Region’s first special needs free school for the autistic approved

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THE FIRST special education free school in Yorkshire for pupils with autism will open next year.

The Lighthouse School in Leeds was one eight special or alternative provision free schools across the country to be given the go-ahead this week by Ministers.

The decision marks the fulfilment of a seven-year dream for a group of parents of children with autism who have developed the plans.

The new school will be for 50 pupils between the ages of 11 and 19 with statements of special educational needs and will be based in part of a former school building in Pudsey which is now empty.

Katie Parlett, one of the parents leading the free school bid, said: “This is a fantastic result. At last the long-held dream of opening a specialist school catering to the needs of autism spectrum disorder pupils is becoming more of a reality.”

The curriculum at the Lighthouse School will be geared towards equipping autistic children with meaningful skills for life covering core national curriculum subjects as well as life, social and communication skills.

Mrs Parlett, who has a child with autism, added: “Our aim is to help young people with autism spectrum disorder to gain the skills they need to pursue further education, jobs and leisure activities.

“Every day at Lighthouse will have valuable targets to prepare them to become happy and contributing members of society.

“The school will put excellence at the heart of everything it does to ensure the best for the children’s futures.”

The group aims to create links with the existing mainstream Pudsey Grangefield School.

Their business plan was submitted to the Department of Education in June this year and in August the Lighthouse team was invited to the next stage of the process, an in-depth interview at Westminster before a panel of eight education experts and government advisors.

Having passed both of these stages, the final hurdle for the team was the submission of a detailed financial plan last month.

“When word finally came through that Lighthouse could go ahead we were overjoyed,” said Mrs Parlett. “There is still a lot to do before we can open our doors to students, but at last we are on our way to building a lasting legacy for the region.”

Autism is thought to affect more than half a million people in the UK. It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and can include learning disabilities.

Currently only 15 per cent of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time paid employment but the majority of those out of work say they want jobs.

The Lighthouse team’s dream of opening a school was born from the special needs of their children and others like them as they progressed through the state education system.

Mrs Parlett said: “Compared to the south of England there are very few specialist schools specifically designed to meet the needs of students with autism and related communication difficulties.

“Our goal is to create a beacon school that will not only support families with autistic children across West Yorkshire but also build strong ties with the local community and Leeds Council children’s services to complement what provisions are already in place.”

The group has had the backing of Pudsey’s Conservative MP Stuart Andrew. He said: “I was thrilled to hear the news that the Lighthouse School has been given the green light by the Department of Education. The team has worked tirelessly on their application for free school status and it is wonderful news that all of their hard work has paid off. This new school will make a huge impact on the lives of autistic children in our region and it will no doubt be a great example of the free school initiative in action.”

The Lighthouse School’s plan was the only one in the region to be approved by the Department for Education this week.

The eight which were given the go ahead included two alternative provision schools based at professional football clubs: Everton and Derby County.

In future the Pudsey area could have two free schools.

Campaigners elsewhere in Leeds have joined forces with the first free school to open in the country – in Norwich – and they hope to open their own primary in 2013.

The Free School Leeds plan is for a mainstream primary which would be “dyslexia friendly” with personalised lessons based on the needs of pupils and small class sizes of no more than 24 pupils.

Its catchment area would cover all of Leeds and it is looking for sites in either Pudsey or in the Harehills, Oakwood or Roundhay areas of the city.