‘We want to give parents the choice’

Thursday marks World Autism Awareness Day, a time to reflect on the challenges faced by people with special educational needs. Here, two women explain why they are filling a gap in the community for children with SEN


When two mothers met in the playground two years ago, neither expected that their schoolyard chatter would lead to them launching their own school.

But as parents of children with special educational needs (SEN), Ali Durban and Sarah Sultman found common ground discussing lack of choice in the community for children like theirs. Gesher school was soon born.

Set to open in Barnet in September 2016, the independent Jewish primary school will cater for up to 56 children whose special educational needs are mild, moderate and high functioning, and for whom mainstream schooling is simply not working.

According to them, the school will fill a serious gap in the community.

“If you have a child with special educational needs, you have the choice of sending them to Kisharon, or a mainstream Jewish school with a good special needs department,” explains Ms Sultman, 38, from Mill Hill. Her four-year-old son has a diagnosis of atypical autism, dyspraxia and sensory processing disorder.

‘Many of us have to go outside the community to meet our child’s needs’

“But some children don’t have complex enough needs to go to Kisharon, and mainstream turns out to be a disaster,” the mother of three continues.

“Many of us have to go outside the community to meet our child’s needs.”

Research carried out by the pair, with the help of Barnet Council, found there are currently 40 Jewish children in independent special schools in north London who would have chosen a school like Gesher instead.

“It has been a long journey,” says Ms Sultman, who worked as a fund manager in the city. “We started at Ali’s kitchen table and spent more than a year interviewing special needs coordinators for almost all the Jewish primary schools.

“While most of them agreed in principle that mainstream environments are best, they said they had all worked with children who would have been better suited to Gesher.

“We set up focus groups with parents and assessed data from Barnet and by the end of it, we knew we were on the right track.”

Ms Sultman understands too well the dilemma Jewish parents can face: “My son had the choice of going to a special unit in a non-Jewish school in Barnet or Mathilda Marks Kennedy.

“If I had sent him to a unit he would have forgone his Jewish education. But equally he is not special needs enough to warrant a place at Kisharon.

“Our aim with Gesher is to give parents in the community the choice.”
Ali Durban, 41, is a mother of three. Her son is diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia, and auto processing problems.

She describes his experience at a mainstream Jewish primary school as “the dark years”.
The former communications director says her son “had a very negative experience. He was isolated and was one of only two special needs children in the classroom.

“He felt very different from his peers and was bullied. The long-term effects have been far harder to repair than they would have been if he had been in the right educational environment.

“We want to avoid that for others.”

The new school anticipates that a large percentage of its children will have some form of autistic spectrum disorder and has already enlisted the help of Professor Simon Baron Cohen, director of the autism research centre in Cambridge, as its advisor.

Ms Durban says: “Simon will be able to use the school for research in early intervention strategies.

“It has been proven that early intervention makes a huge difference and we want to give children a chance to succeed and enjoy education in a completely different way.

“For many, it is that early intervention that will allow them to enter the mainstream setting.”

Their team of experts do not stop there; they have built strong relationships with the Institute of Education and disability centre Beit Issie Shapiro in Raanana, Israel.

They are also fostering links with Langdon in the hope that its young adults can do peer-to-peer mentoring and even work at the school.

With so much in place, there is still one crucial part missing: a permanent site for the school. But according to the pair, that is little cause for concern.

“Green space is key for us to give the children an environment that they can thrive in,” Ms Sultman says.

“The last thing we want to do is find a crumbling Victorian building and dump a bunch of special needs kids there.

“We are recruiting our headteacher and already have our governing body and trustees on board. All that is left is to get our site secured — we want it to be perfect.”

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