Choosing a school for a child with special needs


What should parents of a child with SEN look for in a school? 

Few things cause so much angst for parents as finding the right school for their child. Add in the extra problem of special needs and it can be an educational nightmare, but with careful planning and help you should avoid major pitfalls.

Before you visit

What are your child’s needs?
Be honest: neither emphasise your child’s problems nor diminish them. For most special needs a school will require a report from an educational psychologist (EP); get as good a professional assessment as possible. You can pay for a private report, but sometimes local authorities insist you use the EPs they recommend.

Is the school worth visiting?
Crucially, your child may have SEN, but they have other things too: hobbies, interests, strengths and a personality. For the child who finds classroom tasks a burden, search for an all-round school which has the ability and desire to turn out a happy, confident, child who will reach or exceed their potential.

Send for a copy of the prospectus; some schools require additional information before issuing a prospectus, or inviting you on a visit, so do check-out the websites. Are they child orientated, informative, and up-to-date?

Outline your child’s needs; seek advice on entry requirements and how these may be adapted by the school to accommodate your child’s SEN. Get a copy of the SEN/inclusion policy. This may be in teacher-speak, but it’s useful for asking questions on the visit and it will show that you’re on the ball. Ask for any visit to include time with the SENCO, or teacher in charge of special needs, and the learning support department. Ensure your visit will include departments where your child has interests/talents as well as those where difficulties are expected to occur.

For fee-paying schools, check how inclusive the fees are. Most mainstream schools do not include SEN provision in the fees, and even special schools may charge extra for some therapies.

On a visit

What is the head’s attitude, and what are the pupils like? There is simply no excuse for any school to have low expectations and dulled children. If the head isn’t enthusiastic about helping SEN children, then staff may not be as supportive or understanding as they should be. How does the head ensure children with SEN really are included?

For some special needs, the level of pastoral care may be as important as specialist understanding of a particular disability; question the head about the academic / pastoral balance.

Academic matters

  • Do staff have high expectations of children with SEN? Is the school’s special needs support an integral part of the school, with a two-way flow of information between specialist teachers and subject teachers? Schools where SEN support is an add-on, with specialist teachers isolated from the main school, are really only suitable for mild cases
  • Does the school test all children on entry? If not, who? When? How often? What conditions are screened for? Schools switched on to SEN will test and be proactive with the findings
  • How is the balance of the curriculum adjusted to take account of individual need? What do pupils miss to receive extra help? How flexible is the school about this?
  • Are teaching methods multi-sensory and appropriate for SEN children? Ask about the use of videos, ICT, practical equipment, etc.
  • Are there individualised learning programmes and is work suitably adapted to take account of needs?
  • Try to find out how individual departments adapt teaching and learning for children with SEN. What learning support and classroom assistance would be available to your child and how often?
  • Ask a teacher or two where they go for advice, how often and how good it has been
  • Is the school alert to permitted exam concessions (e.g. extra-time, use of a laptop) for pupils with SEN?
  • How many pupils in the school have similar special needs to your child and how many teachers offer specialist support? What about class sizes?

The pastoral system: behaviour and support mechanisms
Parents often instinctively know whether a school is right but should still ask questions about how children are supported and looked after. Speak to pupils; ask them what they think about learning support and children with disabilities. This can be very telling of how accepted children with SEN are. Chat to pupils with the same diagnosis as your child; are they bubbling with pride and confidence?

What is the atmosphere like in classrooms? Do teachers and learning staff work well together? Are children relaxed, happy and learning?

Specialist provision
Is there is a dedicated inclusion team or similar? Ask the SENCO (or equivalent) which SEN they feel the school caters particularly well for and how many teaching staff hold specific qualifications in the teaching of your child’s SEN. Are children given individual education plans (IEPs) or set targets. What involvement do parents have with this process?

Additional guidelines if you’re seeking a high level of support or specialist facilities

Expect to furnish the school with reports and information about your child so they can give you an honest appraisal; if you think they’ve got it wrong, be prepared to stand your ground. If there is the possibility of a place, most will ask you to visit, then 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. Ask for contacts with existing parents of children like yours, and phone three or four across the age range; see if you can discover what value the school adds to both emotional and educational status between entering and leaving the school. What success does the school have in getting students into further education or employment?

Remember your child is special and deserves the best.

Further information
Sandra Hutchinson is editor of The Good Schools Guide Special Educational Needs, which features practical advice and information and in-depth reviews of 350 mainstream and special schools that cater well for SEN.

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