Executive Director of Education, Jacqui Ashton-Smith, talks about the vital work done by our eight autism-specific schools last year to educate and support autistic children and young people.

Jacqui Ashton-SmithNaturally, we want to see all children and young people on the autism spectrum meet their full potential, to develop into the people they can and want to be and to have the same opportunities in life as their peers.

We know that sometimes to achieve this, the needs of autistic young people can only be met through personalised autism-specific education. And I want our eight schools, and any future schools at The National Autistic Society, to be key examples of excellence in providing young people on the autism spectrum with exactly this.

Radlett Lodge School has been Ofsted Outstanding in both education and care since 2009, but we are particularly pleased that this accomplishment has now been recognised in the new Ofsted framework. Helen Allison School, which already had Outstanding education, succeeded in being awarded Ofsted Outstanding for their residential care under the new framework and Sybil Elgar School achieved Outstanding for their residential provision all under this criteria.

Although tough, it acknowledges the work of the schools in educational and academic pursuits, and as it measures SEN schools by the same criteria as mainstream establishments, it truly is an achievement. Our other schools measured by this Ofsted criteria and by Autism Accreditation during the last year have also achieved consistently good results.

We're seeing exciting, modern developments taking place in our schools too – visiting Thames Valley School and their new innovation hub, with state-of-the-art equipment and a promising digital education – is very exciting.

There have been more and more examples of cutting edge practice, from a second inclusive learning unit at Robert Ogden School, to the new hub at Helen Allison School providing innovative, autism-specific Key stage 4 and 5 education.

It has been a challenging year too, with new reforms in SEN policy meaning substantial work and change across our schools with the view that we continue to provide and improve the high-quality education that will meet the individual needs of all our students. A school improvement and development team has been formed to support this across our portfolio of education provision.

Having been able to provide a tailored education to 492 students in the last financial year alone, 43 more students than the year before, we know that's a huge responsibility for all the exceptional staff working in the schools – but they’ve certainly stepped up to the mark. What I think this figure is unable to convey is the positive impact that having education and care tailored entirely to each pupil and how their autism affects them has.

"My children are so happy – they run into the class with such big smiles on their faces. They're so excited to be in school – they can’t wait for their bus to come in the morning." – Parent of a child who attends Radlett Lodge School

Every triumph I hear about from our pupils, however great or small, never fails to amaze me – because it stems from the sheer determination of staff to help that young person build independence, confidence and surprise themselves with what they can achieve.

We recently heard from a former pupil of Robert Ogden School who's finished a college course in media production and is now going on to pursue television production at university. He's even been presenting a local Sheffield TV show and doing work experience in the television industry. He follows in the steps of a former student from Helen Allison School who now has a degree in Film Animation.

Another pupil, who is non-verbal, suffered so much anxiety that she did not want to attend her previous school and had to be carried in. She moved to Radlett Lodge School, where the staff carefully built trusting relationships with her, taking small steps to gradually decrease her anxiety. Over time she began to look forward to school, and felt she could trust her new school – she now happily skips in every day.

Both of these are huge, but very different, achievements for each individual and demonstrate the great variety of progress we see in our pupils on a daily basis.

We have recently opened Church Lawton School in Cheshire East and are developing units attached to mainstream schools in Surrey. There's always more work to be done and fresh challenges to face –but I feel confident that the amazing staff we have at our schools, and the adult services they work alongside will continue to make a difference to the lives of many people on the autism spectrum.

Jacqui Ashton-Smith
Executive Director of Education
The National Autistic Society and NAS Academies Trust
www.autism.org.uk/schools

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