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Free school for autistic children opens in Cheshire

Pozzoni leads on design of innovative new school for young people on the autistic spectrum

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 11, 2015 | Bricks & mortar

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. The National Autistic Society (NAS) Church Lawton School, which was designed by Pozzoni architects, 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.

During the design process, Pozzoni worked closely with Cheshire East Council’s educational psychologist and the NAS to develop the design and create autism-friendly spaces.

Inside the new classrooms

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 and every corridor, colour and classroom space has been created with an autistic student in mind, meaning 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 has separate primary, secondary, specialist and sixth form areas so that each age group has its own space.

“It was important to clearly define the different parts of the school whilst making the layout simple and easy to understand.”

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.

The building offers plenty of outdoor space

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 eating disorders 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 also allowed us to create direct access to external play areas for each class base,” 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.

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.” 

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