Following a Spotlight visit to the Lighthouse School Leeds, Advisor Joceline Perrot reflects on the special free school’s holistic approach to supporting its pupils with autistic spectrum condition (ASC) and related communication disorders.
The Lighthouse School Leeds was the first special free school to open its doors, opening in 2012 for seven children with autistic spectrum condition (ASC). The school, which was opened by a group of parents, is now over capacity with 80 students. The school was judged Good by Ofsted in 2017, and leaders now face pressure to expand the school to create more much needed special school places in Leeds.
From Phoebe Boswell's exhibition, Take Me to the Lighthouse to Virginia Woolf's The Lighthouse, and the iconic Manara beacons I saw on a trip to Beirut, the motif appeared throughout my 2019. Lighthouses guide ships on their journeys, helping them to identify dangerous areas and arrive safe at their destination. I was excited to visit another lighthouse, and explore the ways in which the school has adopted the symbol of positivity and hope.
From the very beginning of the day, it was evident that the school is keen to share best practice. Headteacher, Emma, Assistant Principal, Dianne and Training and Outreach Manager, Vicky explained the schools’ decision to focus on outreach rather than expansion. The school delivers training across the city to families, the local authority and other schools. They believe that sharing best practice has had a greater impact on children's lives, while bringing in extra income, ensuring that the school can continue to support local families.
The Lighthouse School is structured around four cornerstones which are the focus of each students’ programme of study:
- Speech and language;
- Skills and experience; and
- Curriculum subjects.
Staff work hard to ensure that everyone understands each pupils’ individual challenges, and setting personalised targets is necessary to meet their unique needs. Each child's education health care plan (EHCP) is the golden thread that brings the cornerstones and the personalised curriculum together.
'It all starts with the balance of the cornerstones – get it right!'
Vicky, Training and Outreach Manager, Lighthouse School Leeds
Timetables are designed to put each child's social and emotional development at the centre. It all starts with focusing on pupil’s well-being and speech and language.
The school takes part in Leeds' MindMate Champions programme - an evidence-based programme to improve students’ social, emotional, mental health (SEMH) and wellbeing. It works to support schools’ self-evaluation, action planning and recognition of their SEMH support for pupils, promoting proactive support systems.
The Lighthouse School supports students to understand, regulate and communicate their emotions, and to build resilience through a variety of approaches. From specialist programmes that aid children in relaxation to mentoring schemes, the school has taken time to explore a variety of support for students. Dianne explained that it’s crucial to be open to a variety of methods - you may doubt the impact of rhythmic chanting, yet several students can benefit from this technique.
'Get out your comfort zone and try out new things!’
Emma, Assistant Principal, Lighthouse School Leeds
A dedicated speech and language team (SaLT) ensures that every student has access to small group and one-to-one interventions.
When combined with conscious reflections, the bespoke speech and language programme empowers students to take responsibility for overcoming challenges. Recognising the need to develop their speech and language skills, one pupil referred themselves to the SaLT team. While they spoke confidently, and achieved the highest level in the speech and language assessment, the pupil explained that they wanted to challenge aspects of their pronunciation so that they could enjoy singing along to all their favourite songs.
While guiding pupils on their journeys within the school, the Lighthouse School also guides them to destinations beyond the school. From teaching life skills such as travelling and personal hygiene, to providing industry links for work experience, developing life and employability skills is part of each student's timetable. The Lighthouse Futures Trust offers employment programmes for 16-25 year olds with ASC. Through internships and alumni support, the Lighthouse team enjoy watching the children progress through life.
A highlight of the visit was a Q&A session with Lighthouse pupils, who shared their experiences of the school with us. They all expressed their gratitude for having teachers and fellow pupils who understand them. One girl shared her experiences of a mainstream setting, where nobody understood her or why she struggled to control her anger. She talked us through her journey of recovery from these traumatic experiences, and how Lighthouse staff and pupils have enabled her to heal and learn to love herself. Another pupil shared how he appreciated the school working with his family in their home.
Looking around at the teary eyes in the room, I recognised that the Lighthouse School really is a beacon of hope. The team has implemented a strong, sustainable leadership system, and has reached out to improve the lives of children and families across Leeds. The Lighthouse is not a traditional school - the school works by adapting to each child’s needs, rather than the other way around.