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Government commits to new Bristol school for children with autism

Child in Autism Research Base

Pupil in the Autism Resource Base at the Merchants' Academy Withywood Road site Merchants' Academy

10 March 2015

A new all-through school in Bristol for children with autism has been given the go-ahead by the Department for Education. The Bristol Autism Free School will be sponsored by the Society of Merchant Venturers and the University of Bristol, which already jointly sponsor Merchants' Academy in south Bristol.

The new school will have places for 84 children aged from four to 16. It will help to meet increasing demand for high-quality specialist provision from across Bristol and the surrounding area.

Merchants' Academy will build on its expertise in supporting children who have statements of special needs or education, health and care plans for autism. It has run a very successful 28-place Autistic Resource Base (ARB) at its primary site in Withywood Road for many years.

This will be replaced by the new school, which will increase the number of places for children aged four to 11 to 49 and provide 35 additional places at secondary level.

Merchants' Academy principal Anne Burrell said the demand for places for children on the autistic spectrum outstripped supply and was rising. There was a waiting list for the existing ARB and a shortfall of places in Bristol and neighbouring local authorities, so today's decision to approve the school – following a rigorous application and assessment process – would be welcomed.

‘This is wonderful for the children and their families who have campaigned for many years for high-quality provision without the need for change at the age of 11,’ said Burrell. ‘We are very excited at the chance to create a new school solely for children with autism and for all the opportunities it will bring.’

The new school would be able to meet the needs of children across a wide range, from those needing a highly personalised curriculum to those who are able to access mainstream classes in the partner academies, she added.

Merchants' Academy, an all-through school for children aged three to 19, will become a multi-academy trust to oversee the two schools and any others that might join or be set up and Burrell will be its chief executive.

Lynn Robinson, Deputy Registrar at University of Bristol, said: ‘The University of Bristol is delighted at the announcement of the successful application for the Bristol Autism Free School. This will operate as part of a multi-academy trust which we are very proud to sponsor. This is a great opportunity for the children, their parents and the University of Bristol.’

Chris Curling, Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers, said: ‘The announcement of Bristol Autism Free School is exceptionally good news for Bristol. There is a chronic shortage, nationally as well as locally in Bristol, of places in schools providing specialist support to the growing numbers of children who are identified as being on the autism spectrum. It is central to the ethos of the Merchant Venturers to support primary and secondary education in areas where there is real need. The new free school is therefore a natural addition to the group of Merchant schools.’

The school is one of 49 announced by the Department for Education. Natalie Evans, Director of New Schools Network, which advises free school applicants, said: ‘The application process to set up a free school is incredibly rigorous – as it should be – so it is a testament to Bristol Autism Free School’s hard work that they have been approved to open. This latest announcement means the total number of free schools open or approved to open has now exceeded 400.’

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