A guide to help parents with one of the most difficult decisions they will ever make
Choosing a school for a child with SEN can be one of the most daunting tasks facing parents. You are entrusting your child to the care of others for between six and 24 hours a day, so getting it right is essential. A good school will have universally high expectations, with both the ability and desire to turn out an all-round child who will reach or exceed their potential, but how do you find such a gem? There is no perfect recipe but there are lots of things you can do to help work out what is best for your child.
Begin by thinking of the end point. What would you realistically expect your son or daughter to be doing when they leave the school? Be honest with yourself – neither emphasise your child’s problems nor diminish them – and be honest with the school too; they need to assess whether they can meet your child’s needs. Be wary of any school that appears to offer all things to all men; if a school says it will take special measures for a child who will be treated differently from the others, examine carefully how they will do that, what realistically they believe they can achieve and how speedily.
Draw up a check list of what is important to you and your child, and weight those factors. Be prepared to be flexible; you may be set on a special or specialist school but do not discount the local mainstream school, as many are increasingly tuned in to special needs and willing to put in the necessary support. Inclusion may rightly be high on your list of priorities but do not dismiss special schools on the grounds that they will keep your child in a bubble; indeed, most increasingly look to include children in mainstream schools whenever it is beneficial to the child to do so. Moreover, it could be argued that special schools provide a very inclusive peer group.
Before you visit, do your homework. Check out school websites, the prospectus, inspection reports and copies of recent newsletters. Do they celebrate pupil achievement? If so, which pupils and what kinds of achievements? Are they informative, bossy or just a glossy marketing tool?
Ask schools for their SEN and/or inclusion policy. This will be more broadsheet than tabloid but, if you cut through the jargon, it should help you formulate questions for when you visit, and it shows that you’re on the ball. Ask how any policy would work for your child and check when you visit if the school really is doing what it says it is.
It is extremely important to visit schools. Even if you are set on a particular school, do try to visit two or three others, if only to affirm your view. Outline the needs of your child and ask for the visit to include time with the SENCO, learning support department or teacher in charge of special needs. Or, if you are seeking a special school, ask to see key staff or therapists who would work with your child. Ensure your visit will include departments where your child has interests/talents. Try to uncover what the typical child has in terms of their emotional and educational state on arriving at the school, and see if you can determine what value has been added to them when they leave. Look for signs of confidence in the older children; ask to be put in contact with existing parents of children like yours, and try to speak to three or four across the age range. Following a visit, a good school should leave you feeling energised and enthused.
Try not to take your child on a first visit. Where possible, visit, shortlist, then involve your child. Expect to furnish potential schools with reports and information, so that they can give you an honest appraisal. If you really think that they have the wrong idea about your child, work hard to change their mind; be firm and assured but tactful. If there is the possibility of a match, expect the school to invite your child for assessment, a process that can last anything from half a day to three months. Use this time to appraise the school too. If it is a mainstream state school, pre-entry assessment is unlikely but most will have taster days and settling-in/transition arrangements, so ask how these work. If your child has/will have a statement, try to get the local authority (LA) onside as early as possible, and visit schools that the LA recommends, if only to strengthen your case for your preferred school. Communication at all stages is important; ask what procedures are in place for home/school contact and how frequently. Find out how they will involve you (and your child) in your child’s progress and how specialist help will be delivered?
If the school is an independent or selective state school, ask about any entry requirements and how these will be adapted to accommodate your child’s SEN. Investigate the costs/fees involved in a placement and any help available to secure funding. If it is a mainstream fee-paying school, ask about additional charges made for SEN provision. Even special schools may charge extra for therapies and transport, so check how inclusive the fees really are.
Finally, if a school is not right but you like them anyway, ask if they can suggest others you should try; many headteachers are well versed in provision elsewhere and have a genuine desire to help.
Choosing a school check list
- Will the curriculum stretch your child but flex to take account of their specific needs?
- What is on offer outside of the classroom? Your child may have SEN, but they have other things too: hobbies, interests, curiosity, life-skills, friendships, emotions.
- Find out how they will build your child’s confidence.
- s the school well cared for? This can be indicative of the care lavished on its charges.
- ind out what therapies are on hand and the school’s approach to the use of therapy. Does it match your thoughts?
For senior schools
- How well do children do? Does this at least match your expectations for your child?
- What examinations do students take? Who is entered?
- How do they prepare youngsters for the world of work? Do they offer imaginative opportunities?
- How successful are students at gaining meaningful employment or further education opportunities?
- What contact do they maintain with former students and their families?
- Where applicable, what are their views on independent and/or supported living and working towards independence skills?
Sandra Hutchinson is a Senior Editor at The Good Schools Guide and Editor of The Good Schools Guide – Special Educational Needs, whose website includes a wide-ranging and detailed survey of individual schools’ SEN provision: