Transforming educational provision for autistic pupils

In this case study Dr Yo Dunn, an autistic Consultant and Trainer, and Toni Macartney, Head Teacher of St. Clement’s School, describe the key components of a school improvement project which has transformed its provision for autistic pupils. 

This web article is a shortened version of the original, which can be downloaded as a PDF here.

Authors: Dr Yo Dunn, Toni Macartney

Turning it around - going from failing autistic pupils to 'outstanding progress' - case study of a special school

St. Clement’s School is a Special School serving a rural catchment area in Highland, Scotland. Pupils range from 3-19 years and have a diverse range of needs. A substantial majority are autistic and many have complex needs. The school improvement process is ongoing, but Phases 1 and 2 of a focussed school improvement project (described here) took place between May 2014 and September 2015.

At the start of the project the school needed to improve in a number of areas, particularly in the provision offered to autistic pupils, a view endorsed by Education Scotland inspectors. Highlighted weaknesses included:

  • some pupils “with autism spectrum disorders feel anxious during the day as their needs are not being well met”
  • “For some pupils with autism spectrum disorder, staff do not address barriers or inhibitors to learning and therefore focus on resulting behaviours”.

As a first step, urgent action was taken to reduce the use of restraint in the school and child protection training and policies were reviewed. Working with inspectors, the school set a goal to:

“identify learning needs accurately and implement appropriate strategies to overcome barriers to learning, especially for children and young people with autism spectrum disorders”.

To achieve this goal, the school decided to work with an external consultant specialising in autism, Yo Dunn of Consult Yo Ltd

Key aspects

1. Project structure:

  • 3 full days bespoke autism training for all staff
  • 1 ½ days parent/carer training
  • 3 days of direct classroom observation and consultancy
  • development of support plans for individual pupils 
  • strategic consultancy on policies and change management
  • and project evaluation.

2. Working collaboratively with staff to build a professional development culture:

  • confidential whole-staff questionnaire
  • Pupil Support Assistant (PSA) groups (facilitated by external consultant) contributed to guiding the process of change
  • specialist autism training for staff at all levels together
  • encouragement of supportive and collaborative professional culture
  • and goal-orientated problem solving.

Pupils are now well supported in their learning by the team of PSAs who have trained alongside teachers. The PSA’s have developed their confidence and skills to support pupils effectively in their learning, avoiding over supporting pupils and working as a team with class teachers to support differentiation.

3. Embedding autism development within wider school improvement.

Development of provision for the needs of autistic pupils was fully integrated with wider school improvement, and a focus on curriculum development and attainment across the school.

“Teacher development needs to be linked with wider goals of school and system development, and with appraisal and feedback practices and school evaluation.” (Webster et al, 2012).

Main changes:

  • full curriculum entitlement for every child
  • support for professional skills in differentiated curriculum delivery
  • focus on skills for work and skills for life
  • reworked class structure
  • broad range of qualifications and accreditation
  • progress tracking across the school
  • and appropriate use of sensory profiles.

4. Extending the change beyond school out into the community.

Parental engagement is a powerful factor in raising attainment in schools (Harris and Goodall, 2007). The project involved:

  • responsive parent/carer training
  • use of an external trainer to allow parents to discuss concerns freely
  • and building multi-agency links to better support families.

5. Practical focus of the training and consultancy.

Staff worked (initially with support from the trainer) on re-framing issues to focus on goals, and evaluating strategies in terms of effectiveness at achieving those goals.

Example: Jason struggles with the language used to express a maths question and is not sure what the question is asking of him. He is looking around the room constantly.

Current strategies:

  • rewards for remaining on task
  • encouragement to make eye contact
  • and verbal explanations of word problems.

Chosen goal: ‘to support the pupil to engage with the maths question’.

Is the current approach effective in achieving the goal? No

What appear to be the barriers to achieving the goal? Background noise, language processing issues.

Proposed approaches:

  • reduce background noise (eliminate where possible, noise-cancelling headphones?)
  • visual supports
  • explicit teaching of relevant forms of language (e.g. different words for ‘add’)
  • and working with the pupil to develop personal strategies to identify maths required in word problems.

Staff reaction to the practical focus of sessions was strongly positive:

“the tasks made us reflect on our practice and also see things from an autistic perspective”

“filled in gaps between what I have been taught about autism previously and trying to work with practically"

6. Beyond one off training

A crucial aspect of the project was embedding training days within the broader school improvement programme. The nature and quality of training may be more significant than the overall amount.

“Effective professional development needs to be on-going, include training, practice and feedback, and provide adequate time and follow-up support. Successful programmes involve teachers in learning activities that are similar to those they will use with their students, and encourage the development of teachers’ learning communities.” (Webster et al, 2012)


The project success criteria were:

  • improved staff knowledge of barriers to learning for autistic pupils
  • improved staff confidence in working positively with autistic pupils
  • whole school change towards a positive, more inclusive culture
  • earlier and more appropriate interventions
  • improving outcomes for pupils (within and beyond school)
  • dissemination of knowledge and positive, inclusive culture to partner schools and wider community
  • and pupils achieving their potential.

The Inspector's view - May 2015

“Children and young people now have much better learning experiences as a result of the many improvements introduced by the headteacher and staff.”

“Those with autism spectrum disorders feel less anxious as a result of the increased expertise of staff and more appropriate programmes of learning.”

“Staff benefited from very effective external training and consultancy on autism.”


Webster, A., McNeish, D and Scott, S with Maynard, L and Haywood, S (2012) What influences teachers to change their practice? A rapid research review. Bristol: National Centre for Social Research for CUBeC.


Date added: 7 December 2015


Fri, 16/09/2016 - 12:37

A very admirable project which, moreover, is transparently evaluated, deserving many kudo's.

Having said that, I find myself sifting through this text, only finding morsels of interest in the physical environment in school. How aware is everyone of it's importance?    
See for its relevance