A BRAND new £10.1M school built especially for young people with autistic spectrum disorder is now open in Basingstoke.

The Austen Academy, built on the site of the former Chineham Park School on Shakespeare Road, officially opened its door in April.

Following a bidding process, the new school is being run by the multi-academies trust and charity, Catch 22, which also operates Ashwood and Coppice Spring schools in Basingstoke.

As an academy, the school is directly funded by the Department for Education, with places at the school assessed and commissioned by Hampshire County Council.

Catch 22 has negotiated a phased introduction to the school for students. From April 2021, the school accommodated 20 young people. From September, this will increase to 60, and then increase by 24 students each September to a maximum capacity of 128.

So far, the group has been made up of years 5 - 8, with Year 4 and Year 9 aged students being added to the cohort in September, and expanded each year based on need until it covers ages 5-16.

The school is intended only for students working at least at their age-related expectations, who have been diagnosed with autism.

The Gazette took a tour of the state-of-the art new facilities, and spoke with Catch 22 executive principal for the South West, Dave Moran, who has been working with children with special education needs in Hampshire since 2003.

Basingstoke Gazette: executive principal for the South West, Dave Moranexecutive principal for the South West, Dave Moran

“There is no other ASD specialist school in Hampshire. It’s the first of its kind,” he said.

“The children that have come here have thrived in the first term. All of their attendance improved massively. Some of them had no school for over a year, and they were all attending full time within three weeks.”

When asked what sets The Austen Academy apart from a mainstream school, he added: “The small amount of children here, and the high amount of attention.

“And trust, for pupils and parents. Because many of them have been let down, so it's so important that we are doing what we say we will.”

Catch 22 is continuing to recruit “highly skilled” teachers in a variety of specialisms, with more staff per head than in other schools.

“For lots of the students, one of the biggest barriers for them is their anxiety,” said David.

Basingstoke Gazette: Features such as sensory and life skills rooms set it apart as purpose built for children with ASDFeatures such as sensory and life skills rooms set it apart as purpose built for children with ASD

For that reason, the phased introduction to the new environment, despite challenges presented by the Covid pandemic, was crucial.

Expanding on the challenges of recent months, David said that staff had to work extremely hard getting all the children and parents in for tours in small groups, as well as liaising with the design team around adaptations to make the school not only look good, but function in a suitable way for children with autism diagnoses.

Basingstoke Gazette: The children are offered the same all-round education as in a mainstream schoolThe children are offered the same all-round education as in a mainstream school

Each classroom has a break-out room to give children the opportunity to take themselves out of any stressful situation, as well as its own outdoor space and non-gendered, individual toilets.

Despite it not being included in the initial funding, David said the charity ad also found the funds to include sensory rooms for wellbeing, and the school also has life-skills rooms to prepare the young people for life outside of The Austen Academy.

“It’s the same education as you would get in the mainstream school, subject-wise, but with smaller class sizes,” he said.

“We are also really keen on making links with the local mainstream schools, so our students get to be fully confident to go on to BcOT or QMC. If they’re not, then we have failed. Even if they get nine GCSEs.

“We have engaged with a lot of Hampshire [County Council] services, such as the library service which has provided books, and the music service which offers our students instrument tuition.”