Satellite classes: A promising model for educating autistic pupils

The Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) has published a report examining the perceived success of a satellite model of education for autistic pupils transferring from special to mainstream schools. In this article Abigail Croydon and colleagues at CRAE discuss how the research was carried and what their study found.

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Authors: Abigail Croydon, Anna Remington, Lorcan Kenny and Liz Pellicano

Satellite classes: A promising model for educating autistic pupils

Identifying the ‘right’ school for autistic children and young people is one of the biggest decisions that parents will face in their child’s education.

Parents want provision that focuses on the individual needs of their child, has a highly structured, yet flexible learning environment and employs experienced educators who are knowledgeable about autism. They also want a school with high ambitions for their child, strong role models and an inclusive environment that sets their child up well for the future. The problem is that some of these characteristics might best be provided for in specialist provision and others in more mainstream school settings.

The lack of research to clarify which setting - mainstream, specialist - might work best for which particular child makes parents’ decisions all the more difficult.

A satellite model of education

New research from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at UCL Institute of Education has examined one attempt to combine the best of both specialist and mainstream provision: a ‘satellite class’ model of supported inclusion.

In this model, the strengths of a special school education are kept in place for selected autistic pupils as they transfer from the special school to dedicated classes within mainstream ‘host schools’, all within the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Although there are overlaps between satellite classes and more commonly-known autism resource bases within mainstream schools, students and staff in the satellite model are enrolled with (and employed by) the special school, not the mainstream school as in autism resource provisions.

 Satellite students also have on-going contact with the special school, which keeps open the possibility of returning there with minimal disruption if needed. It also maintains relations between satellite class pupils and their peers who remain in the special school.

How the research was conducted

Two cohorts of pupils were selected to take part in the Tower Hamlets satellite programme: 15 students in 2014-2015, and 11 in 2015-2016. They were chosen based on both perceived ability to cope with the transition and the potential for them to benefit from the social and learning opportunities within a mainstream educational environment.

They had transitioned or were about to transition to satellite classes in one of two local partner schools (one mainstream primary, one secondary), with their individual packages of provision and with teachers they knew well. We worked with 20 of these young people (18 boys and 2 girls) – all of whom had additional intellectual difficulties and varying speech, language and communication needs.

Although satellite classes have been trialled in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere in the UK, there is limited research testing the perceived success of such classes. We therefore sought to determine the feasibility and perceived success of the satellite class model within Tower Hamlets from the perspectives of parents, teachers and, especially, the children and young people who had made the transition into mainstream.

What we learned from the research

The most striking finding in our research was that the children and young people, their parents and teachers, were unanimous in their endorsement of their experience in their satellite class placements and their belief in this version of the satellite model.

Children and young people preferred their new mainstream placements, describing a multitude of benefits including:

  • larger outdoor spaces
  • the continuity of staff and peers
  • the ‘calmer’ atmosphere
  • more stimulating work
  • fewer incidents of challenging behaviour by peers
  • the presence of more social opportunities.

One commented, “it’s more grown up”.

Children and young people met the challenges of transition well. One parent said: “He is getting a bit used to the size of the school and the noise and crowds. He didn’t like it but he has got better”.

Parents celebrated the inclusion of their child in the mainstream environment: “knowing that he’s there, generally for us as a family, just made us happy”

However, some also reported feeling not quite belonging to either school: “You’re kind of floating in between”.

The teachers we interviewed were equally positive, stressing better behavioural regulation by children and better classroom focus, resulting in better educational opportunities:

“I’m really, really happy. Some of the students, their behaviour has completely changed”.

They also discussed the advantages of more similar class groups in terms of learning ability, which allowed more focused and more challenging teaching – prompting a “step up” in learning.

Several studies of inclusion for autistic children and young people have explicitly called for novel models of supported inclusion that offer effective teaching and support. The results of this study suggest that this model is particularly promising, with convincing advantages for young people with additional intellectual and communication difficulties, and for their families, guaranteeing their right to a supportive and successful educational experience.

Further information


Centre for Research in Autism and Education (2017). Satellite classes: A promising model for educating children and young people on the autism spectrum

Kenny, Lorcan (2017), Interviewed by Network Autism, “Main difficulties in transitioning from a special school to a unit in a mainstream”

Date added: 25 January 2017