24/7 School A First For Wales

Parents with severely autistic children will no longer have to send them outside Wales for year-round residential education. The first 52-week residential school for autistic children has opened in Bronllys, near Brecon, with spaces for eight pupils. The first pupil was due to start this week.

Until now families in Wales wanting residential care covering holidays and term times have had to send their children to schools as far away as Scotland. The new £2m Ty Orbis school will provide 24-hour learning and support for young people aged 11 to 18 nearer home.

In Wales there are an estimated 26,500 people with autism including 6,600 children, figures from the National Autistic Society Cymru show. Most of these will be able to attend mainstream education but for some the condition is so severe that special education provision is needed.

At the moment more than one in every four children with autism in Wales attends a school outside their local authority area and 13% have to travel outside Wales to be educated.

Ty Orbis headteacher, Maggie Harries, said she aimed to create a homely environment where pupils will “feel secure and loved”.

Facilities at the new residential school include a gym, a sensory area, science, technology and art facilities and a music room. There is also a large garden which, it is hoped, will be used as an area for outdoor learning and lessons. Therapies will be built into the learning day rather than being tacked on or interrupting the demands of the National Curriculum said Mrs Harries.

“Our priority is to keep Welsh children in Wales. Until now they have not been able to be educated and live in their own country. There are residential schools for children with autism in Cardiff, Penarth and north Wales, but they are not open for 52 weeks of the year. Children with autism like continuity and don’t want things to be out of order. If you send a child home for Christmas it can be the worst possible scenario. There’s a tree in the living room and things are not as they usually are.

“We do encourage home visits but not necessarily when other siblings are at home or at times when things are different,” Mrs Harries said. “There is a huge hole in education provision for people with autism. People are beginning to be more aware but it’s slow.”

The Orbis Healthcare and Education group has built the school. Pupils will be sent by local authorities with fees paid by local education, health and social services authorities.

The opening follows the recent publication of the Welsh assembly Government’s draft strategy to improve the quality of life for people with autism. Local authorities have been given an extra £1.7m to help them review existing provision for children and young people with the condition.

Mrs Harries said, “The school will turn education round for these pupils.The school will follow the National Curriculum and be inspected like other schools. But here, because we are 24-hour, the national curriculum can be fitted around therapies and provided at times to suit pupils. If they want to learn in the evening or early in the morning they will be able to do so. There is a massive kitchen garden with chickens and sheep and we hope we can do numeracy, literacy and science out there.”

As well as eight residential places the school has four day places. There will be four teachers and each child will have a unique education and care plan.