Who’s afraid of special schools?


Bernadette John outlines some of the key considerations when looking at a special school for your child

“We want him to have the influence of mainstream children around him”. “We don’t want to close down her opportunities”. “We don’t want him shut away from the rest of the world”.

These comments are typical of the reactions of parents when any mention is made to them of a special school for their child. Families often have to make decisions when they are in a crisis situation, when their son or daughter is failing to get adequate support in mainstream. It can be very hard for them to accept that a specialist placement is exactly what their child needs.

Why are parents so afraid of special schools? For some, it’s a fear of the unknown. The vast majority of people have never set foot in a special school and the public perception of them hasn’t moved on from some of the desperate institutions of the 1950s. Then there’s a leap that parents have to make – as let’s face it, no-one ever put their child’s name down for a special school at birth. It involves a re-imagining of the life they may have planned, with its stylishly kitted out nursery and its perfect children splashing in the clear blue seas of holiday adverts.

On top of that, the presumption of inclusion, with its utopian vision of mainstream children and those with SEN learning effectively and equally alongside each other, can be misleading; parents are unaware until they try it that for some children with SEN, mainstream results in a miserable school life. Despite the hard work and good intentions of the best mainstream schools, they are often not adequately funded or resourced to deal with more significant needs and, in the worst cases, the schools lack any clue about SEN teaching or even a will to help.

Baroness Warnock, who wrote the eponymous 1978 Report on which the 1981 Education Act was founded (which introduced the policy of inclusion), said earlier this year that this bias towards inclusion may have caused harm to some children. She also claims the policy was a misinterpretation of the Report committee’s findings. “There was nothing in this image that required all children to be taught in the same classroom. It required only that their needs be met,” she said. “It was obvious to most of the committee, by the end of our deliberations, that for some children, and especially autistic children, being part of a class of rowdies – not only noisy, but liable to knock into you – was nothing but torture and a bar to learning. Another risk in an inclusive class was that the children with special needs would be taught mainly by teaching assistants, not qualified teachers, still less by those qualified in teaching children with SEN.”

That isn’t to say that special schools are always the best option. There are some shockers in this category, just as there are in mainstream, and some children, with some types of special need, will be better off in a mainstream environment.

When is special best?

So just how can a parent decide which will be the best type for their child? The first thing you must do is completely upend your usual way of thinking about schools. We are ingrained into thinking that a child’s academic standing should be the guiding light, so that if they have high cognitive scores, no matter what else is going on in their lives, a selective school is where they should go.

But when you are dealing with SEN, you must think about the needs first, and the academic considerations only second. Children with high functioning autism, for example, may produce assessment results which suggest they are capable of a full set of GCSEs at top grades. But the social and sensory pressures of mainstream environments can mean they spend their days cowering in the toilets, attempting to flee school, or at worst, becoming a school refuser or having a mental breakdown through the stress. Or, they might just about manage to get through the school day, but the strain of masking all day means your evenings are a carnage of meltdowns, which isn’t sustainable, and is a sure sign the child is in the wrong school.

A lot of parents are unaware that there are special schools where children take a full set of GCSEs – that have all the labs and cookery and DT rooms of a mainstream – and from where some pupils even progress to university. The difference comes in the understanding of and expertise in the child’s additional needs.

In a mainstream, therapy provision will only ever be a bolt-on, and when it is supplied by the NHS, you’ll find it extremely scant. So if your child has significant therapy needs, she is likely to be better off in a special school, where the therapy is infused throughout the school day, and where class teachers are guided in their approaches by therapists. For example, at one specialist school for children with speech and language impairments, a science class was adapted for children who cannot pick up vocabulary in the usual way.  Before she could teach about rock formations, the teacher spent a good part of the lesson teaching children to understand what the word permeable meant; they repeated the word and its meaning many times, clapped out the syllables, and finally the teacher threw a cup of water over herself to show that she is not permeable.

You must also think about how your child acquires life skills. You may have a child who understands quantum physics, but who can’t get himself to the corner shop. Children in mainstream learn the life skills for adulthood largely by osmosis, but children with SEN may need specific teaching in how to plan a journey, organise meals and manage money, and their timetable will include such sessions.

When it comes to behavioural issues, you may know that your child’s behaviour is an expression of fear, or a result of rigid thinking, or occurring because his slow processing is leaving him behind and putting him into a panic. In special schools for these conditions, this is all fed into their approaches; in a mainstream school with a behaviour code to adhere to, you might find yourself being called in continuously, and your child threatened with exclusion. When you visit a school specialising in behaviour you often can’t spot a child with behavioural difficulties; they can be transformed when the anxieties of mainstream drop away.

And you also need to consider the curriculums on offer in each sector. Mainstream curriculums may not offer the opportunity to be examined by continuous assessment for children whose autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) or mental health problems mean they will crumple in exam season; or the breadth of qualifications for those with spiky profiles who might be working at the level of an 18-year-old in maths and a seven-year-old in English.

Finally, don’t forget the social aspects of school. A child who struggles with social interaction can end up ostracised, bullied and at risk. I’m aware of two cases recently where children with social communication issues have been expelled by schools, in both cases because they were set up by other children and ended up carrying the can for a drug deal and for texting nude photos.

So think about every aspect of school life and ask yourself: just how well can your child operate in a neurotypical/mainstream world?

Finding the right special school

If the decision between the two sectors is difficult, finding the right school will be harder. There is no perfect school; you have to decide on the best one among a range of imperfect options.

Parents are always put off when they visit a special school and see children who are more severely affected than their own. But it is less of an issue than you might think. Children in special schools all work on individual curriculums and they tend to group them by ability rather than in strict age bands, so it doesn’t matter so much if there’s a wide spread of ability; they would only offer a place if there is a cohort your child fits into.

There is no door clanging shut behind them; schools will often make arrangements to take a child out to a nearby mainstream for lessons where they have a particular aptitude, and if they feel the child no longer needs specialist provision, they will be the first to suggest a move out to mainstream. When you visit, ask the school how they will cater for your child’s particular strengths and aptitudes.

The flexibility within a special school can mean children do a lot better than when they are strait-jacketed by a mainstream curriculum.  At one school, a boy who has a strong interest in planes and flying, and no interest in learning anything else, won’t complete literacy tasks; so instead, they ask him to write pilots’ logs. He’s not interested in geography, but ask him to map out a flight path, and he will detail the rivers, mountains and terrain the plane will cross.

At a school with a specialism in pathological demand avoidance (PDA) – a condition which is an absolute non-starter for mainstream – children in their PDA hub have curriculums built entirely around what interests them; they wouldn’t do the work otherwise. One boy’s work all revolves around football: the maths involves estimating crowd capacity or calculating average goals scored. A girl there learns everything through arts and crafts activities and her tutorial room is swathed in fabrics.

At one specialist college they take pupils who are disengaged with learning, but highly motivated by horses. So the whole curriculum is taught through horses. Maths involves weighing out feed and mixing it in the right proportions, and literacy is encouraged through documenting each horse’s care.

A sign of a good special school is a rich extra-curricula offer. The best go out on trips no matter how many hurdles that presents. One school for those with profound disabilities takes children out on hospital beds and with oxygen “because otherwise it wouldn’t be fair”. Look at noticeboards and newsletters; are there hiking trips, music performances, games against other special schools and interesting visitors coming to speak to them? There should be.

Think about the location, especially if it’s a residential setting. A school surrounded by countryside can be appealing, but if it’s difficult to get to, or doesn’t have a ready supply of labour nearby, you may see the undesirable effect in constant staff turnover, use of agency staff, and desperate recruitment of less than ideal people.

Be warned though, that you will need an education, health and care (EHC) plan for a special school place, and your local authority will resist an application because it is costly. And competition for places is stiff. One head of an autism unit reports that she had 180 applications for a dozen places: “harder to get into than Harvard,” she said.

Further information

Bernadette John is SEN director at The Good Schools Guide, which reviews special schools on its website and has a consultancy service advising parents on the right school for their child:


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