A GRAND old building with a fascinating history is to become a new school for autistic children on Teesside.
The North East Autism Society (NEAS) is to invest approximately £1.3m in repurposing the disused Kiora Hall after entering into an agreement with Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council to lease the building for 25 years.
It is the latest stage in an ambitious expansion by the 41-year-old charity, which will lead to 250 jobs being created across the North-East over the next 18 months.
Last year, the Society invested in opening a new school and community facility – named The Mackenzie Thorpe Centre – at South Bank, Middlesbrough.
Now, the deal to secure the long-term future of the Kiora Hall – an imposing Edwardian, red-brick building – has further underlined the charity’s bold plans to expand its services into the south of region.
John Phillipson, chief executive of NEAS, said: “This hugely exciting development is the fruition of talks with Stockton Borough Council that began four years ago, and were born out of our shared passion for providing greater support for autistic youngsters, and their families, in this part of the region.”
Kiora Hall, in Ragpath Lane, Norton, dates back to 1902 and, over the years, it has had many uses, including a family home, offices, an Army gun battery, prisoner of war camp, youth club, school, and community centre.
In the 1940s, it housed Italian and then German prisoners of war, who supplied manual labour for surrounding farms, market gardens and other businesses.
Having agreed the long-term lease with the borough council, NEAS has now submitted planning permission to develop the building for educational purposes, and put the building work out to contract.
Councillor Lisa Evans, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s Cabinet Member For Children and Young People, said: “Kiora Hall used to be such a vibrant building in this area, and its decline has been sad to see, so this investment by the North East Autism Society, to bring it back to life as a community asset, is fabulous.
“This will have wider benefits for young people with often complex needs and enable them to be supported closer to home. It’s so exciting to be working with NEAS on such an important development, and I’m confident a collaborative approach with other local authorities in the Tees Valley will produce wonderful results.”
NEAS is also working closely with Big Local, an initiative funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and managed by Local Trust, to improve the quality of life in communities.
Big Local will lease part of Kiora Hall, and the investment by NEAS will include a gym, complete with changing areas and showers, being restored. A new reception area will be added, and drainage improved so a grassed play area can be accessible all year round.
It is hoped the building work can be completed by late autumn, with the first of 35 children being accommodated in the New Year.
Mr Phillipson added: “This is part of a major expansion of our services across the wider region and we have enjoyed tremendous support from Redcar and Stockton local authorities, and their planning teams, in progressing our plans.
“The councils are doing their best to provide good quality education for autistic and neurodiverse children, and it is a privilege to be part of a drive to raise standards and bring our wealth of experience to bear.”
According to recent research by Newcastle University, around one in 57 children in the UK is diagnosed as autistic, and Mr Phillipson believes that investing in local services will pay significant dividends.
“More and more children are being identified as being autistic and neurodiverse, with demand for specialist support from parents growing all the time,” he said.
“By investing strategically in support and preventative services, as well as educating children closer to their families and communities, millions of pounds can be saved.”
NEAS has also created a specialist department, called Employment Futures, to support autistic and neurodiverse people – as well as employers – in overcoming the barriers to employment.
The charity is also recruiting for teaching assistants and care workers as its expansion takes shape.
“People don’t need previous experience in the care industry to join us because all the necessary training is provided,” said Mr Phillipson. “We would also welcome discussions with potential partners who would like to help us on our journey.”