Sarah Wild, headteacher, Limpsfield Grange School
Sarah Wild, headteacher, Limpsfield Grange School

Sarah Wild does not want to be known as the crazy lady with the goats.

So let me put the record straight: Sarah Wild, headteacher of Limpsfield Grange secondary school in Surrey for autistic girls (of ITV documentary and book-writing fame), does not particularly like goats. In fact, the only reason the school has animals (sheep, goats, alpacas, dogs…) is because of a rash promise made to her site manager – even before she got the job – which went something like this:

Mr Bunn (collaring Wild in the corridor): “Do you like alpacas?”

Wild: “Yes, they’re great.”

Bunn: “If you get the job, will you get some alpacas?”

Wild: “Of course!”

Thus, as she says with a rueful smile, “learning the first rule in headship: never agree to anything in a corridor when you don’t know what you’re walking into!”

In retrospect, however, it was probably a good move. As head of a local authority-maintained partial boarding school that accepts girls from all over England (there are about 100 on roll from years 7 to 11), Wild not only has to be creative with how to stretch funds – they sell bacon butties to Saturday swimmers to pay for animal feed – but also with her approach to the staff who put so much into running the place, “I’ve got a team of really amazing people here, and I think you just really love it, and so you give your life to it, and the Grange gobbles your life up.”

 

One of the school's goats

One of the school’s goats

It’s clear that she’s a firm convert to running the school’s grounds as a kind of “smallholding”. For girls who arrive at school “you know, ‘up’ and really anxious, then feeding the animals and helping Mr Bunn with the animals in the morning is a really good way to start their day. We’re like The Good Life, but a bit more bonkers.”

It also helps to broach self-care conversations: “If you’ve got a girl who is self-harming and not eating, but she loves animals, you can start a conversation about self-care by talking about, ‘Would you not feed a goat? Would you hurt a goat on purpose?’ It’s about them making a link between the care that they feel for something else and the care that they can feel for themselves.”

We’re like The Good Life, but a bit more bonkers

Wild, 44, who worked her way to headship through a long teaching and school leadership career – she trained initially as an English teacher and teacher of the deaf (a job she describes as her “first love”) – clearly cares deeply for her pupils. In fact, it was her story of how the mental breakdown of one of her former pupils led to a redesign of the school’s progress measures that first prompted my visit.

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The young woman had been one of the Grange’s top students, but after three years of college “she just stopped functioning”. It shocked Wild into action: “I remember thinking, ‘How could we have possibly got this right if it’s gone so wrong for you? We’ve clearly valued the wrong things here.’”

How can you hold yourself responsible? I ask. “She’s somebody’s daughter,” Wild says, still deeply affected. “She’s really high functioning, and she absolutely should have a place in society.”

Since then, Wild has made it her mission to redesign the curriculum and re-evaluate how the school defines success.

It seems she’s in something of a bind because academically, the girls at her school are “mainstream equivalent” so Ofsted will look at Progress 8. But “we’re not delivering Progress 8”, she confesses. Why not? “I could bang out eight GCSEs for these girls, but it wouldn’t give them enough time to do the stuff we need to do. I’m not jumping through hoops just because somebody says they’ve got to do eight GCSEs. I know what they need.”

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Sarah Wild outside Limpsfield Grange school

This is a theme I’ve heard in other special schools: the need to set their own criteria for success.

Wild, for her part, is working to develop a new kind of progress measure that will run alongside the academic measures, to track wellbeing. “When I first became a head I probably thought achievement was the most important thing; these are bright kids and I want them to get the best GCSE results they can, because that will buy them opportunities later on. I still believe that, but I think what the past 12 months has taught me is, if they are not well, they can’t use any of it.”

The school is now setting targets in the four “waci” areas (pronounced wacky – which, I can’t help thinking, reflects Wild’s sense of humour…): wellbeing, achievement, communication and independence, all of which she considers to be of equal importance.

The drive to create new, tailored progress measures is “really ambitious,” Wild admits, “but it needs to be done.”

Does any precedent exist? “No, not really.” So the school is planning to invent its own scale, based on “founding principles” from work done by organisations such as the Autism Education Trust.

While pioneering, the school isn’t out on a limb: it’s collaborating with the University of New South Wales and the University of Central London’s Centre for Research in Autism on quality-of-life measures for autistic people, as well as with Swalcliffe Park school in Oxfordshire.

“It’s about making sure I can evidence their academic progress from start points – which is usually very good – and then I can measure their progress in other areas from their start points. So how well were they when they came? Did they even know they had feelings?”

The drive to create new, tailored progress measures is “really ambitious,” Wild admits, “but it needs to be done.”

A recurring theme over the afternoon is the lack of resources for autistic girls: “There’s loads of autism-specific training, but it’s all boy-referenced and boy-normed”. To her knowledge, Limpsfield is the only school in the country with this specific focus; and it’s one that Wild fought to be recognised for.

On arriving at Limpsfield Grange in 2012 – then classified as a school for girls with “emotional and learning difficulties” – after two years as a deputy head at a co-ed autism school in Lewisham, south London, she “started talking to people about the fact that [Limpsfield] had a large number of girls on the spectrum, and people said, ‘Well, girls don’t have autism, do they, so you must be wrong.’

I said: ‘Yeah, they do.’ Hence the crusade was born.”

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The crusade involved not only obtaining a reclassification of the school’s status from the local authority, but also seeking out (or developing) resources for girls with autism and publicising their condition. It has led to an ITV documentary, Girls with Autism, and more recently the publication of two books: M is for Autism, followed by M in the Middle.

The book idea came from the girls themselves, Wild says. “They felt really strongly that when we went to events, there was a lot of discourse and it was boy-referenced. They really wanted to write a novel.”

Wild knew an author from her days in Lewisham, Vicky Martin, whom she invited to the school. Martin ran workshops with the girls, in which she would brainstorm scenarios, such as: “M’s going to the cinema, she’s going on a date, how’s that going to go?” The girls would give her lines, and tell her how M would behave – they also fed back on various drafts – refining the plot and dialogue together. They initially self-published with help from the National Autistic Society, but soon found a publisher.

The plan is to continue the crusade to normalise girls with autism

Their second book is more “sophisticated” says Wild, to which I can testify; I tell her that my 11-year-old daughter is a big fan. “That’s brilliant! We wanted to normalise this, you know, she’s not a genius, she’s just a teenage girl trying to get through life in a comprehensive. Every day. And that’s really hard.” The plan is to continue the crusade to normalise girls with autism: “we have a series of books in our heads.”

As Wild poses for a photoshoot, Audrey Hepburn-style, outside the school’s beautiful Victorian building, we joke that the only thing missing is the animals. This prompts our photographer – who by some bizarre coincidence is a lifelong goat devotee and even sponsors disabled goats at his local farm – to offer to photoshop some in.

Wild shrieks in protest; I reassure her: we’re a serious paper – we’d never do anything like that…

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It’s a personal thing

If you hadn’t gone into education, what career would you have liked to do?

Become an Egyptologist.

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What’s your favourite non-work activity?

Listening to music or reading.

Who would be your top three fantasy dinner-party guests?

My paternal grandmother at the age of 50, Agatha Christie and Elizabeth I.

If you could read only one book for a year, what would you choose?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. I love the chaos and carnage.

What’s your favourite animal?

Seahorses. They do a little good morning dance to their partner every morning, which is so lovely. Although after meeting Ellis [the Schools Week photographer] I am tempted to say goats.

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Curriculum Vitae

1980s Tiverton High School, Devon

1990-1993 Degree in English and Politics from Leicester Polytechnic, which became DeMontfort University

1997-1999 English Teacher, Valentines High School, Redbridge, London

1999-2001 Teacher of the Deaf, Caterham High School, Ilford, Essex

1999-2001 Birmingham University – PG Dip in Special Educational Needs (Deaf Education)

2001-2009 Head of Deaf Support Base; Assistant Headteacher, St Pauls Way Community School, Tower Hamlets, London

2009-2010 Head of Education, Ovingdean Hall School for the Deaf, Brighton

2010-2012 Deputy Headteacher, Pendragon School, Lewisham, London