Anna Kennedy couldn't find the right school for her two autistic children, so she hatched an ambitious plan: to build and staff a specialist school near her home. Six months after the dream became reality, Reva Klein finds that the school is thriving and has plans to expand.
Ayear ago, it was an elephant of a building, a bit spooky in its dereliction. A former special school in the London borough of Hillingdon, it sat there unloved, half obscured by overgrown ivy.
Today, Hillingdon Manor is beautiful, vibrant, full of hope and filling up with pupils since it reopened in September. It owes its renaissance to Anna Kennedy, who has been working tirelessly for more than two years to make her dream of creating a school for autistic children come true.
Like so many magnificent obsessions, Anna's was born of necessity: her two sons are autistic. Ten-year-old Patrick, who has Asperger syndrome, is at the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum. Angelo, aged seven, has classic autism and his needs are more profound. Anna's struggle to find appropriate provision for her boys has been a saga of frustration, delays, disappointment and anger. Her story will be familiar to many other parents who could not get what they felt their children needed from their education authority.
Which is how Anna, her husband Sean and other members of the Hillingdon Autistic Care and Support Group, founded by Anna, dreamed up Hillingdon Manor school. It was an ambitious plan: they would set up an independent school for children who don't fit in anywhere else, staffed by specialists and incorporating some of the most innovative theory and practice in the treatment of autism.
The first challenge was to find the right staff. The headteacher had to be an inspired, clear-thinking specialist in autism. Angela Austin, who has a long and distinguished career in special education, in mainstream and special schools, was the management committee's choice.
"I made it clear from the start that for the school to work, the head had to be in charge," says Ms Austin. "I was bringing a culture of how to run a school with all the policies, procedures and structures necessary for it to function effectively, while Anna and the other directors of the school (Alex Honeysett and Dave Clark) had little knowledge of those things. But they knew that to make it work, we had to bring together my knowledge and their enthusiasm and commitment."
So far, the synthesis has been productive. "Part of the admission criteria is that parents will reinforce the work of the school," says Hillingdon Manor's pupil support and homeschool manager, Karen Croucher. "We meet parents individually to ensure that, for instance, there's a consistency in behaviour management between home and school."
One part of the strategy is an award chart that children take from home and back again every day, featuring photographs of parents and teachers smiling or looking unamused. If there's been a behaviour problem at school, an "angry" picture of the teacher is circled, so the child and the parents understand it's not been the best of days. Similarly, the parents can communicate to child and teacher with their own pictures that things have been harmonious or otherwise at home.
Daily records are kept of each child's literacy and numeracy targets, and communication skills are carefully monitored. "We're looking at the level of prompting children need before they respond, whether that response is physical, verbal or through gesture, or whether they do things independently, with no prompt," says Ms Croucher. For children with autism, response is a crucial indicator of progress. For children who seem locked in their own worlds, even small signs that they are making a connection with what's going on around them is important.
One innovation designed to yield spontaneous responses is a device called the sensory wall, developed by students at nearby Brunel University. Hillingdon Manor will be the first school in the UK to use the multi-sensory, interactive "wall," a piece of textile that, linked to a computer, will say a word or sound when it's touched. Different textiles on the wall will give a variety of sounds. Teachers also have the option of recording sounds and words they want the children to hear.
In all areas of work, children's achievements are celebrated. "My role is to contact parents when children are doing well, even when it's for small things. We have weekly certificates for achievement. After a child receives five, they get a present. The idea is to make children experience success," says Ms Croucher.
Prospective pupils undergo diagnostic assessments before they are accepted; Hillingdon Manor doesn't have the facilities or staff to accommodate children at the lower end of the autistic spectrum, so pupils must be able to speak and participate in activities. There are 22 children, aged from four to 15. The plan is to increase the roll to 49 and the age range to three-and-a-half to 19.There are 19 members of staff, allowing for a classroom ratio of two-and-a-half children for each adult. The four classes of about seven children each are grouped by age and have a specialist teacher as well as a pupil support worker trained in autism. Staff are helped by a steady stream of BEd students who have applied for placements. There is also a speech and language therapist, and Anna Kennedy would like to employ a psychotherapist "if we can find the money".
Money is a big problem. In return for getting the building rent-free from the local authority for five years, the management committee has agreed to spend pound;600,000 on repairs over the same period. With such huge outgoings and with the high number of staff per pupil, a lot of fundraising is required. "Everything in the school has been donated or scrounged," says Anna Kennedy.
Thousands of pounds worth of free labour and equipment has come from bodies as diverse as the Prince's Trust, British Airports Authority, Marks and Spencer and NatWest; a minibus was donated by the Federation of Demolition Contractors; computers and carpets were donated by companies which read about Anna in the press. Even The Langley Manor school, an independent primary school down the road whose pupils occasionally visit Hillingdon Manor, has raised pound;3,000. And it doesn't hurt that the mayor of Hillingdon has made Hillingdon Manor his charity of the year, or that Esther Rantzen is the school's patron.
Children from Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and all over Greater London are queuing for places, prepared for long, drawn-out battles with their local authorities to pay their fees (pound;27,000 a year) and their often substantial transport costs.
Connor Burgess travels to Hillingdon Manor from Barnet by car every day. The journey takes him and the other five children who make the same trip an hour-and-a-half each way, and transport costs are paid by Barnet.
The six-year-old, who has attention deficithyperactivity disorder as well as autism, was at a mainstream school for four terms and a private school for two before coming to Hillingdon Manor. At both his previous schools he was given support workers who lacked the necessary expertise for dealing with autistic children.
His mother, Carol, found out about Hillingdon Manor from an article in TES Friday (February 12, 1999). "I was interested in it because everything is under one roof. You're not having to go to different places for speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy like we were having to do after school. It's all there. And the emphasis is on social skills alongside the curriculum. Connor needs to discuss his and other's actions and feelings. He still lacks understanding and empathy for others, but there's been a tremendous change in his behaviour towards his family and other children."
Being in a school where autism is the norm and understood by staff makes an enormous difference to Connor's self-esteem and, consequently, his behaviour. This is a school, don't forget, where every class has a daily relaxation session, during which pupils lie on mats and rest to calming music. If they want a hand or foot massage, they get one (with parental consent). If they want to sleep, they sleep. There are plans to introduce breathing exercises to help them manage stress.
Connor's mother says: "He used to come home in a foul mood from mainstream school because he'd been reprimanded and teased. But now there are fewer tantrums. If he does something wrong at school, he has discussions with the teacher. Because he's being made accountable for his actions in an environment that understands him, he's coming home relaxed instead of keyed up."
Older children at the school have travelled similar routes to arrive at Hillingdon Manor. Robert, 14, says: "My old school was terrible. I was bullied everyday and had broken bones and would get detention for not going to classes. But here, it's good. We're all friends."
After Robert's first day at his new school, his mother told Anna Kennedy that he snuggled up to her and said "I love you".
"She rang me in tears to tell me," says Anna. "It was the first time he'd ever said that to her."
For more information, write to the administrator, Hillingdon Manor school, Moorcroft Complex, Harlington Road, Hillingdon, Uxbridge UB8 3HD or telephone 01895 813679
WHAT IS AUTISM?.
The National Autistic Society says autism is "a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to other people. Those with autism are unable to relate to others in a meaningful way. Their ability to develop friendships is impaired as is their capacity to understand other people's feelings."
The causes are unknown, but genetic factors are associated and so, too, may be brain development before and soon after birth. It is estimated that about 520,000 families in Britain are affected by autism, in the ratio of four males to one female.
Asperger syndrome causes difficulties with relationships. Sufferers find it hard to interpret facial expressions and may appear impervious to other people. They appear to be dominated by routines and are often teased and bullied.