Category Archives: Alderwasley Hall School

SENAD Group to Open New Specialist School- Northamptonshire

Edgewood School will be the newest and latest edition to the SENAD Group portfolio. Currently undergoing major building and renovation work, our site in Lingswood Park, Northampton will become a vibrant, ambitious and caring independent day and residential school for young people aged 7 up to 18 years old.

Opening in Autumn 2023, the school will be able to accommodate up to 26 pupils, first starting with day placements (14) and then after completion of the children’s home development, reaching up to 12 residential placements (38 and 52 week). Pupils who attend will have an EHCP and experience a range of special educational needs including: Autism, moderate to severe learning disabilities, speech, language and communication difficulties and challenging behaviours.

All classes will be small with a high staff to pupil ratio and the school will offer a broad curriculum designed to meet the very individual needs of each pupil and supported by a range of therapeutic programmes.

We are currently recruiting for the school Headteacher

COVID-19: Lessons Learnt During the Pandemic

Almost exactly six months ago, sitting in our School Business Meeting, with a heavy heart, I made the decision to cancel our tour of the World War I Battlefields that was due to leave 48 hours later. Our annual ski trip to the slopes of Italy had returned two weeks earlier, narrowly avoiding the awful situation that was unfolding there. I felt that to take a group of students to Belgium and France was simply a risk not worth taking.

Looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do, but at the time it wasn’t an easy decision to make and I definitely wasn’t sure that I was right. I questioned whether or not I was being too cautious and taking away what would most certainly be a fantastic learning opportunity for students.

As Headteachers, we are often asked to make critical decisions like these – we’re asked to balance access to learning opportunities with risk almost every day… but I think most Headteachers would agree that we’ve never been asked to do it quite as much as during the past 6 months.

As I reflected on the past term and a half, it prompted me to think about what we’ve learnt about ourselves (as a school) during the COVID-19 pandemic and what practices we might continue to use when this situation is finally over… and before you ask – just like you, no, I don’t know when that might be!

School leaders are still working day-by-day, reading advice as soon as it’s published and responding to it appropriately and as quickly as we can. We’re not privy to any information before it’s published nationally so we only hear what you hear when you hear it.

Embracing online learning and support

Our school moved exceptionally quickly to identify a suitable platform (Microsoft Teams) and put together an online learning package that took into account our students’ need for structure and support during their days at home. We set a timetable for them to follow that encouraged a pattern of an early morning physical activity, followed by an academically focused morning and a more creative afternoon.

We knew that we were asking a lot of our parents to take on the responsibility of home-schooling for what felt like it was going to be a long time so we also set up ‘Class Group Teams’ for every student. We tried to replicate what would happen in a “normal” school day by providing access to the child’s Key Team through chat forums. Using the platform, we were able to offer both parents and their children daily support for learning.

Student accessing group online learning session

Given that well over 70% of our students have had extended periods of absence from school prior to getting a placement at here due to anxiety about education, it was crucial that we made sure every one of them knew that we had them in mind throughout the time that they weren’t with us on our school sites.

We were extremely concerned not to allow our students to retreat back into the old routines many of them used before coming to us to cope with the anxiety caused by the world around them. We wanted them up in the mornings and learning in the same way they would have been before the pandemic struck.

Using the online platform provided a fantastic opportunity to ensure that where a child wanted it, daily communication could take place between them and their teacher, therapist or Learning Support Worker. We were able to answer questions they had about their work, the school, the virus and, really anything else that was on their mind at that moment in time. With an open, transparent and, crucially, monitored dialogue, our staff felt confident to respond to all of the questions and concerns students presented them with.

From online learning to quizzes, diaries, competitions

The curriculum work that was set using Teams became increasingly adventurous and innovative as the weeks progressed and we all grew in confidence. We seamlessly moved from more traditional classroom-type activities into the realms of online and live quizzes, video diaries, stop-motion video production and mathematically-driven Bake-Off style competitions (don’t ask!)… and everything else in between.

Teacher delivering online learning session

Our teaching teams became ever more creative in stretching the boundaries of what can be achieved in online learning as each new week emerged and, for the most part, our students rose to the challenge.

… and therapies

Whilst the innovation within curriculum learning has been fascinating to watch, some of the most interesting developments have taken place within our Therapies provision. Our use of Tele-Therapy has been an amazing development and we’ve had some exceptional results from this mode of delivery. It’s been so successful that we’re continuing to use this strategy now that the new school year has begun. We’ve arranged for rooms to be set up as Tele-Therapy resource bases for students to access.

Student accessing Therapy Session via tele-therapies

This enforced new method of delivery had many advantages for us. Some of the gains made with the use of online communication have been that it:

◦ Allowed students to continue working on Therapy outcomes whilst not on-site

◦ Facilitated face-to-face contact for ongoing emotional support as and when needed

◦ Resulted in an unexpectedly high level of engagement from our students

◦ Enabled tutors to be able to produce resource banks of learning materials that could be accessed as required by students

In addition to the many benefits for our students, the school took the opportunity to continue to develop and improve systems for communication between our teams.

We’ve moved to a much-reduced requirement for staff to move between sites for meetings, preferring, instead, the use of online meeting forums and conversation packages. This provides improved use of every attendees’ time as after-school meetings (which previously would have been delayed by up to 20 minutes while attendees crossed the Derbyshire countryside) can now begin instantaneously.

The development that’s taken place since March will undoubtedly benefit the school greatly in the months and terms to come. We feel ready to instantly switch our offer from face-to-face in the classrooms and therapy rooms now to face-to-face via a computer or tablet screen should the need arise.

For us, then, I feel that the school lessons learnt from our time away from our desks and classrooms will indeed continue to be used for the months and years to come. And whilst none of us would have wished for what happened to our country and the wider world, at least we can say that, as a school, we made the most of the learning and development opportunities it provided us with.

About Me

I am the exceptionally proud headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School in Derbyshire. Our school transforms the lives of young people with High-Functioning ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Asperger’s Syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and Developmental Language Disorder.

How to plan to make Christmas as stress-free as possible with a child with ASD

calm ASD christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year for many of us. There are a huge range of triggers for this stress that we all experience from time to time. The expectation that one meal will be memorable for the right reasons, the financial burden the season places upon us, the seemingly endless stream of visitors to be hosted and visits to be made and that’s just for starters…

76% of people reported problems with sleeping at Christmas and 60% of people have experienced panic attacks over the Christmas period. (Mind study, 2015)

As a self-proclaimed Christmasophile, (I literally have Christmas music playing in my house from November onwards) I sometimes find it hard to see the downside of the festive season. But even I have to admit that there are parts of the holiday that are a challenge.

I can usually acknowledge and reduce my own stress and anxiety levels as the holiday season approaches and I’ve learnt some great strategies for this. Recently, though, I began to think about what this time of year is like for many of the students at our school. These young people aren’t always able to recognise what it is that’s causing them anxiety (or even recognise the feeling of anxiety) and often require direct intervention from a supporting adult to identify useful strategies to reduce that anxiety.

Christmas makes life just a little bit more difficult doesn’t it?

As parents of children with ASD, you know better than anyone how difficult this time of year can be for your child and, as a result, for your whole family. The excitement of the season builds these days from October onwards in the shops and on our TV screens and you have to work so hard to keep excitement down to a manageable level.

The shortened daylight hours seem to sap your emotional strength more than usual. The changes in routine become less easy to avoid as you plan for the big day…or week…and all around you the Christmas music seems to get louder, the shops get busier and that quiet, secret car park you use all year round to nip into town has suddenly been discovered by every shopper across the county.

How can we help?

Here at Alderwasley, we have a vast array of highly specialised staff in a huge range of areas of work (Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Psychotherapy, Clinical Psychology, student wellbeing, ASD-specific teaching, ASD-specific residential care) and I thought that I’d ask a few of them for their opinions on strategies to help parents of children with ASD have as stress-free a Christmas as possible. Here’s what they had to say…

Our Wellbeing Officers Lisa and Ravneet said:

“It’s really important to involve your child in the planning of events and giving them a specific task to do when visitors arrive (for example handing out nibbles) can be helpful to reduce your child’s anxiety. Also, make sure that your child knows who is going to be arriving and at what time they’re due as this will help to support your child’s internal processing.”

Our Head of Therapies, Emma suggested:

“Set up a calendar of what’s going to be happening and re-visit it each morning – crossing off completed activities and talking about what’s next. Talking to your child about how they might feel about the different activities planned will help them to manage different feelings (for example they might be excited about gift opening but then disappointed in what’s actually unwrapped). Acknowledge with them that it’s okay to have different feelings for different parts of the holiday.”

Fill in your weekly planner with your child and cross off activities once they’re complete.

Our Heads of Speech & Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy, Mel and Jane had this advice:

“Make sure that you build in quiet time in amongst all the changes to the usual routine. Make sure that your child has access to their preferred sensory calming tools and, if it’s possible, when you’re at someone else’s house, identify a safe place for your child to retreat to if they need quiet time. This will help them to lower arousal levels and refocus their attention.”

Our Residential Lead Practitioner, Carly gave these top tips:

“Talk to your child and jointly plan what decorations will be placed where in your home. Get your child to take an active role in putting the decorations up so that there are no surprises in the rooms in their home.”

Our two Assistant Headteachers, Bernardo and Ed said:

“If you’re heading out to a public event (such as a meet Santa Claus event or Christmas Market), research the venue in advance as much as you’re able. You can get a lot of information from Customer Services teams who may even be able to advise you of any adaptations they can make for your child. Even though many routines will have to change over the festive period, talk to your child about how the changes you make are okay and are expected changes at this time of year. Ed was very keen to point out that it’s okay to have a mince pie for breakfast once in a while!!”

These are all fantastic tips to help your family Christmas go as smoothly as it can. It’s really important to remember that no matter what anyone tells you, no Christmas is stress-free. Your Christmas doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s Christmas – never judge yourself by the standards anyone else sets (particularly on social media)… it just needs to be what you wanted it to be. It’s okay to say “no” to some of the invitations you receive.

Oh, and my tips?

Enjoy spending time together as a family, doing the things you like to do. And always, always, have a Plan B!

Don’t forget that if you need a friendly ear over the holiday, you can also talk to other families in similar situations using groups and forums such as The Autism Support Network on Facebook or Autism Support UK. And don’t forget to post your comments on our Facebook Page too and let know us what you’ve been up to over the holiday.

From everyone here at Alderwasley Hall School, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

About me:

Sara Forsyth Headteacher Alderwasley Hall School Sixth Form

I am the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.

The amazing benefits of a school dog (or how to get through those ruff days)

There’s absolutely no data on the number of dogs currently working in schools across the United Kingdom. There are also no scientific conclusions on the impact of having dogs in schools. There. I’ve said it. There’s nothing out there for me to base the truth of this blog on…so why am I writing it?

Because having a school dog has made a huge difference at our school.

Did you, for example, realise that having a school dog could improve the reading skills of young people? Or raise their self-esteem? Or help them to make friends?

As a headteacher, having a full-time school dog has quite literally been a revelation. It wasn’t an easy decision to make initially. I am naturally quite a risk-averse leader who bases most of my important decisions on a thorough, careful scrutiny of all the evidence I can get my hands on.

I always try hard to read evidence which both supports my instinct but, also take into account information that is counter to my instinct before I come to a decision. Clearly, this need for evidence proved problematic in the preparation for the decision to have a school dog as there’s simply nothing concrete out there.

The school had had a dog before, for a couple of days a week which had proved popular with our students. But the feeling among the Well-being Team in our school was that there was a lot more we could do… if only we had our own full-time dog.

They really believed that anything was paws-ible

So, two years ago we took a leap of faith and employed Bramble, our school dog – a black, 2-year-old Cockapoo (in case you’re wondering, she’s paid in affection, walks and treats!).

Here she is in one of her favourite places – in my office on my chair!

“Dogs are a powerfully cost-effective way of helping children feel more secure at school and a low-tech approach to reducing anxiety”.  Sir Anthony Seldon (Vice Chancellor University of Buckingham).

I couldn’t agree more.

Before we welcomed Bramble into our school, all parents and carers were asked for their consent (or not) for their child to be allowed access to her. We have always been very clear that she is not an Assistance Dog and she is not a Pets As Therapy Dog (in other words, she’s not formally trained to any nationally recognised standard). She is, quite simply, our school dog and part of our Well-being Team, joining our Well-being Officers and our Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist.

How did we choose her?

Of course, when we chose her, there were certain things we needed, like she had to:

  • Be non-allergenic for people with allergies
  • Have a great temperament and a friendly demeanour
  • Be a breed recognised as one that makes a good therapy dog and a good companion.

But other than this, we were open to any breed.

How does she help?

Since her arrival at our school, we have used Bramble in a wide range of activities and the results are remarkable – with some even we didn’t expect. Just a few of the ways she’s helped our students:

To improve the reading confidence of our students

Students who have found it challenging to read aloud in front of peers have been supported to read to Bramble outside of their classroom instead. Her non-threatening, friendly response has led to many students being able to transfer their growing reading confidence into their classroom over time.

To reduce anxiety

We’ve found that students who felt unable to speak directly to a member of staff about their concerns have been able to talk to Bramble about what’s on their mind. They’ve told her of their fears with a member of our team in the room, and we’ve been able to respond to their issues directly as a result.

To improve the ability to think of others

We’ve been able to develop empathy skills in our students using Bramble. We’ve supported students to follow care routines and guidelines for her, teaching them to put her needs before their own.

We’ve taught them about the need to use a calm and quiet voice and small movements in order to get a positive response from Bramble. This has then allowed our team to generalise the need to, and importance of, thinking of others as well as ourselves, along with considering how our reactions make others feel.

To provide companionship and a friendly welcome to school

Bramble has been cited by parents and carers more times than I can count as the reason my child could make it into school. In my previous blog Why school refusal shouldn’t be seen as school rejection I spoke about the overwhelming levels of anxiety that some young people feel about school.

The offer of time with our school dog has on many occasions been the vital initial stage in getting a young person over our threshold and enabling them to take that first, tentative step towards getting back into school and fulfilling their potential.

My theory (totally unscientifically backed of course!) is that Bramble provides our students with an endlessly non-judgemental response to everything they do and say. She allows our students to be themselves without comment or judgement and, through her, they grow in confidence with their peers.

But it’s not just about what our school dog offers our students. Just like every headteacher in the country, I am also always looking for ways to improve the well-being of our most valuable resource…our staff. The impact that our school dog has on the well-being of our staff can’t be underestimated either.

She welcomes the staff in a morning as they come in and the unbridled joy she brings on cold, wet, dark mornings over here in the Peak District is often infectious. Our days generally begin with a smile when she’s on site and when days begin with a smile, they tend to be more productive than when they don’t wouldn’t you agree?

But what about those staff who don’t like dogs?

We are very clear with our staff about the locations in which they can expect to encounter Bramble. This allows all staff who aren’t keen on dogs to move around the site confidently. In fact, at least two of our staff who weren’t keen on dogs before they worked with Bramble have now changed their mind about dogs.

And how do I know that she’s having a positive impact? It’s on the faces of the staff and students who spend time with her and in the feedback I get from the parents and carers of our students.

And now for the science bit…

The positive impact of Bramble in all aspects of our school life has been dramatic and while I have no scientific evidence to support this hypothesis (other than she receives more Christmas cards than I do!) – I couldn’t be more certain of its truth…

If you want to learn more about the positive impact that a school dog can have for young people with High Functioning Autism, come and see us. But be sure to call in advance because Bramble’s diary gets pretty full, pretty quickly!

About me:

I am Sara Forsyth, the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have almost 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.

Why school refusal shouldn’t be seen as school rejection

Written by Sara Forsyth, Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form

I read a news article last week on the BBC about a Derbyshire family who were being threatened with a fine for their son’s non-school attendance. The boy, a 15-year old student, has been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. This condition is often referred to as School Phobia or, I would argue, less helpfully – School Refusal. It’s generally diagnosed by a Child Psychiatrist but remains largely misunderstood by many schools who often don’t have the resources or capacity to explore the underlying reasons for a persistent non-attender in any real depth.

The article reminded me of the absolutely crucial need for young people to receive the right educational setting to meet their needs. And getting the right school as early in a child’s educational career as we can, is always a positive investment for the future.

School refusal: My experience as a Headteacher

As the Headteacher of an independent SEN school for young people with High Functioning Autism and associated anxiety, I am inundated with enquiries from parents who have a depressingly similar story: their child is currently out of school, spending long hours withdrawing from social contact outside of the home and this has been the case for often 12 months or more. Their child is usually keen to learn and clearly has the capacity to do so but becomes emotionally distressed at the thought of attending school.  The experience that their child has had in school has left them feeling that there is no school placement for them and this can be a mindset that is incredibly hard to change.

Our experience is that it can often take weeks of patient, carefully planned, phased visits. We will start with a video of the school, viewed where they feel safe (in their own home). This then leads on to the child actually walking onto the school site. The visits will usually involve time with our school therapy dog (here’s Bramble in our grounds) and the length of time spent on site will gradually increase over time. Visits to actual classrooms are often the very last element of the plan before a child might begin to accept that they have a future within an educational setting. And that this marks the start of their new journey.

For the placement to have any chance of success there are some essentials that our experience tells us need to be implemented from day one:

1: The environment needs to be right

This means as a minimum having an environment with low noise levels and low levels of disruption and room to move around.

2: The group needs to be right

This means having small groups with high staffing ratios.  The team working with the child may include specialised therapy team members (we employ Speech & Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, a Psychotherapist and a Clinical Psychologist). It also means having an appropriate peer group. Children with Social Anxiety Disorder need to be surrounded by peers with similar abilities and needs so that they feel like they fit in. They already feel isolated from education so making them feel that they belong somewhere is key to a successful placement.

3: The Curriculum needs to be right

It’s crucial to have the right curriculum in place – one that offers a flexible, student-centred programme of study with an appropriate level of academic challenge that builds on success to improve self-esteem.  These students often have a perception that they have failed at school and having a curriculum that both challenges them but offers success is vital to being able to change their perception.

In the BBC article, a solicitor commented that they are working with 20 families of vulnerable children with school attendance issues, who feel that they have no option other than to take legal action.

If the evidence I have just from the enquiries I receive reflects the national picture, then I suspect the figure across the UK is significantly higher ­-­ and is increasing year on year.

[NFIS Facebook Group stats from September 2019]

So often I find myself sat in an Educational Tribunal Hearing (usually after two or three postponements, but that’s a whole other story!) listening to a desperate parent pleading for a chance to be believed that all their child needs is the right school and they will flourish.

With the right school, they know that their child will fulfil their huge potential. They know that if placed in the right school their child will eventually contribute to society in a way that, if they’re left in an inappropriate placement they most certainly won’t.  They know that if placed in the right school, they will avoid the deterioration in their mental health that will almost inevitably happen if they remain where they currently are.

To be clear, these parents are not saying that the school their child has been in is a bad school; it’s just not the right school for their child.

The mental health charity Mind has called for school refusal to be given more recognition in education. I’d argue that, until this happens and sufferers receive the appropriate placement to meet their complex needs, the numbers of young people out of school through anxiety about attending will only continue to rise.

To learn more about the importance of the right mental health provision in a school like ours, click here:

To read the full BBC article click here:

About Me

I am the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have almost 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.