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Finding the right staff is key for teaching pupils with severe autism

Of all the special educational needs that teachers encounter, autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) can be among the most challenging. Jude Ragan, headteacher at Queensmill School, a special school for children with severe and complex ASDs, explains the factors that must be in place to offer outstanding provision for these pupils.

I have been headteacher of Queensmill School in London for close to a decade. The staff at my school are second to none; their desire to do the right thing for the children comes before everything else. This desire is the first imperative for an outstanding educational setting for children with severe and complex ASDs. However there are other factors that must also be in place − factors that one of my governors has described as the "Queensmill Way". 

In brief, these factors are:

  1. Staff who know what they are taking on and come to work ready to address the huge complexities of the children we serve. They must be bright, enthusiastic, kind and have a passion for a job that can be hard, but ultimately very rewarding.
  2. Staff who are willing to think differently. I suggest that staff move away from thinking like policemen and try thinking like detectives. Rather than using his or her presence to stop a child from engaging in challenging behaviour, I advise staff to use all of the available evidence to work out what that child is trying to achieve through this behaviour.
  3. A strong management team who carry the load together and model best practice. At Queensmill, we have a highly experienced group of senior managers and eight amazing middle managers, who all shoulder responsibilities for parts of the school or its curriculum.
  4. Training, training and more training. We spend approximately 20 per cent of our annual disposable budget on training that is ongoing, cumulative and iterative. All training is completed by all staff. This means that I can move any member of staff anywhere within the school and know they will be able to work with confidence.
  5. A culture of self-improvement, enquiry and research. Staff who are taking on postgraduate qualifications have their research programme going on around them in class. They are encouraged to develop the outcomes in order to inform and develop our practice and to offer their research for publication.
  6. The courage to take to task members of staff who don’t meet expectations. If, despite training and support, people are unwilling to fit in with our ethos, then Queensmill is not the place for them. Although it is never easy to move a member of staff on, we cannot afford a weak link and existing staff need to see that the same high standards are required of everyone.
  7. Supportive governors and a supportive borough, who understand the complexity of the children we teach and are respectful of our admission criteria. I have been extremely lucky that officers for my borough have always been supportive of new Queensmill developments. This has resulted in our school expanding rapidly to meet the complex needs of our students.

There are many tools for teaching young people with severe autism, but whichever methods we adopt, I believe they must be underpinned by the ethos described above if they are to have optimum efficacy. 

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