Case study: Award-winning autism support

Written by: Naj D’Silva | Published:
Supported: Students and staff at The Holmewood School, an autism specialist school in London

The Holmewood School, a seven to 19 autism specialist school, has won two prestigious awards in recognition of its work. Naj D’Silva explains more about what they do and offers her advice to mainstream schools when it comes to supporting children with autism

Happiness and kindness pulse through the veins of the Holmewood School, a specialist autism school for seven to 19-year-olds near Finchley in north London.

The Holmewood School is in its ninth year. The current headteacher joined the school nearly three years ago. Since its last inspection, the school has moved from “good” to “outstanding” in leadership largely due to its focus on staff and student wellbeing.

With every student being on the autism spectrum and more than half having additional mental health needs, the senior leadership team acknowledges that it can be a challenging environment for staff.

The leadership team’s commitment to putting student and staff welfare first was what set it apart for judges at the Tes Independent Schools Awards earlier this year, where they were announced winners of both UK Senior Leadership Team of the Year and SEN Initiative of the Year, the latter being given in recognition of our innovative Occupational Therapy Café.

The team’s holistic and open-minded approach shapes the school. Our ethos of “Think Differently” applies to staff, parents and the wider community. The senior leadership team aims to operate in an open, non-judgemental manner and has demonstrated the value we place in distributed leadership approaches.

We have created numerous professional development opportunities for staff to ensure that these principles stay core to the school’s work as it develops. Examples of this include training and support opportunities for five support staff to become teachers and a CPD system that is based on best practice workshops that encourage staff to “buy-in” to their own programme of development, giving them autonomy.

Ofsted noted at the 2018 inspection: “The headteacher and her leadership team are highly effective. Staff share leaders’ vision to ‘think differently’ about pupils on the autistic spectrum. They are committed to pupils’ welfare, wellbeing and progress. Parents are overwhelmingly positive. For some, the school’s work is life-changing.”

Staff wellbeing

Working with complex young people can have an impact on individual’s emotional state, tolerance, stress levels, and general wellbeing. As such the school provides a range of practical in-house support including a year-long induction programme with dedicated mentors, weekly reflective supervision from the team of psychodynamic therapists, one-to-one short or long term psychodynamic therapy for staff, reflexology, yoga, staff training focusing on both educational and therapeutic aspects, and at least two INSET days dedicated to staff wellbeing (e.g. practical “forest school” education, team games and a reflective end of year celebration of achievements led by staff to share projects and initiatives from the year).

Headteacher Lisa Camilleri said: “The senior leadership team places staff and student happiness at its centre. Their ultimate belief is that if staff and students are happy and enjoy what they do each day, the rest will follow.”

Supporting students

The school combines an academic and therapeutic curriculum with students accessing a bespoke range of therapies including occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and psychodynamic therapy.

Small class sizes of six to seven students supported by specialised teaching assistants allows the staff to provide an extremely tailored level of support. The curriculum is highly creative as a result.

Holmewood has adopted a whole-school approach to Forest School education and opened a Forest School wing at a local farm in 2014. Based on Scandinavian educational principles, it has a key focus on social and emotional development. Students take part in animal care, fire-lighting, den-building and whittling, which all help to develop creativity, positive risk management, imaginative play, resilience and positive mental health. One key stage 4 student said: “The animals are actually quite calming; it is so peaceful and relaxing at the farm.”

Being based on such a small site with limited facilities has inspired creativity in addressing the school’s beliefs that social communication and social interaction are central to the future success of its students.

Therefore, community outreach opportunities can be found in abundance – from PE lessons spent learning to sail narrowboats through the canals of north London or the new community rubbish collection project planned for the summer term, to enterprise projects where students can be found selling their wares of “Dye-It Clothing” at Old Spitalfields Market.

Occupational Therapy Café

The café was founded in 2015 as a creative and practical cooking initiative. It started life as staff searched for ways to help a student who was at risk of exclusion because of his poor behaviour.

After several months they discovered his interest in cooking and developed a programme that swiftly improved his conduct. Keen to capitalise on his success, staff expanded the project for other pupils, creating a café team of five students, including a baker, senior chef and several trainees, supported by occupational therapists.

Café members have not only improved their motor skills through cooking but also boosted their confidence navigating social situations such as dealing with customers. Some students have enjoyed the project so much that they now want to pursue in a career in the culinary field.

The lead judge of the 2019 Tes awards, Margaret Mulholland, said: “This is a wonderful example of a social enterprise initiative set up by the occupational therapy team to explicitly strengthen motor skills development while supporting steps toward employability.
“The pride of the young people, parents and other stakeholders shone through,” she added.

Advice for others

What lessons might mainstream schools take from our success – both for supporting staff wellbeing and when supporting students on the autism spectrum? Senior leaders in mainstream schools might consider the following approaches:

  • Maximise creative learning opportunities (however small) and implement a half-termly “teacher creativity” award to recognise staff who are willing to try creative new practice in the classroom.
  • Encourage cross-curricular outdoor learning opportunities.
  • Offer creative development opportunities to retain talented staff.
  • Facilitate a peer-mentoring system (staff and students).
  • Give teachers ownership over a percentage of their own CPD to encourage buy-in and best use of time.
  • Run one or two INSET days dedicated to staff wellbeing.
  • Create a small wellbeing budget and ask staff to vote for what they feel would most benefit their wellbeing (suggestions might include a staff yoga class, meditation or a termly staff breakfast).

  • Naj D’Silva is assistant headteacher (SMSC and enrichment) at The Holmewood School in London.


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