Free schools at 10: Lighthouse School uncut

To celebrate 10 years since the first free schools opened their doors, NSN published Free schools at 10: A decade of success

The collection of interviews featured founders/leaders of free schools of all type and phase from across the country, providing a candid insight into the process of establishing and running a free school.

The interview that follows is the original, uncut version with the five parents who founded the school. 

What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?

In 2005 five families met at an autism conference, all with a child with an autistic spectrum condition, and all fearful for their futures which felt quite bleak.   We have all been firm friends since and a created a strong support network for each other. 

We could all see the huge potential within our children but the existing educational choices did not specialise in autism and these students seemed to fall between the cracks in both mainstream and special education.   We wanted happy and fulfilling futures for our children and were prepared to build those pathways for them and importantly for children across the city.  In 2010 we started to meet weekly and pulled together a team of experts around us and proceeded to build a school with a strong focus on destinations, in particular independence and employability.  The local authority was supportive of the project and identified the need for such a setting but were not able to financially fund a new school so they pointed us in the direction of the Free School’s initiative which had just been launched a month earlier.  The rest is history and on 3rd September 2012 we opened our doors to the first special Free School in the country and our new intake of Lighthousers!!

What was your original vision for Lighthouse Leeds, and how has it been realised over time? 

The vision for the school was built on developing skills for the future and creating an individualised curriculum for each student delivered through small group teaching.  Our intent is that every student has a bright, successful and engaging future in society and that they can go out into the world with confidence in their own talents and abilities.  To deliver on this vision we have built a curriculum for young people with an autistic spectrum condition based on 4 crucial cornerstones: communication, well-being, skills and experience, and a broad curriculum (subjects).  These are all now well-embedded in the school day for every student and bright futures are now emerging amongst our leaver community! As parent founders we also understand that times can be tough for families, and we wanted to ensure that the Lighthouse offer went further than the school day so we fund-raised to ensure that every year students could attend our Shine Club which runs in the holidays and takes students on inspirational trips which they would potentially not access on their own, building confidence, friendships and a sense of adventure.

What has been the most rewarding moment since opening your free school?

Seeing all the young people enter their new dedicated school building after 3 years in temporary accommodation. We were overly concerned about transitioning everyone to a totally new site as many young people find change a real barrier or challenge.  It was the opposite and such a delight to see the sheer excitement on everyone’s faces as they explored their new surroundings. All the details from professionals that went into planning an ASC friendly school environment certainly had a huge impact. The school is now at over capacity, with over 100 consultations per year for a small number of places. The school is now seeking other accommodation solutions and has created a training and outreach support programme to support more young people within other settings.

What advice would you give to somebody else embarking on their free school journey?

One of the most important things is to have the agreement or ‘blessing’ of your local authority as this is needed all the way through start-up and being part of the local community. Secondly, it helps if you have a building in mind – finding the right site can be challenging.  Thirdly ensure that you have your systems and processes in place almost from Day 1 as these will really help with the flow and the growth of the school. Make sure you use the help around you including the New School’s Network and those that have already trodden the pathway to success – they are there to help and support.

How important is a culture of inclusivity toward the success of Lighthouse Leeds?

A culture of inclusivity is vital for our students to thrive in the outside world. They are used to feeling equal, valued and important members of society whilst being at the school – on leaving the school the outside world is not the same so transitions need to prepare them for understanding their rights and having the resilience to manage their way through a neurotypical world.  Prior to the pandemic a significant amount of the timetable (dependent on individual need) was spent in the community, generalising the skills learnt in school. Times are changing slowly as are employers but not quite fast enough.  We now have an employability college, Lighthouse Futures Trust which is for 18 to 25 year olds where we match young people to sectors and ensure they have competitive employability skills for the jobs market and we then find them paid work.

What is the end goal for pupils at Lighthouse Leeds when they finish their education?

Our students’ abilities range across the autism spectrum but for all we are seeking independence, resilience, friendships, community inclusion, leisure interests, life purpose, life skills and work (either paid employment or supported employment). 

What is the biggest challenge when designing a personalised experience for each pupil?

Students change their mind on their futures at different stages in their education – they only have reference points for things that they have seen or experienced.  We have brought in an Employer Engagement Curriculum that has seen over 80 employers come through the school doors in a year delivering talks, presentations, virtual and real tours of their organisations and work experience.  Only by opening the eyes of the students to all those possibilities can they make informed choices.  We have nearly met all of the Gatsby Benchmark standards and have been the lead school in the region for SEND with the Careers and Enterprise Company.

Lighthouse Leeds was set up by five parents. What were the needs of your pupils which existing provision in the region did not provide?

Prior to Lighthouse, families’ options were either mainstream school or generic special school but many young people were not thriving in these settings and there was a real gap for something that was ASC specific in the city.   All of our children’s needs are very different but the school was designed to meet a wide variety of need if the main diagnosis is autism.  All our staff are skilled in ASC so our students feel understood, supported, purposeful, valued and have a love of learning all which set them up for positive futures.

The school delivers a subject curriculum which can recognise our students’ abilities and talents at all levels from P- scale to A level.

One young man went to mainstream school and joined in sixth form where he succeeded and is now about to start university doing a degree in music and song writing and another young man went to generic special school as he was too young to join Lighthouse when it started.  3 have had a fabulous experience and are now in the latter years of college doing vocational courses and looking forward to their next transitions.

What are your recommendations for parents looking to set up a special free school? How challenging was it? 

It is not for the faint hearted! A lot of capacity is needed and a wide variety of skills e.g. finance, education (in many different areas) , legal, admin and so on.  People are willing to help but be focussed about the skills you need and bring those people with those skills and experience into the team.  Make sure you are building a school based on ‘real need’ and not because it seems like a good idea.  Demographics showing where the need is based, numbers coming through the system etc. can all be provided by your local authority and this is the only way that an application will be supported – based on evidenced need.  If you can find a suitable building at the outset your journey may be much quicker so, do some research.  Be very clear about your vision – what will your school do that is different from other schools, what will it look like in 5 years’ time, how will you build that into the school day so parents can get a real sense of ‘the difference’.  Asking families to join your school is asking the early joiners to take a ‘leap of faith’ – you need to be absolutely sure that you can deliver on this vision as there will a lot riding on it for many families.  It is a big responsibility so if you do it there is only room for success!

What would you like the free schools programme to look like in 10 years time?

For those Free Schools who have been successful, it would be helpful and attractive to have a reduced application process that recognised the experience and successes already achieved.