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Bernadette John outlines key things to consider when choosing a school for a child with SEN


Trying to find a school for a child with SEN is an enormous project; information on provision can be hard to track down and you can’t rely on the same local word of mouth as you might when placing a child without any identified additional learning needs. Unfortunately, parents must expect to compromise; provision remains too scant, particularly for children with moderate learning difficulties and autism, so it’s often a case of finding the closest match to your wishes, rather than somewhere perfect.  

Mainstream or specialist?

This is usually the biggest question in parents’ minds and it’s an especially difficult one to answer when the child is academically able. Parents tend to assume that the school should match the child’s academic ability – so if they’re bright, that means a high performing or selective school. However, this can be a disaster, for example for a high functioning autistic child who can’t cope with the sensory or social aspects of a mainstream setting; they can become terrified of school and start refusing to go, or react through fear in ways which are interpreted as bad behaviour.

The golden rule is look at your child’s needs first and the academic side of things second. Don’t even contemplate a mainstream setting which doesn’t have a good understanding of, and clear measures to address, your child’s particular needs.

And be prepared that you may need to change path along the way. Mainstream can be fine in the free and easy early years – when all the children are trying to master the basics of reading and writing, and find it hard to sit at a desk for long spells – but as the demands step up for Key Stage 2, things can start to fall apart.
Older children may have the cognitive ability to sit GCSEs, but the rigid demands of the GCSE curriculum and the make-or-break single exam can be overwhelming for them. They may be better in a setting which has a broader curriculum offer and qualifications they can sit through continuous assessment.

Of course, school isn’t all about learning. When it comes to the playground, younger mainstream kids are happy to get along with anyone, but as they get older, when conformity is all, bullying of anyone different becomes a sad reality.  

Even when children have greater learning challenges, parents often prefer the idea of keeping the child in a mainstream world. However, sometimes inclusion means quite the opposite. Your child can end up being taught alone in a corner or separate room for large parts of the day by an unqualified classroom assistant. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, because it depends entirely on the quality of the mainstream options in your area, and what the special school alternatives are.

State or independent mainstream?

Some parents of children with SEN are drawn to independent schools because of the smaller class sizes and a seemingly gentler atmosphere. However, most independent mainstreams are only prepared to consider children with the mildest needs and they are free to turn away your child. Some actively allocate a few places to children with SEN, or will look at each child to see whether they can help. These places are usually snapped up quickly and can be hard to come by. Generally, independent schools are more willing to consider children with SEN in Key Stage 1, and less so when the curriculum becomes more demanding. In rare cases, parents have been able to get local authority funding for private school places, when they can prove the state option isn’t suitable.

State mainstream schools have an obligation to take children with SEN and make appropriate adaptations for them. The only grounds on which they can refuse your child is where it would interfere with the efficient education of other children, or not be cost-effective. However you need to choose your mainstream carefully; some heads pay only lip service to their legal obligations, while others are genuinely interested in catering for children of all abilities.  

If your child has an education, health and care (EHC) plan, you can take priority for a place at the state school of your choosing, ahead of people who otherwise have a higher stake through living nearer or other admissions criteria. If you are applying to schools for the peak Reception and Year 7 entries, you need to talk to your local authority’s SEN department several months ahead of the application deadlines to ensure your priority place.

You are entitled to name a school in another local authority, if you can’t find one suitable in your own. Be warned though that your local authority will try to resist this because it costs them more.

Finding a good mainstream

The quality of support on offer in mainstream schools can be extremely variable, and a school that doesn’t know what it’s doing, where you have to be constantly on top of them, is not a good option.

There are two key people in a mainstream school who will almost entirely shape how good the SEN provision is: the headteacher and the SENCO (special educational needs coordinator). Book a private appointment with them; don’t be fobbed off with the open day.

Quiz them on what they know about your child’s condition. The bad ones can be surprisingly ignorant. One parent reported that the SENCO had asked her what global development delay was. The parent was flabbergasted that someone in the business could know so little, especially when there’s a big clue in the name.

Ask them about children with a similar profile that they have in the school (and be wary if yours would be the only one). Find out about the progress made by these children; if the school is doing a good job, those with SEN should be progressing at the same rate (that is in the same increments, if not at the same level) as the other children.  

A head who is zealous about raising the academics is generally one to steer clear of. You can tell where their priorities lie, and they will be controlling where budgets are spent.

Beware also the enthusiastic amateur. Parents are sometimes swayed by the school which responds with a breezy assurance that they can deal with anything you throw at them. However, a school that is cautious, that wants to read reports, that wants to consult internally or with outside professionals before they promise you anything, probably has more experience in special needs, and wants to make sure they can get things right.

Be entirely upfront with them about your child’s issues. Parents frequently ask whether they should hold back an unflattering report, or avoid mentioning something which they think may put the school off their child. Don’t do this! You need to be clear about how your child presents on his worst day, as it’s no good if the school will only manage him on the better days. Everything will just come out further down the line and cause you greater problems, and if a school is going to baulk at something about your child, it’s not the right place.  

The SENCO

The best SENCOs will make you feel like they can lift a weight from your shoulders. But if you leave a meeting with them feeling like they haven’t fully grasped your child’s issues, or displayed any clear ideas about how they will deal with these, it’s a sign to look elsewhere.

Ask whether the SENCO is part of the senior leadership team. This tells you whether they have the head’s ear and are in a strong position to fight for additional resources for your child.

Are they employed full-time as SENCO? How available will they be if your child runs into problems? Do they have specialist qualifications and expertise or has the job been given to a teacher who has a few spare hours in their timetable? Check how long they have been in post; SENCOs are legally required to gain a masters level qualification within three years, but disinterested schools get around this by rotating the job every couple of years.

Don’t be afraid to ask a teacher or two as you look around whether they feel sufficiently supported. If your child is autistic, it’s worth knowing that 60 per cent of teachers feel they do not have adequate training in autism; you don’t want your child at the mercy of a panicked teacher.

Cover any specific things that are problematic for your child. Can they provide a place of refuge if your child gets overwhelmed? How flexible will they be about allowing packed lunches, or eating away from the dining room? Will they allow infringements to the school uniform if there are sensory issues? Are all areas of the school accessible and, if not, would they consider capital projects such as building a ground floor lab to accommodate your child? They have to legally, but check how enthusiastic the response is.

Choosing a special school

Parents usually fear that a special school will squash their child’s potential. It won’t. But being in a school where your child is terrified every minute of the day will. You need to pick your special school carefully but you can find instead that they blossom when the anxieties drop away and when teaching is delivered in a way that is appropriate to them.

Independent special schools will often have superior facilities and resources such as in-house therapists, and they will more often specialise in a condition. County special schools can be a jack-of-all-trades, dealing with a wide range of conditions, and therapy provision can be scant (relying on visiting NHS professionals who will be severely overstretched).  

You need to investigate each school’s pupil cohort. Are there some children of similar ability, even if they are different ages; special schools usually teach in ability groups rather than strict age groups? If your child is verbal, are a reasonable number of the other children verbal? Can they develop your child’s potential? For example, a child who is particularly good at maths could have lessons at a mainstream school accompanied by a teaching assistant. Is there a good range of extracurricular activities? Look at the photos on the wall and recent newsletters for reports of trips out and exciting visitors. The best schools let nothing stand in their way, rather than keeping the children stuck at school because it’s all too complicated to go out.

Get to grips with the acronyms and investigate their approaches. For example, ABA (applied behaviour analysis) can be great for some autistic children, but not if yours is developmentally beyond the skills it teaches.  

Of course the price tag for the independent specialists is usually significantly higher, so choosing one can require you to prove that it is the only suitable provision through a stressful tribunal. And don’t be swayed by a local authority telling you your child should go to mainstream. It’s easy to see this as a signal that everything will work out, and your child’s needs are not as severe as you feared, but remember that mainstream is the default option for local authorities, and they are likely to have pound signs rather than your child’s best interest front of mind. They are not the best people to take guidance from.

Choosing a residential school

Children who need this type of provision are going to be the most vulnerable, which makes it even harder for parents to hand their child over. However, some special schools are clearly places where the children are happy and very much at home, and there are huge benefits from the round-the-clock timetable which can also teach social and daily living skills, provide a social life for older children, and give the continuity some children crave.

When school is also going to be the child’s home, the education side will be only half of the equation and you have to be sure that both parts are right. Ask to see the residential accommodation when the children are there; this can be difficult if the pupil cohort will react badly to strangers, but you need to get a proper sense of it, not just look at an empty building. Look at the relationships between staff and pupils. Are the staff locked in the office completing paperwork and doing the laundry, or are they playing creative games with students and running a karaoke session? You want to see pupils coming first, chores second.

Don’t rely on exciting looking timetables on pin boards showing out of school activities; they may not run in reality. Ask the students what they did last weekend, or what clubs they go to. If they have to think hard about this, it’s a red flag.

Ask staff as you go around how long they’ve been there. Care work is poorly paid with unsocial hours, and it’s blighted by a high staff turnover. A few new members of staff will be par for the course, but if they’ve all been there a matter of weeks, there’s more cause for concern. Ask directly how much use they make of agency staff (which is never ideal).

The location of the school can also be crucial. A school in the middle of nowhere might look lovely, but they will have more trouble recruiting care staff. In addition, a chocolate box village will not provide the same opportunities for community involvement as a gritty city with more leisure options and a more inclusive outlook.

Further information


Bernadette John is SEN director at The Good Schools Guide, which publishes independent reviews of schools, including special schools, and offers consultancy services to parents on finding the right school:

www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/SEN


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