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Choosing a school for a child with SEN

What should you look for when selecting a school for a child with SEN? Ruth Birnbaum examines some of the key issues facing parents

Discussions about parental choice are currently at the top of the political agenda. The SEN Green Paper and the proposed Children’s and Families Bill emphasise choice of school and resources, while the offer of direct payments to families provides further incentive for parents to become more engaged in their child’s education.  

This article will explore the main provision options available for children and young people with SEN and look at some of the key questions parents and carers should ask of schools.

Can I express a preference for a school?

The current legal framework, under the Education Act 1996, states that parents have the same right to express a preference for the school they wish their child with SEN to attend as parents of children without SEN, but, subject to the school being able to meet their child’s needs, the placement not being incompatible with the delivery of efficient education to other children or with the efficient use of public resources. Where parents wish their child to attend an independent school, they can rely on the general principle that children should be educated in accordance with parental wishes, subject to that incurring no unreasonable public expenditure and being compatible with meeting their child’s needs. This general principle has to be taken into account, but is not overriding. This is a complex legal area. While parents might choose a special school, rather than a mainstream school, or prefer an independent school instead of a maintained school, the local authority may well have different views. Ultimately, a disagreement with regard to placement (Part 4 in a statement) could propel both parties through a tribunal process.

What is the range of provision available for a child with SEN?

Mainstream school
A mainstream school is, by definition, a school other than a special school. Mainstream schools will differ in relation to staffing, resources and curriculum. Although every teacher in a mainstream school should expect to teach children with SEN and have covered some of this in training, there can be no assumption that this will be done effectively. In considering placement in a mainstream school, parents will need to establish what resources would be available (and this may be related to whether the child is on a particular level on the Code of Practice or has a statement) in conjunction with the peer group and expectations of the school. Parents will need to look at the general environment, as this can have a huge impact on a child’s learning, and satisfy themselves that there are no safety risks. Considerations of adult to child ratios, qualifications of staff, teaching assistants’ experience with similar children and, essentially, whether the school is enthusiastic and welcoming about the challenges ahead will all be important.

Special unit in a mainstream school
Special units/resource bases can frequently be found in mainstream (and, indeed, special) schools. There can be advantages to a unit which may provide higher adult to child ratios, staffed by teachers with additional qualifications and expertise. Some units attract additional funding which allow therapists to work on site. However, there will be an expectation of inclusion within mainstream classes and parents need to consider whether this would be appropriate immediately or in the future. Admissions criteria should be checked to see if similar children will be in the unit and if any specialist input is available. In particular, the integration of children into the mainstream environment will be a key consideration and it will be important to look at both educational issues and social inclusion as criteria for success.

Teacher to pupil ratios may vary greatly between different types of schools.Teacher to pupil ratios may vary greatly between different types of schools.Special school
These offer specialist provision for children whose needs cannot be met in a mainstream school and may cater for a specific special need, such as autism, or may be more generic in their make-up. Parents need to consider the specialism, facilities, curriculum and specialist qualifications of staff. The input of therapists and additional professional staff, such as teachers of the hearing impaired, counsellors and other key specialists, is important. It cannot be assumed that additional provision will always be available. Parents should determine whether all teachers share the specialism or only some of them; for example, if a child is placed in a specialist dyslexic school, will the geography teacher also have a specialist qualification? Even within a special school, the staffing ratios or therapeutic input may not be adequate for a particular child and these may need to be enhanced.

Dual placement
A dual placement can offer the possibility of the best of both worlds but, ironically, also the worst (for example, for an autistic child who may have a problem with transitions). Dual placements are sometimes suggested between special and mainstream schools, particularly for young children. However, the complexity of attending two schools at secondary level can become challenging, not only for the child but also for staff. A dual placement can provide an effective social environment for a child who still needs a smaller, more nurturing learning environment but enjoys learning from appropriate behavioural and social role models. With good communication between both placements and lots of goodwill, this can be a workable solution.

Pupil referral unit
Pupil referral units (PRUs) cater for vulnerable pupils who do not attend mainstream schools because of behaviour, exclusion, illness, teenage pregnancy or because they do not have a school place. Parents need to ask why a child has been placed in a PRU and what strategies there are for a managed move either to a new school or to give them a fresh start with further advice on behaviour management strategies. As with any school, parents should question the curriculum delivery and how this might differ from the previous school which has resulted in the move to the PRU. The child may have their own views on what has been successful and unsuccessful in the past and their own suggestions for a successful exit strategy and a new beginning.

Residential school
There are many complex reasons why a residential school may be preferred and it is frequently because of the 24-hour or waking day curriculum. Depending on the child’s SEN, such a curriculum might address consistency of approach, perhaps in managing challenging behaviour, or offer extended opportunities for enhanced communication input and social skills. Parents will need to consider both the education on offer and the care side, such as the relationship between care and school staff, the training and expertise available across the waking day and the way in which an individual education plan (IEP) will be extended after school hours. Parents need to satisfy themselves that the accommodation is meeting all the statutory requirements as well as more fundamental questions of happiness and protection.

Home education
Parents can opt to home educate as an alternative to school, but do need to check the regulations with regard to home education for children who already attend special schools or who have a statement, as the local authority does have responsibility for these children.

Parents may wish to consider how to access specific resources and the benefits of home education versus the inevitable socialisation issues. Many home educators make great efforts to ensure that their child joins structured group activities. Decisions will need to be made as the child grows older with regard to public examinations and support for teaching if a parent is not able to teach the whole curriculum.

Hospital school
Hospital schools are subjected to the same Ofsted reports as other schools. Hospital schools should link with the SENCO of the child’s usual school to ensure a smooth return to school and to ensure that the curriculum is being covered in the hospital school as far as is possible. Depending on the reasons for attendance in a hospital school, there should be close links between counsellors, the child’s school and hospital staff, which may continue even after the child’s return to his/her normal school.

Virtual school
New technology has opened up an area of schooling for children who may be unable or unwilling to attend a real school and virtual classrooms can sometimes fill a gap or address some needs. However, the social aspects of school will need to be considered. Parents will need to look at the levels of social engagement and the cost/benefit analysis of the time the child will be sitting in front of a computer. Supervision of the child whilst out of school and how the child will link back into a mainstream classroom, particularly with regard to the social aspects, need to be examined.

What do I need to consider before expressing a preference?

Documentation
It is essential that a parent fully understands the severity and complexity of the child’s needs, preferably through a multi-disciplinary assessment framework. With this understanding, parents can access many pieces of useful documentation to inform them about a school. These could include:

  • school prospectus
  • Ofsted reports
  • school profile
  • achievement in attainment tables
  • SEN policy
  • behavioural policy
  • complaints procedure
  • school magazine.

Most of these documents can be downloaded from the school’s website or requested directly from the school. Much can be learnt about the type of school as well as how it performs as judged by others. Speaking to parents can be helpful but obviously this will only reflect their own experiences, which can be quite subjective.

School visits
Parents can request a visit to the school. Ensure that you see the right person, who can answer your specific questions, and that sufficient time is set aside for the visit. Time a visit so that you can see structured lessons as well as unstructured playground time, as this might give an idea, for example, of corridor congestion for a wheelchair user.

Parents need to think carefully about taking the child on a school visit or even an overnight stay, which may be appropriate if a residential placement is being considered. Visits can raise fears or expectations and a child’s reaction can be unpredictable.

Observations
Parents should look at the general, physical school environment to see if it is appropriate for a child with sensory issues or sensory impairments, where noise, physical movement and lighting could be crucial. Schools will sometimes allow parents to observe classroom lessons (you can always ask). Parents need to listen and watch and try to understand whether the teaching methods could be adapted and whether the academic levels expected would be suitable. For children with physical difficulties, space for equipment may be a real problem. Arrangements for lunchtime and playtime will be important.

What is the range of interventions to explore?
Depending on the child’s SEN, parents may want to ask very specific questions to tease out what support might realistically be available. Many mainstream and special schools do not have therapists on site or directly employed but buy in these resources through the primary care trust. This means they often do not have overall supervision of the therapists or, indeed, choice about the level of provision and what days the therapists come into school. Some of this information may be crucial in working out whether therapists can work on a daily basis with a child or if they are able to participate in a multi-disciplinary meeting, if none of the therapists can ever meet on the same day. Parents will want to explore the following availability of resources, depending on the child’s needs:

  • speech and language therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • physiotherapy
  • teaching for specific learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia)
  • intervention for sensory needs, such as hearing and visual impairment
  • autistic provision
  • therapeutic input for emotional, behavioural and social needs (for example, art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy)
  • counselling and mentoring.

In all cases, parents should ask specific questions, starting with an examination of the qualifications of the professionals involved. For example, will a fully qualified speech and language therapist (SALT) be working with the child or will it be a SALT assistant? Other important considerations include the amount of time that can be offered to a child within the school, whether this will be in the form of direct, group or indirect interventions, and the extent and nature of liaison with parents.

How can I communicate my views?

Like any of us, parents are sometimes guilty of seeing what they want to see. Whilst parents clearly know their child best, it is essential that they try to retain some objectivity. For example, parents visiting a school may get the impression that there are no verbal pupils there, because that is what they are hoping or expecting to find. However, if they took a step back and checked the actual statistics with the school, they may find that a very different situation prevails.

It is natural for parents to consider the feelings of their child and many children have important views to put forward about the kind of school they need. Unfortunately, though, it is not always the child’s view that counts; it is necessary to consider the child’s best interests as dispassionately as possible.

Knowing how to communicate views and choices is a skill and it is important to check that views are given to the right person and that this person is a decision maker. It can be helpful to list findings on a chart by setting out each of the child’s SEN and then the ways in which the school could meet those needs. Any gaps can therefore be identified quickly and parents can question the school or local authority as to how these gaps would be filled at the school in question, or whether, in fact, a different school might be more suitable. Unfortunately, this may not be the end of the story as legal questions then come into play, such as whether the provision suggested takes due account of the efficient use of all resources.

Giving parents the power to choose and exercise their rights will only work if parents know how to find their way through the education system, and if they can develop the skills for making the right choice for their child which will then be accepted by others. This does not have to be an adversarial process. Common sense can prevail and negotiation and, where appropriate, mediation will allow everyone to remain focused on what really counts.

Further information

Ruth Birnbaum is a chartered psychologist (registered by the Health & Care Professions Council) in independent practice with over 30 years experience. As a psychologist and a trained teacher, she now visits schools across the UK to consider provision and advise parents and legal consultants on which schools are most appropriate for which children. She is the author of Choosing a School for a Child with Special Educational Needs:  
www.ruthbirnbaum.co.uk

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