The motto of Cambois primary school in Blyth is "a place where everyone is welcome”.

The school certainly lives up to its mantra. Almost one-third of its 110 children have an education, health and care plan (EHCP) – 10 times the national average for a mainstream primary. Thirty pupils are autistic and nine have ADHD.

That is because it’s deliberately inclusive, and pupils travel for miles around to get to the school in the tiny former pit village set on an isolated stretch of Northumberland coast.

Headteacher Marianne Allan has two autistic sons aged 13 and 15, one in a special school and the other in mainstream, and says that drives her on. “Lots of people say becoming a parent doesn’t change you as a teacher, but I’d completely disagree,” she says.

I would find it really hard to say to a parent, ‘your child can’t come here’. With my parent hat on, how would I feel if someone said they didn’t want my child in their school?


“Parents choose us for our family feel and because they know we are going to try our best to meet the child’s needs and work with them.”

 Every aspect of the school is set up to cater for those needs, from the therapy dog padding along the corridors to the Zen garden in the courtyard ... and the ripping up of the traditional rules.

“Why in schools are we obsessed with the most ridiculous rules that make no difference whatsoever? So at Cambois, we only do it if we think it works,” says Marianne, who took charge of the school eight years ago. “We don’t have a behaviour policy, we have a relationships policy.”

The school day gets off to a “soft start”, where children can wander in, eat breakfast and do welcome activities before lessons begin. Lining up is banned, because children with a poor sense of their own space end up pushing and shoving when they’re made to queue.

Pupils – and teaching staff - are allowed to wear trainers, Crocs or just socks around school, and hoodies and joggers if it makes them more comfortable.

Enzo the trained therapy dog is on hand to support pupils with anxiety, while regular movement breaks, a sensory room, space hopper chairs and egg seats in the Zen garden help with sensory needs.

And the school has started to transform its high-ceilinged Victorian classrooms, built in 1888, into trauma-informed rooms designed to help children feel safe. Neutral colours, sofas, lamps, round tables, rugs, blankets, cushions and plants create a calming atmosphere.

“You don’t generally have big bold colours at home with things hanging from the ceilings,” says Marianne. “So the only display we have is a gallery of black-and-white photos of the children doing something that makes them happy.

When they’re in the classroom, it feels like they’re at home.

Lessons regularly take place in a forest school set up in the fields next door, with a fire pit, tools, shelters, swings, and a big wooden stage to perform on. Some children have also gone on surf therapy sessions at the coast at South Shields.

Most of this Marianne describes as reasonable adjustments that benefit all the children – with or without special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) - and that any school could do. But she understands why many schools choose a different path because of the pressure they are under to perform academically.

“The conflict of running an inclusive school alongside the education system we are in is really, really tricky,” says the headteacher, whose school was rated “good” in its last Ofsted inspection in 2019.

“It’s probably the most challenging part of my job because my ethos is very much that if you are inclusive, those things will come. But I still have the same Ofsted inspections, I still have to get the same SAT results, I still get put in a league table against all the other schools.


“So I understand whole-heartedly the pressure schools are put under to say, ‘we can’t meet that child’s needs’. Probably because, if they’re entirely honest, it will affect their data and attainment, and the behaviour might be more challenging.”

But where does that leave families and children with special educational needs? Shocking government statistics show that pupils with an EHCP are more than four times more likely to be excluded from school than the average pupil.

The single biggest group of pupils who were suspended from UK schools last year were those with an EHCP (6.37%), closely followed by SEND pupils without a plan (6.3%). That compares to an average suspension rate of 1.44%. 

It’s just one of the obstacles facing autistic and neurodivergent people that is being highlighted in a campaign by the North East Autism Society to mark World Autism Acceptance Week this week.

 Marianne has helped the charity to put together free toolkits for schools on understanding neurodiversity, and believes a lot of work needs to be done at secondary school level on changing practice to support autistic children.

“It’s soul-destroying for us, because I’ve had children go to secondary school and within five weeks they’re permanently excluded,” she says. “Or when they get to year 6, they end up in the SEND system. If their needs were being met in the mainstream at a primary, why can’t they be at secondary level?

“I do worry that with the consequential behaviour system, such as detention, we are setting them up to fail already.”

She says that teacher training should include much more on how to support SEND children, particularly on the subjects of sensory needs, anxiety and masking, and would like to see secondary schools adopt the ethos that it’s not the pupils who need to change, it’s the adults. 

But most importantly, she says, schools should listen – both to pupils and to the families that know them best. This last point is a personal one for Marianne, who had to battle to find the right school setting for her youngest son, now 13.

It is so difficult to navigate the system – even for me – and what made the difference was when a school started to listen to what I knew as a parent rather than think ‘this is just a fussy parent’.

“If it wouldn’t be right for a neurotypical child, then it shouldn’t be right for our neurodivergent children. I feel like sometimes we are fighting just for them to get the same, not even something different! Just the same. And we shouldn’t have to fight.”

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