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Plan to open free school for autistic children in Swale turned down by Department for Education

By Hayley Robinson

An application to set up a free school in Swale for children with autism has been turned down by the Department for Education.

There is currently only one place which serves youngsters from the borough, Laleham Gap School, which is based on two sites in Broadstairs and Margate – and it can take pupils up to an hour to get there.

Donna Smith-Emes, 42, whose son Daniel, 13, is autistic, and her friend Sarah Aldridge, 41, whose eight-year-old daughter Amber has high-functioning autism, came up with the idea to create a facility closer to home three years ago.

Donna Smith-Emes and Sarah Aldridge say they are disappointed their application was turned down for a second time

To help them realise their dreams, they set up the parent-led group Friends of Aspire plus a school team of experts, senior leadership educationalists, school recruitment advisors and occupational and speech and language therapists.

The bid to set up the facility for youngsters aged seven to 19 was put forward in May, with hopes of it opening in September 2015.

But the pair recently received a letter saying it had been unsuccessful.

Speaking on behalf of the team, Mrs Aldridge said: “Naturally, we are disappointed that our application was declined this time. However, it has made us even more determined to reapply in October, hopefully for a 2016 opening.

“A fundamental factor for the unsuccessful bid was due to insufficient commitment from our commissioners in comparison to the size of the school in opening years.

Donna Smith-Emes

“We were delighted to receive positive feedback from the DfE in relation to the determination to transform the life opportunities of young people with autism, a detailed understanding of the needs of our proposed cohort and the ability to provide the necessary specialist support, combined with an autism-specific curriculum.

“They also recognised that our pre-opening group has several highly experienced and dedicated members.”

The two women also run a free support group for parents and carers of children who have autism or ADHD.

Members meet at The Ypres Tavern, West Street, Sittingbourne, every third Wednesday of the month between 10am and noon, and at The Orchards, Attlee Way, Milton Regis, every first Friday of the month from 1pm-3pm.

To support Aspire’s reapplication, visit www.aspirefreeschool.co.uk and fill in the parental demand survey.

Alternatively, call Sarah Aldridge on 07966 881872 or Donna Smith-Emes on 07861 301093.

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