Interview - Fiona Veitch, Principal designate of the Thames Valley Free School

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Fiona Veitch looks forward to the launch of a new free school for children with autism

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The Thames Valley Free School, which is sponsored by the National Autistic Society (NAS), is due to open in Berkshire in September. The new school is part of a collaboration between the NAS, local authorities, voluntary groups, schools and parents in response to a need for specialist provision for children and young people with autism. Reading Borough Council is concerned about being able to cater for the increasing number of pupils with autism in the area.

What experience will you bring to the role?

My background is in working with children with autism. I started in the early years sector after having my own children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.

Before taking up the role as principal of the Thames Valley Free School I was acting head at Norcot Early Years Centre in Reading. Prior to that, I held the position of deputy head and special needs co-ordinator at the setting.

I have also worked on an advisory basis supporting children in mainstream schools and I'm a qualified play therapist. I was delighted to be appointed to the role. It is my dream job.

How many places will be available at the Thames Valley School?

There will be 50 places available for children aged four to 16. The school is still under construction, but already we have nearly filled all our places.

We are looking to build partnerships with local primary and secondary schools to share best practice and link with the local community to open up opportunities for children with autism.

How will the school cater for children with autism?

We hope that the school will fill a gap in provision and provide a place for children who are academically able but not suited to mainstream school. When we open in September, we will operate on an adult: child ratio of 1:2 and for children with complex needs on an enhanced provision ratio of 1:1.

The idea is that the school will be flexible and give children control.

We want to teach children how to recognise and regulate their emotions. Within the school we will have four 'calming pods' which children can take themselves to.

The 'calming pods' will have changeable lighting that children can control and soft bean bag seating.

Each classroom will also have a 'calm bubble' next door that children can spend time in if they want to be alone.

The school will also offer shortto medium-term placements and assessment places for pupils currently without a statement of special educational needs. Separate enhanced provision will be available for children of any age and ability.

What other facilities will the school offer?

The plans for the school include soft play and sensory rooms, as well as an outdoor space that provides a challenging and calm environment to meet the different needs of the children. One of the school governors, who is on the autism spectrum, is helping to design the outdoor area.

Are there plans to expand provision if there is demand?

We are in talks with local authorities about having individual primary and secondary schools, as well as the possibility of attaching a space to a school for children with autism who might not be ready for mainstream schooling.

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