Look beyond the academic provision, says Katharine Sharpe.
When I talk to parents and carers about choosing a school for their child, my first question is: ‘What are your best hopes?’ The response is unsurprising: ‘that my child is happy’. I follow this with: ‘What are your best hopes in terms of outcomes?’ To this, the answers vary more. Depending on the needs of the child, the hopes could refer to academic goals, types of qualifications, pursuing their interests and passions or learning life skills and being able to live independently as an adult.
EHCPs and school placements
If your child has a statutory Education, Health and Care Plan, the SEND Code of Practice (2015) states that the local authority must comply with that preference unless it would be unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or SEND of the child or young person; or the attendance of the child or young person there would be incompatible with the efficient education of others or the efficient use of resources. This does not apply to independent schools unless they are approved as specialist independent schools by the Department for Education.
Types of school
You might need to consider a mainstream school, a specialist unit in a mainstream school, a special school or even a virtual school provision. It can be tempting to focus on just one type as you might perceive that a mainstream school will be more ‘inclusive’ and better equipped to prepare your child for living independently. However, some mainstream schools are more suited than others to meeting SEND, while special schools may provide a more inclusive and accessible learning environment. Explore a wide range of options and keep an open mind.
Information is key
If your child has SEND you should provide prospective schools with detailed documentation about their needs. Be honest and open, as you need the school to be fully aware of what provision is required. Research potential schools online and download key documents such as their SEND, behaviour and safeguarding policies, SEND information report and most recent inspection report.
Shortlist and visit
Try to visit a shortlist of schools. Open days can be a good starting point but, if your child has SEND, this should be followed up with a private visit to meet the Head and SENCo (special educational needs coordinator). Meeting these two professionals will tell you so much about the values, vision, provision and approach to be found in a school. Go with a checklist of questions and take notes during your visit.
Making the decision
Nobody knows your child better than you do. As you look around schools, take in the physical and sensory environment, the ‘feel’ of the school, the attitudes of the staff and whether the children seem happy and settled.
Look beyond the academic provision to consider whether your child’s interests and passions would be nurtured and provided for. Do you think your child would thrive in that school?
And finally, revisit your ‘best hopes’—it may not be a perfect fit, but it could be close.
Dr Katharine Sharpe is Assistant Head (Pastoral), Head of Learning Support and Deputy Designated Safeguarding Lead at Caterham Prep School. A former primary school teacher and Chartered Educational Psychologist, she has been Head of Learning Support since 2014 at Caterham as well as working independently.