TES Article – Boosting special school capacity across a MAT

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Boosting special school capacity across a MAT

The CEO of Leigh Academies Trust explains how the trust has developed two models to boost its special school provision and better support pupils with SEND.

Capacity within the special school estate has been an issue for many years, driven by increasing numbers of education, health and care plans (ECHPs) being issued, which means more pupils need specialist support.

For trusts like ourselves at Leigh Academies Trust (LAT), where we run a mixed model of mainstream and special schools, seeking to use the capacity and expertise in all settings to ensure we can meet this demand has become a key priority – something we think we can do well thanks to our scale and close proximity of schools across Kent.

This has led to two new innovations that we believe could have mileage for others in a similar position in the sector – a satellite model and a campus model.

The satellite model

The satellite model is used at Milestone – an all-through special setting that can accommodate around 300 pupils with severe and complex needs.

The satellite model works by using four other LAT academies, all less than five miles away, to serve as their “home” campus depending on age range: a nursery satellite at Cherry Orchard Primary, a primary satellite at Dartford Primary, a secondary satellite at The Leigh Academy and a sixth-form satellite at Wilmington Academy.

This has helped us to expand capacity by over 100 places as these extra pupils remain rolled to Milestone but attend each day at their own facilities integrated into the other mainstream LAT academies mentioned above.

While pupils with the most profound needs in Milestone’s all-through intake will always remain at the main site, those who can access these mainstream schools will generally be based at one of the satellites for most of every week, occasionally accessing extra support from the main Milestone site.

When at the satellite school, the Milestone pupils generally attend lessons with other Milestone pupils and are taught by staff employed by Milestone.

However, if it works for them, these pupils will at times attend mainstream lessons, benefiting from all of the opportunities available in the wider mainstream context. When they do, they have extra support from specialist staff to enable them to thrive in lessons.

All this means pupils at the Milestone satellites often work alongside similar-age mainstream pupils – something especially good for their wellbeing as it helps them to socialise and integrate with their peers.

They can also use the wider learning facilities, the restaurant and the social spaces at break and lunchtime, which also helps develop key social and life skills.

A wide-ranging impact

Since doing this, we have been over the moon to see Milestone pupils accessing an age-appropriate curriculum at all levels – with some even achieving GCSE grades in English, history and art. These pupils and others have seen their outcomes rise exponentially, allowing many more to go on and study in further education and achieve employment.

When we first launched this model in 2016 parents were sceptical. They were worried that their children would lose access to all of the wider services and support Milestone provides.

But the impact it has made on the academic and personal growth of their children has won them around. Now parents specifically ask for their children to join one of our satellites as they have witnessed the many success stories over the years.

The benefits of Milestone’s satellites don’t just stop with the pupils. Close collaboration between special and mainstream staff has enabled us to identify training opportunities that benefit colleagues in both settings.

Staff have been significantly upskilled with good practice being shared across mainstream and special schools, which is ultimately beneficial for all.

It also helps our mainstream pupils who may need extra support to access the expertise available on-site from Milestone staff based at each mainstream setting.

It has helped many to keep up with the mainstream curriculum better, reduced the need for suspensions and has increased attendance of vulnerable pupils because their needs are being better met.

A campus model

And what about the Snowfields campus model?

Snowfields is an autism special school that opened in new facilities at Bearsted in 2020 as an 11-18 free school. After the closure of a nearby secondary school in Cranbrook, it moved into those premises, too, essentially doubling its size in just one year.

Now, we have plans to take on a secondary in Minster, which presents us with the opportunity to open a third campus in September 2025, by which time Snowfields will have nearly tripled in size.

As the three campuses are spread across a wider geographical area, it is helping the local authority achieve its locality-based approach to avoid pupils travelling long distances to get to school and allows us to diversify our curriculum to meet different needs.

For example, Bearsted specialises in horticulture and catering while Cranbrook has its own working farm to develop land-based study opportunities.

Furthermore, from this September, the Cranbrook campus will house a purpose-built sixth-form centre, enabling students to achieve the qualifications necessary for sustained employment.

The Snowfields campus model can also offer pupils the chance of a fresh start to avoid permanent exclusion. If things don’t work out on one campus, they may be able to transfer to another, with new transport connections organised to ease the transition.

Like the approach at Milestone, the Snowfields campus model has advantages for staff, too, as there are more career development opportunities for staff between the different sites.

This helps with the retention of staff who are excited by the extra responsibilities available. For leaders, it also gives the chance to share ideas, collaborate and ensure best practice is being used across the whole academy.

For us as a trust, this innovation and desire to give special school pupils the best education possible is underlined by our hope to acquire more special schools in the future, and use these innovative approaches and others that we develop wherever we can.

Simon Beamish is the CEO of Leigh Academies Trust