NSN Hub Member Interview with Liz Cooper, The Austen Academy

As part of a new series, NSN is talking to the leaders of recently opened free schools to hear how they’ve implemented their vision and confronted the challenges of opening a new school.

We recently spoke to Liz Cooper, Headteacher at The Austen Academy, a Special Educational Needs (SEN) school for learners from Year 1 to Year 11 with Social and Communication Needs (SCN) associated with a diagnosis of autism. The school opened in April 2021 within Catch22 Multi Academies Trust.

What inspired you to lead a new free school?

“The excitement of it. Often when joining as a head you have to undo lots of different things. But in a free school, everything is new so you can form the school that you want. In the beginning, the ethos and culture of the school is down to you, which is really exciting. I also knew how much the school was needed.”

What is the culture of your school?

“We are a special school for autism and children with age related expectations, who have perhaps not managed to cope at mainstream schools or the mainstream school has not managed to provide them with the right environment. This means anxiety levels amongst our students are through the roof, so we must have a nurturing culture. We must have an understanding of autism, and a vision to destigmatise autism.”

How did you identify need for the school?

“We don’t have a school for autism like this in Hampshire, so I knew that it was likely there would be an awful lot of children waiting for it.”

What makes the school special?

“The people I have recruited want to work with these children. Parents, children and staff form a community. The parents have been behind the success of the school, as it is clearly a much needed facility in the community.”

What does success look like in the next 3 years at Austen Academy?

“Success will mean the growth of the school to the full number of 128 students, whilst maintaining our nurturing ethos. In 3 years our older children will be coming out the other end, so I would like to see them transition into college or another vocational option. I would like to see them with aspirations.”

What has been the biggest challenge since opening?

“The office wasn’t set up before children started; it opened on same day as children first came into school with one office staff member. We also had huge ICT issues, as all of our ICT systems were meant to be in place in January, but they were still being put in place in April. Even now there are still things that are not working smoothly, but we are managing! I would definitely recommend to other schools that the office manager is put in place before the children come in.”

How have you been able to define the school’s identity?

“The staff in our school are in teams of teachers and teaching assistants, and there is a definite feeling that we are all on the same page. From the beginning I have been very clear about what the school is, and I have appointed every member of staff to align with that vision. As a Headteacher, I go round the school regularly with my deputy to act as a model for our values, and demonstrate this to staff and students. In addition, we also have systems in place to thank each other and appreciate each other. Every week an anonymous email goes round that gives us an opportunity to say thank you.”

What are you looking for when recruiting staff?

“I am definitely looking for at least an understanding and awareness of autism, as well as an understanding that when starting a new school you have to be hard working. Anybody in school might be asked to do different things outside of their role, because we haven’t got full staff.”

What advice would you give to other free school leaders?

“You can’t eat an elephant all at once! It is such a big job, so you have got to prioritise what you are going to focus on, as well as look after yourself, and maintain your wellbeing. You can’t allow it to take over your life, you can’t do everything at once. Things won’t be perfect and there will be things you do wrong, as well as things that take time to establish.

I hadn’t expected quite how many things I would have to think about as a head. Everything from where we put the notice boards on the wall, to decisions over whether we need to provide training on certain things. All of this comes back to me as a headteacher. There are just so many things you don’t realise you have to think about.”

We’d like to thank NSN Hub member Liz Cooper for taking part in this interview and telling us about the rewarding and challenging aspects of opening a free school. The NSN Hub brings free school leaders together to learn, support and inspire one another. It provides a space to connect and find solutions to the issues which come up from running a new school. If you are a free school leader and would be interested in joining, would like to contribute or if you have any questions, please get in contact here.