Which school?


Honesty is the key when selecting a school for a child with SEN

The crux of a child’s education is their needs. All children have particular needs, but when do they start to become “special”? Some mainstream independent schools cater magnificently for children with SEN. Sadly, this option comes at a price and, without state funding, the cost is prohibitive for many. For other children, a special school is the answer but deciding which school to choose can be daunting.

Worried parents of children with SEN approach the schooling conundrum from a variety of starting points. Many have armfuls of reports from educational psychologists, some have a statement from the local authority and others even have funding (if they’re extremely lucky), but many just harbour a niggling concern that all is not well with their child’s progress academically, socially or emotionally. They simply know that their current school does not seem to be offering the support necessary to meet their child’s diverse needs.

Each diagnosis can involve a very wide range of potential difficulties for the child concerned, and this broad spectrum of need can compound the problems parents face when choosing an appropriate school. If a child has dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia, finding the right school can be relatively straightforward, especially at primary level. As we move into the areas of autistic spectrum disorders, Tourette’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities, though, stigmas abound and it becomes more complicated.

While a lengthy internet trawl may help you to discern the types of needs catered for in special schools, pinpointing a mainstream school that may fit the bill is less easy. Some parents find that experienced educational consultants can be helpful, to liaise with schools and provide information and support which can uncover previously unexplored opportunities.

The private sector, for so long the preserve of an academic and somewhat remote section of quintessentially English society, has become more inclusive. Over 25 per cent of pupils at independent schools now come from abroad and many schools pride themselves on the dozens of languages spoken within their walls. Alongside the increased needs of their international pupils, many schools have invested time, energy and resources in expanding their SEN departments. I liaise with many fabulous registrars who are fully prepared to listen, read reports and treat a child’s special needs with serious consideration and respect.

Specialist support can work wonders for some children.Understanding needs

When searching for the right school for a child with SEN, complete honesty is essential. There is no point in skirting around a child’s developmental or learning difficulties; the facts will eventually emerge and schools will be justifiably irritated if there is deliberate obfuscation. My advice is to think outside the box and try to present the bigger picture. Focus on what the child can do and how they can make a positive contribution to the school. The creativity of a severely dyslexic child, the mathematical skills of a pupil with an ASD and the sporting prowess of many children with ADHD are all valuable assets in any educational environment.

When looking at a mainstream school for a child with special needs, it is important to look at the size of the special needs department and the number of teachers within it. This will give an idea of how much emphasis a school places on their special needs support. Your child may need help within the classroom from an assistant and it is important to check whether this will be available. Supervised homework time is invaluable so that a child who does not understand certain issues is able to ask for help. The department should also have access to speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and other specialist professionals. The special needs department needs to liaise directly with the class teachers or subject teachers so that if a child starts to fall behind, it is picked up immediately. Children should also be able to use laptops within the classroom if this is helpful to them at senior level and the school will be able to organise the use of a laptop and extra time in examinations. In addition, it can also be helpful if the school can be flexible and children can drop a language, for example, in order to give them an extra lesson period to do homework or to have a one-to-one session with a particular teacher. Sometimes, children have enough to face during the school day without having to learn a language as well.

Specialist support

For some children, mainstream is not a feasible option. There are wonderful special needs schools catering for difficulties in dyslexia, speech and language, PMLD, autism, Asperger’s and behavioural issues, to name just a few. These schools offer small classes and support such as occupational therapy and physiotherapy. They sometimes also provide psychological services within the school, without the need to go elsewhere. Generally, the teaching is excellent, the accommodation of a high standard, the food well thought through and the staff friendly and welcoming. Parents are often relieved to know that their child will receive targeted specialist support in exactly the area required. Special needs schools are very expensive, though, and fees can range from £40,000 to £120,000 a year. UK parents can apply for a statement of SEN through the local educational authority, but international parents have to pay the fees themselves.

In 1978, the Warnock Report suggested that while 20 per cent of children had some type of SEN, only two per cent required specialist provision. Despite having its vehement critics, this report revolutionised the way we view children with SEN and threw the inclusion debate wide open. Previously, children with identified special needs were defined by them; their labels were millstones around their necks and tended to have a negative impact on their self-esteem. Today, getting a diagnosis (a label) can be a relief because it should lead to a child receiving appropriate help.

There are countless variables to consider, including practical, emotional and social considerations, as well as educational issues. It is a tricky, stressful and uncertain business, but there are almost always solutions to the problems that emerge and, with guidance, parents can find a school that suits their child. If a school doesn’t advertise its SEN provision, ask them about it. The school has to want to support and educate your child, and parents have to feel confident that the school is compassionate, empathetic and highly capable of meeting complex needs. Above all, the child must be happy and comfortable in the environment in order to begin to thrive.

Further information

Deirdre Donegan is an SEN consultant at Gabbitas Education, publishers of Schools for Special Needs, an annual guide to schools and other provision for children with SEN:


Deirdre Donegan
Author: Deirdre Donegan

Choosing the right school Gabbitas

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Choosing the right school


  1. This is helpful, but many of the independent wonderful special schools you mention don’t accept children with Down syndrome. There seems to be little choice all round in the south east uk for a child with DS who is very capable of doing well at mainstream school but with the right support. Why is this?


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