On the site of a former comprehensive in Reading, a new school is being built to cater for five- to 19-year-olds on the autistic spectrum. The Thames Valley School is one of the new breed of free schools in England set up to fill a local need.
Due to open next month, the school’s head teacher, Fiona Veitch, is already hard at work – even though it isn’t fully built.
Received wisdom in recent years has told us that mainstreaming disabled children is the best way forward. But Veitch says although regular state schools have tried hard, a specialist environment is needed to bring out the best in some pupils on the autistic spectrum.
Thames Valley School is a free school – a collaboration between the National Autistic Society (NAS), local authorities, voluntary groups, schools and parents. The government agreed with community stakeholders that there is a need for this kind of specialist school in the area.
It is one of five free schools for children with special educational needs to open in England this September, joining three which opened in September 2012 – the latter two autism specific:
• Rosewood School, Southampton
• City of Peterborough Academy special school
• Lighthouse School, Leeds
NAS has government permission to open two further free schools in September 2014, one in London and one in East Cheshire.
“Many of the children we have have been permanently excluded from one or two schools or are on really reduced timetables and go into school for an hour or two a day, so that’s why it’s so important we get this right.
“A lot of the children are not just a bit bright, they’re very bright. But because autism gets in the way, that impacts upon their behaviour.”
With autism, people can have a unique ability to concentrate and learn things that others find repetitive or mundane. Recently Vodafone and software company SAP made headlines when they announced they were to recruit people on the autism spectrum to capitalise on these desirable attributes.
“I’ve got a pupil coming to us who’s absolutely the most knowledgeable young man in the world about pumps and all forms of plumbing – he’s eight. This boy can explain ventilation, how an extractor fan is put together, how it works, he can talk to you about his plumbing system, and I believe advises plumbers on how to fix things when they are called to his home.”
Veitch is keen to use these obsessions – or “specialist interests” as she prefers to call them – to give the children a vocation and help them learn.
Q&A: Free schools
“We have a child who finds ponds really interesting and really calming,” she says. “We will use that to teach him maths in terms of ‘How big is the pond going to be?’ Or ‘How much water do we need to put in it?'”
The learning environment is built around the children, rather than expecting them to slot into a one-size-fits-all school.
Children on the spectrum find it difficult to process information fed to them by their senses. So, in an average classroom for instance, they may not know what sounds to prioritise: chatter, ticking clocks, birdsong, banging, air conditioning or the teacher’s voice. It all comes through at the same intensity, as do smells and visuals.
As well as tailoring learning to the individual, the building and interior design helps dampen sensory information. When finished, it will have non-flickery lighting, muted colours and surfaces that aren’t shiny or bright.
The ready-prepared building blocks of the school were created off-site and arrived a month ago. Construction has been underway since then, with the ambitious target of opening on 16 September.
With advice, Veitch has worked with an architect to design the school to be autism-friendly, and spends long hours each day making sure it’s the best they can achieve.
“I’ve got an office on the building site. It’s really important because it means I can see exactly what the builders are doing, that they understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” says Veitch, who has 24 years of experience in the field and has a son on the autistic spectrum.
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