Mary Pegler, SEN editor at The Good Schools Guide, outlines SEN, the options available and the processes involved.
Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced considerable difficulties, frustrations and social and emotional problems. Either way, access to a suitable school is every child’s right.
When it comes to finding the best school for your child, it is not only about the cut of the cloth, it’s about getting the perfect fit, everything from the first tack to the last stitch.
Of course, there’s a difference between bespoke and Burton’s, but that doesn’t mean the former is the only, or even the right option; the suit may fit, the colour may not flatter. Some schools cater extremely well for some conditions but would be inappropriate for other needs. The key is identifying a school that understands your child’s profile and will make the necessary adjustments. In practice, some are better than others, and finding them can be a ‘needle in haystack’ task.
Where to start
Start by finding out how the school describes its population and provision. Some schools are very specialised, suitable for children with specific conditions, e.g. complex needs or emotional and behavioural difficulties. Others are mainstream and will require students to work independently and follow the National Curriculum, so will cater for students who have mild needs with less support. Sometimes the ideal provision really does not exist and compromises have to be made. You need to examine a school from all perspectives to ensure the fit is a good one.
Naturally, every child with special needs is different, which makes finding a school with a similar population harder. Also, your child’s needs will change as they develop, so keep re-assessing whether the provision is appropriate – the annual review for a child with an EHC plan is timetabled precisely to reconsider these questions. It may be your child can stay in a mainstream setting with support for a few years, and then is more suited to a special school.
Whichever you choose, make sure the school builds on your child’s strengths as well as supports their difficulties. A child who is struggling at the bottom of the class in a high-achieving school will not be as successful as one who is top of the class in a less ambitious curriculum. Make sure the school can provide a group of peers at a similar learning level, with similar interests and experiences. Consider these things rather than the school’s designation: special or mainstream. As ever when choosing a school, you should aim to visit a selection of schools and those you shortlist, more than once. At the end of the day, it’s about your child’s happiness.
The Independent Option
Your search may unearth some independent schools, which tend to have smaller class sizes and a better staff:student ratio. Some won’t advertise the fact that they have children with needs, so ask about their SEN provision. You’d be surprised how many schools that do well by children with SEN don’t advertise the fact because ‘we don’t want to be seen as a special school’ (some severe dyslexics have even made it to Oxbridge!) However, be sure to probe about the pace of work: will your child be expected to keep abreast of a high-achieving cohort, working towards 11+ exams to famous secondary schools? And will the school lose interest, when they discover the child can’t add to their prestigious scholarships list? The manners and uniform of a mainstream independent school may be captivating, but failing to keep up at a mainstream independent school will end in tears.
Independent specialist schools for clearly defined conditions, such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, may then be the answer; they provide both the individual attention and slower pace, with an adapted National Curriculum. However, bear in mind that special schools are much more costly than mainstream schools – and many parents have to fight for years with their local authority to get a place, and if the special school is a fee-paying school, to cover the fees. If your child has an EHCP, it is not impossible that state funding may be made available to help pay the fees but the local authority would likely argue that your child’s needs will be served equally well at a nearby state school.
Children with special needs, by definition, will need additional adjustments to put them on a level playing field with their peers. Adjustments may come different measures, such as an individual curriculum or timetable, specialist teachers or therapists, additional equipment and facilities. For example, some may be supported by relatively simple measures like having a scribe or being given extra time in exams; for others, having a full-time one-to-one teaching assistant may be necessary to access the classwork.
A sympathetic special needs coordinator (SENCo) is a great starting point, but the head’s attitude to SEN will have a pervasive influence on the school; if the head is cautious, find out why, and if necessary, involve your local SEN officer as mediator. Intervention is great, but will only be really effective if set against a backdrop of understanding across all teaching and staff, so support measures need to be put in place at all times, both in lessons and in unstructured breaks, and in all areas of the school, classroom, sports halls and playground. Expect to have multiple discussions to establish support and ask for evidence that it is being applied, and (if the school is independent) how much extra it adds to the bill.
School Applications with Special Needs in Mind
When you’ve done your research and have your list of preferred schools, what next? If your child has an EHC plan you can name the school which you think would be the best fit, be it state, independent, mainstream or special school – providing the school agrees to support your child and it is on the government’s approved list. The LA will liaise with the school of your choice, about the reasonable adjustments necessary to enable your child to access the learning. If you don’t get a place at the school you named you have the right to appeal to the SEND Tribunal, presenting your evidence as to why the school is appropriate.
If your child does not have an EHC plan, you will be applying for school places alongside everyone else and subject to the same admissions criteria: generally, proximity and sibling policy for non-selective state schools; for independent schools, anything from first-come-first-served to waiting lists from birth. But remember, in most cases, your child will have to sit an entrance exam and/or participate in a taster day. You’ll no doubt be targeting schools with good special needs departments but amidst the cut and thrust of state school applications, there is no guarantee you will get the school you want. The state does have an obligation to provide a school place for every child but with no EHCP, it will feel like a lottery.
When applying to mainstream independent schools it’s worth remembering that they are free to accept or reject applicants as they wish but are unable to discriminate on grounds of special needs under the Equality Act 2010. Whether or not your child has had a formal diagnosis of their SEN, you will wish to inform the schools of your child’s needs and many schools will require reports from an Educational Psychologist or other SEN professionals be made available as part of the admission process. These will give the school a learning profile and make useful recommendations that the SENco can adopt to support your child.
Finding the right school for your child can be difficult at the best of times. When special educational needs are a factor, the process assumes even greater proportions and parents can often feel like they’re having to move mountains in order to make the slightest progress. Don’t lose sight of the fact that some celebrated names have overcome their difficulties, personalities such as Richard Branson, Cher, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Keira Knightley, Michael Phelps, Steve Redgrave, Stephen Spielberg and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. Your child could be celebrated too. The Good Schools Guide SEN consultants know exactly how hard it can be to navigate the SEN system, access support and understand and fight for your rights. Our consultants are there to help.
For more information and advice on schools head to our experts at goodschoolsguide.co.uk.