Free school backers in Leeds launching businesses to employ young people with autism or learning difficulties

Alan Gardner is served tea and cakes by trainees, (l-r) Dalton Ewen,  17, Patrick Samson, 19,  Jack Harris, 20,  and Ross Hall 20, as he opens the Lighthouse & Union Store in Otley Road, Cookridge . Picture Bruce Rollinson

Alan Gardner is served tea and cakes by trainees, (l-r) Dalton Ewen, 17, Patrick Samson, 19, Jack Harris, 20, and Ross Hall 20, as he opens the Lighthouse & Union Store in Otley Road, Cookridge . Picture Bruce Rollinson

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A GROUP which set up the country’s first ever free school for pupils with autism is now launching a series of micro-businesses which will employ young people with an autistic spectrum condition or learning disability.

They opened the Lighthouse School, in Leeds, three years ago and it has just moved to a new permanent home on the site of the former Cookridge Hospital to accommodate 50 pupils between the ages of 11 and 19. The free school was rated as good by Ofsted last year.

Now the Lighthouse Futures Trust has opened its first business in the city aimed at providing employment opportunities. The group, formerly the Friends of Lighthouse School, say it will be the first of many which are opened nationwide. The first business, the Lighthouse Union Store in Cookridge, was opened by TV’s Autistic Gardener Alan Gardner.

It is described as a “retail outlet and café, with exceptional gifts and re-loved clothing.”

The store, in Otley Old Road, is providing skills and experience in catering and hospitality, retail, customer service and business skills for 10 students.

The trust’s founder Katie Parlett said: “Having the support of such a high profile, aspirational and inspirational figure from the ASC community is a real boost for the charity.”

She added: “As a charity we are passionate about turning around the statistics of less than seven per cent of individuals with a learning disability and low employment rates for people with an autistic spectrum condition achieving full time paid employment. We aspire to 80 per cent in appropriate paid employment and firmly believe in focusing on the talents, strengths and interests of young people and directly aligning employment experiences and opportunities to these. and enterprise, industry and commerce.” The trust has also secured land for a horticultural and gardening business which will be launched next year.

The plan to open micro-businesses is being supported by senior leaders from organisations including KPMG, Asda, Yorkshire Water, Answer Digital and Filmore and Union,

Katie added: “This is an exciting time where our young people are starting to successfully find their place in society with self-esteem and confidence.”

Lighthouse Union Store is said to be first in a series of small enterprises designed to bring together “the understanding of special needs, education and commercial skills.”