*** DEBUG END ***

Education: specialising in Chester

10 February 2023

Christine Miles finds out about a school designed for children with autism

Abbey School

Outdoor space at Abbey School, with gym-style equipment and AstroTurf

Outdoor space at Abbey School, with gym-style equipment and AstroTurf

IN THE elegant Abbey Square, in the shadow of Chester Cathedral, amid the sounds of church bells and other ecclesiastical comings and goings, there is now the sound of children playing.

In January 2021, after an £18-million investment by Abbey School Ltd, seven of the Grade II listed Georgian town houses in the square opened as a new special school for young people, aged four to 19 years, with complex autism needs.

”National data tells us that the number of children who are diagnosed with autism is steadily increasing . . . so there’s a clear need for autism specialists in education at the moment,” the principal of Abbey School, Dr Katy Lee, says.

In 2022, the Government reported that just under 1.5 million children had special educational needs in England; an increase of 77,000 from 2021.

Pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are divided between those who receive SEN support provided by a school or outside specialists, and those pupils of whom a formal assessment has been made, and an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan put in place, legally setting out a child’s need and the extra help that they should receive.

The Government last year identified that the most common condition of those with an EHC plan is Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The refurbished buildings in Abbey Square offer 14 classrooms over three floors, combining advanced technologies and autism-focused design features. Meals are taken in a small cafeteria and dining room, and life skills are learnt in the school’s teaching kitchen, which also provides young people in Key Stages 4 and 5 with the facilities to pursue catering as one of their possible vocational pathways. Residential accommodation offers a home-to-home style environment with a wide range of support staff.

Outside areas provide play equipment, colourful tarmac, and AstroTurf to allow children to play outside all year round, as well as quiet spaces and a kitchen garden in the secondary playground. All pupils have access to an outdoor classroom and a school field for competitive sports.

The school applies the latest SEN education research and best practice, and offers each child an individual curriculum that includes traditional subjects, ordinary life skills, therapeutic and behavioural support, and an emphasis on practical, community-based learning.

Abbey School for Exceptional Children is registered for 75 students. Of those, 24 are boarding placements with weekly, half-termly, or termly boarding places available. Currently, 17 local authorities are funding children at the school, all of whom have an EHC plan.

“Each LA will have a number of maintained and a number of special schools,” Dr Lee says. “The LA’s preference would be to find a place within their own provision, but what we know from the SEN crisis at the moment is that there simply aren’t enough special-school places available for the number of children who require them.”

With ASD, every child presents differently. Some of the children have additional learning difficulties; some display challenging behaviour (tantrums, aggression, self-injury, or a tendency to try to escape). Some are non-verbal; others are fully conversational and follow the national curriculum, “albeit at a level below their age-related expectation,” Dr Lee says.

Abbey SchoolReiss Jones, 18, enjoying his work placement in Chester Cathedral’s refectory café

Boys outnumber girls three to one. “There is a debate whether that is due to genuine sex differences in the rates of ASD, or whether females are under-diagnosed. The growing consensus among scientists is that the number of women with autism has been vastly underrepresented.

And it depends where young people are on the spectrum, as well. We can’t simply look at boys versus girls, but the discussion in the research world at the moment is that there are natural differences between boys and girls.” Despite that, diagnostic criteria is currently still the same for boys and girls, Dr Lee says.

“What we do know is that autism is a lifelong developmental disability: it affects somebody from birth. But research hasn’t yet pinpointed an exact cause. Current evidence suggests, in terms of causal factors, that it’s a combination of factors that affect how the brain develops. That includes both a predisposition [genetic factors], in addition to environmental factors.”

Typically, local authorities place children at Abbey School either because their own school placement has broken down, “largely due to needs associated to their autism, such as emotional regulation and behaviour”. Or because there are concerns about a young person “not making adequate progress through areas of the curriculum, as they should be,” Dr Lee says.

“We’re highly specialist. It’s not typical for a LA special school to have an on-site speech therapist, occupational therapist, behaviour support, etc.”

Abbey School has a 25-year lease of the buildings, whose redevelopment won an award for best non-residential conversion. “More than just the buildings, the cathedral has been supportive of the school,” Dr Lee says. “One of our sixth-form students undertook his work experience in the refectory café. And you can quite regularly find our pupils enjoying a lovely walk around the cathedral gardens.”

She adds: “We’ve been astounded, really, with the demand for places in our school.”

The school hopes to expand “so we can support more children and families”. They have put a proposal to the cathedral, and hope to double the school’s capacity in the next one or two years.

The school has also invested more than £1 million in research, development, evaluation, and training, having agreed a strategic research partnership with SEN experts at Bangor University and Warwick University.

Young people with autism are eight times more likely to experience a breakdown in their school placement. And a report last year found that every region in England had had an increase in the number of school exclusions for pupils on the autism spectrum of between 45 per cent and 100 per cent over the past five years.

“What we really want to demonstrate,” Dr Lee says, “is that, through the things that we’re doing here, young people with autism, not only can they remain in school in the long term, they can fully engage with their education, they can thrive, can make progress in the areas that provide them with a pathway into adulthood that is based on choice and autonomy, like you and I have.”


Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)