Apr 26, 2017 Last Updated 3:38 PM, Apr 26, 2017

Unique free school meets the needs of children on the autism spectrum

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A unique free school has opened in Church Lawton, East Cheshire, designed specifically to meet the needs of children and young people on the autism spectrum.

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The National Autistic Society (NAS) Church Lawton School, which was designed by Pozzoni Architecture, is the first of its kind in the county and the £3.4m build is now open for students aged four to 19 years old.

The school is owned by the NAS Academies Trust, the National Autistic Society’s network of free schools and academies. It was developed in response to a local need identified by Cheshire East Council for specialist autism education provision.

Many children on the autism spectrum struggle with things that others find easy or even enjoyable. A small change to the day’s schedule, like the school bus turning up late or a change of classroom, can feel like the end of the world. Autistic children are often oversensitive to things like light and sound, so can struggle to learn or can even feel physical pain in overly bright or noisy classrooms. This means they often need specialist support within carefully designed physical environments to reach their full potential.

More than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, a lifelong disability which affects how a person relates to others and understands the world around them. Autism affects each person in a different way, and the range of impact this can have on an individual is vast. Therefore it’s crucial for a range of educational provisions to be available across the UK, both as specialist centres within mainstream schools and purpose-built autism specific specialist schools which can cater for those with more complex needs.

During the design process of the NAS Church Lawton School, Pozzoni worked closely with Cheshire East Council’s educational psychologist and NAS to develop the design and create autism-friendly spaces. This included reducing the apparent size of the building, creating secure play spaces, designing quality acoustics and creating quiet, naturally ventilating spaces.

Care was taken to consider all aspects of the build. Every corridor, colour and classroom space has been created with an autistic student in mind, meaning that the NAS Church Lawton School is believed to be one of the most advanced schools of its type.

Catherine Mulley, Director at Pozzoni and Head of the education team, said: “The design of the NAS Church Lawton School involved the complete remodelling and extension of a redundant school building which was of SCOLA design, to double its original size. The school now has separate primary, secondary, specialist and sixth form areas so that each age group has its own space, teaching areas and entrances.

“It was important to clearly define the different parts of the school whilst making the layout simple and easy to understand. The designated areas for each age group allow the older children to feel like they are progressing through the school and use of colour in the interior design clearly defines each area.”

Facilities at the school include sensory areas, technology laboratories, and enhanced teaching provision to support pupils with complex needs, including individual learning rooms off each classroom to allow one-to-one teaching. There is also a range of external play areas and spaces throughout the school where the children can take time out and relax when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Other innovative features of the build can be found in the school’s dining room where individual cubicles have been installed so that children with anxieties or strict routines around eating can have privacy and feel more at ease when they have their lunch.

The project was completed via the Free Schools Framework and the school has the capacity to accommodate 60 pupils. Student spaces are allocated through referrals from Cheshire East Council and other local authorities.

“Architecturally, the extensions to the existing school building were used to create the new classrooms, where the layouts, ceiling heights, daylight, ventilation and acoustics were not restricted by the original building. This allowed us to create direct access to external covered play areas for each class base that can be used year round. The new build also benefits from wide corridors which have windows at end to give a feeling of space and openness,” added Catherine.

“The existing building volume was used to host the staff facilities, back of house and a couple of the primary school classrooms, sensory and therapy rooms. Overall, the end result is an outstanding educational facility, designed specifically for pupils with autism which we’re incredibly proud of,” concluded Catherine.

From the work and research that Pozzoni carried out on the NAS Church Lawton School, Catherine and her team have produced a guidance document highlighting best practice for designing an education facility specifically for children with autism spectrum disorder.

Paul Scales, Interim Principal of the NAS Church Lawton School, said: “The designers have done a fantastic job creating a school building which takes into account our pupils’ wide spectrum of needs. I’m particularly proud of the way it caters for the sensory difficulties many children experience, which can be a huge obstacle to learning.

“For instance, a child on the spectrum who is over-sensitive to sound may find certain background noises, like the humming of overhead lights unbearably loud, distracting or even painful. But these issues can be addressed by providing an autism-friendly teaching environment with carefully designed classrooms and ‘low arousal’ spaces, as well as other simple design adjustments.

“Each autistic child is different and our new purpose-built school will allow us to provide specialist support to meet each individual’s needs and help them to reach their full potential.”

As well as designing a school which aims to reduce anxiety for pupils and encourage calm, it was important to ensure that the building was safe and secure.

“Children on the autism spectrum can be incredibly strong so all of the design features, from the solid ceilings, reinforced classroom partition walls and shatterproof safety glass, needed to be robust and future proof,” explained Catherine. “This included the fencing around the school perimeter which needed to not be scalable but also not feel institutional.”

With over thirty years’ experience, Pozzoni has built up an impressive portfolio of public and private sector developments including offices, industrial, education, retail, housing, leisure and care projects from its offices in Manchester and London. Pozzoni has established a national and a growing international reputation for its expertise in the care sector, in particular designing buildings that cater for people living with dementia or other special needs. This cross sector knowledge has been implemented in the design of the NAS Church Lawton School.

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