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Breaking new ground with DfE funding

July 26, 2021, 10:38 GMT+1
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  • Ryan Kelsall explains the funding and design process involved for a new school...
Breaking new ground with DfE funding

The Cavendish School, Cambridgeshire’s first state-maintained special free school for young people with autism, has received sign off on official funding from the Department for Education (DfE), to cover the costs associated with opening the new school this autumn, as well as supporting the ongoing building works and general maintenance of the school site.

Currently the building structure is being manufactured off-site in Northern Ireland by The McAvoy Group. Installation of the modular buildings is expected to take place later this month at the school site, which is co-located with Impington Village College and Impington International College.


The whole process for us started back in 2016 when we applied to open a free school through the Department for Education (DfE). At this time, we put in a bid, in collaboration with the Local Authority in Cambridgeshire, in order to meet the needs of young people with autism.

Interestingly, at the point of our bid, there were under 2,000 children diagnosed with autism within Cambridgeshire; there are now over 4,000 children who have been diagnosed, clearly highlighting a pressing need for the school.

All of our funding is supplied by the DfE; the Department covers all of the costs of opening the school and then will hand it over to us on completion. We receive £10,000 placement funding per student direct from the DfE.

Once the school is open and we have our first students, we will sit down with the Local Authority and agree a set amount to top up the DfE funding, based on our students’ needs. This amount will be reviewed annually and will coincide with the EHCP review process for each of our students.


The final decision for the building lies with the DfE, but the modular build was mainly chosen for speed with quality assured through off site manufacturing procedures. For example, one building on our current site was delivered on a Monday and by Wednesday our team was already able to get inside and walk around.

This also means that, despite Covid-19, the building work on our site was able to start in January 2021 and we are currently on track to finish the development by this December!


We worked in collaboration with the DfE, as well as the site developers, throughout all stages of the design process; working closely as a team to respond quickly to any challenges or necessary updates. Our school has been designed with the students in mind.

The school includes calm sensory breakout rooms, a life skills room, a horticultural room and wider corridors to ensure that students do not feel claustrophobic when moving around the school.


Throughout all of the planning stages for the school, our team has drawn upon the latest research into autism and we have used our expertise in education and experience of working with young people with autism and their families.

To begin, we held a six-week consultation for the local community and education leaders where we invited feedback on our initial proposal for the school.

Following this, our 2018 discussion forum brought together over 100 families, professionals, researchers and educators to explore and discuss designing educational environments for children and young people with autism; all the information gathered was used to develop our plans.

Throughout this whole process we have maintained an active presence on social media, allowing the local community to ask any questions they may have, sharing information and videos on our YouTube channel and also working with local media to ensure the key messages about our school are disseminated correctly.

We are all just so excited, which is evidenced in the high number of staff applications that we have had in recent weeks. Similarly, we have had a huge number of parents expressing interest for their children and I envisage that this will only increase as we move into the Autumn.

Ryan Kelsall, Deputy CEO, Eastern Learning Alliance