to take sensory breaks or simply to work in a very quiet room.

Every classroom has high level acoustic material around the top portion of the room to reduce the noise in the learning environment. Lighting has been specifically chosen for the rooms to provide, as far as possible, a flicker free light source.

The rooms are designed with a mechanical ventilation system to ensure a constant and comfortable air temperature and even have CO2 sensors which will operate the ventilation if too much CO2 is produced through talking, to ensure the students don’t become tired during lessons.

The windows in each room have frosting across them at eye level when you are sitting down to remove any potential distraction from outside.

Each classroom has an external space outside it to provide a safe space if students need to withdraw from the room for a short period. Around the school there are a number of smaller rooms that can be used to support individual students as necessary. The corridors are nice and wide, and at the entrance to each classroom the corridor width is larger so that students have the space to enter rooms calmly, to help reduce any anxiety. 

The school will have a range of sensory environments to cater for the individual sensory needs of students. It would be a huge mistake to believe that all autistic students need the same sensory environment to help them regulate their levels of anxiety or to help them learn effectively.

The school in conjunction with its student council will be constantly developing the provision of sensory environments and equipment, to make sure that the needs of all students can be met somewhere within the school.

Who will be eligible for a place?

Children and young people aged 11-19, with a diagnosis of autism (including PDA) will be considered where vocational courses and academic qualifications are a suitable option. Potential students on the autism spectrum will need to be referred by their local authority and have an existing statement of Special Educational Needs or Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan.

Will you accept students from outside Essex?

The school will be accepting students from other local authorities, not just Essex, and the school is very keen to build strong partnerships with the surrounding local authorities.

You are currently the Principal of the National Autistic Society Thames Valley School – what have you learnt since working there?

The single biggest thing I have learned at my current school is that the work we do every day with students has a much wider impact on family life than I ever imagined.

Once students feel safe, supported and are making good progress in school then life at home can also be transformed. Through talking to parents at Thames Valley School I am simply blown away when parents tell me about the difference that the school has had on their home life, It’s the simple things that other families take for granted, like being able to watch TV together, or sit round a table for dinner and have a chat about how the day has gone. We are not just teaching skills and knowledge, we are helping to transform lives.

Further information

The National Autistic Society Anderson School

The Anderson Foundation

Date: 21 June 2017