During Autism Awareness Week, analysis by education charity New Schools Network shows that the free school programme has created 2,000 new places open to young people with autism.

There are now over 400 free schools open or approved to open, of these 27 are special schools. Once full, these schools will create more than 2,200 new places, representing an increase of more than two per cent (2.2%) in SEN places available nationally. Together they cater for a wide range of special educational needs, including autism, and will offer a high quality education to thousands of young people.

Of the 27 open or approved to open special schools, 22 will cater for pupils with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), when full, they will be providing over 2,000 new places special school places.

Natalie Evans, Director of the New Schools Network, said:

“Free schools are offering a new choice to parents of children with autism.  When you consider that there are just over 1,000 special schools in England at the moment, these 22 new schools are providing a significant addition to provision in England.

“According to the National Autistic Society, more than half of children with autism are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them, which is why charities such as NAS and Ambitious about Autism, existing schools and groups of parents have all embraced the opportunity to set up new schools.

“As Autism Awareness Week puts these issues in the spotlight, the positive contribution that free schools have made to increasing the choice of children with autism and other special educational needs across the country should be recognised.”

The first Special free schools opened in September 2012 and most recently, three new schools opened in January.

Snapshot of special free schools

Lighthouse School Leeds

Lighthouse School Leeds is a special school in Leeds for 11-19 year olds with autistic spectrum disorders and related communication disorders. The school, which opened in 2012, was established by a group of local parents. It will serve 50 pupils when full, teaching pupils key life skills and vocational subjects such as horticulture and animal care, as well as core subjects. The school was rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted in 2013.

The Rise School

The Rise School in Hounslow is an all-through school (4-16) for children with autism. The school, which opened in 2014, was established by a group of parents with the support of two charities that support people with autism: Dimensions and Ambitious about Autism. It will serve 100 children when full and is co-located with a local school to allow its pupils to access some of their education in a mainstream school setting. This means that pupils are able to study a broad curriculum and can benefit from interaction with other young people, helping them to make the transition into adult life. NSN followed The Rise School as it got ready to open its doors for the first time in September 2014.

Three new free schools opened in January.

  • The Bridge Integrated Learning Space is a special school in Islington which caters for children with low incidence special needs that cannot be catered for in mainstream education. It will be a small school, with a capacity of 25 places to provide intensive support for those who attend it, and is open to children aged 7-19. The school was started by The Bridge School, an existing ‘Outstanding’ special school nearby that also has Teaching School status and has the support of Islington Council. Pupils who attend are described as having autism and/or severe learning difficulties or profound and multiple learning difficulties. Their specialist area of work is addressing communication and interaction difficulties.
  • The NAS Church Lawton School a special school in Stoke on Trent which caters for children with autism. The school will grow to offer 60 places to children aged 4-19 and operates a curriculum similar to that used in a mainstream environment, delivered through timetabling and teaching approaches which are specific to the needs of autistic pupils. It has been created by the National Autistic Society, which already runs a similar free school in Reading.
  • Pentland Field School - a special school in Middlesex for young people who have severe to moderate learning difficulties, including those with ASD. The school will grow to offer 140 places for children aged 4- 19, operating small class sizes of 6-10 to focus on each child's individual learning needs. The school integrates therapy programmes into the classroom and works closely with families to support them. It has been created by The Eden Academy, a family of five special free schools in the area that already deliver high quality provision for children with a wide range of special educational needs.

Editors’ notes

To speak to a New Schools Network spokesperson, please contact press@newschoolsnetwork.org or 020 7537 9208.

Groups interested in setting up a free school can contact: info@newschoolsnetwork.org

Further information

Special free schools are catering for a wide range of needs from social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD).

Autism now affects about one in 100 children and there are around 100,000 children with autism in the UK (ONS). 71% of children with autism are educated in mainstream schools and the remainder in specialist provision (Department for Education (2012) Special Educational Needs in England). Over 63% of children with autism are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them (NAS).

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