Article published 9th June 2008
Special educational needs and their associated problems are as wide-ranging and individual as the child. If you decide to visit a school, allow at least half a day, longer if your child will be boarding or has more complex needs. Be prepared to visit a school on more than one occasion.
Be sure that your child will never be asked ‘Is this the best you can do?’
Ask to be put in contact with current and recent parents...and follow the tips below.
The list is geared to looking at mainstream schooling for a child who needs a moderate level of support but will also be helpful to parents looking for special or specialist schooling. It isn't definitive, but should provide useful prompts for a visit – select the questions that are most important to you prior to the visit, make a list and ask away.
If the head isn’t enthusiastic about helping SEN children then staff may not be as supportive or understanding as they should be.
- What is the head's attitude to special needs?
- Do they have high expectations of children with SEN?
- Do they celebrate their successes (on a weekly basis, for anything and everything, in front of the whole school at assembly)?
- Ask about end-of-year prize giving – what are prizes awarded for?
- How does the head ensure children with SEN really are included?
- For some SENs 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: teaching, learning and the curriculum
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? As a rule of thumb, schools where SEN support is an add-on, with help found when needed and specialist teachers having little contact with the school, are really only suitable for mild cases. Ask a teacher or two where they turn to for advice, how often and how good it has been.
Ask if your child will be excluded or disabled from certain activities or parts of the curriculum because of their SEN. How flexible are they prepared to be about this? What do pupils miss in order to receive extra help? Do you mind?
- How is the balance of the curriculum adjusted to take account of individual need? Extra English or maths instead of an additional GCSE?
- Are teaching methods appropriate for SEN children – are support materials provided? How long are lessons? Are they in relatively short sections or are there long periods of dictation/copying off the board? Is this a school where lessons are typically half an hour’s chat and then ‘Now make notes of what I have said’?
- Ask about the use of videos, information and communications technology (ICT), tape recorders, Braille computers, practical equipment etc.
- What teaching styles are used? Find out if children are allowed/expected to think, discover, question. If so, how is this encouraged? A number of schools offer study skills sessions and actively involve children in discovering what kind of learner they are, visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile etc. Such schools are very often on the ball when it comes to varying teaching styles to meet learner needs.
- How are tasks adapted for those children who may, for example, have difficulty concentrating or writing for long periods? Are there individualised learning programmes and is work suitably adapted to take account of pupil need?
- Try to find out how individual departments adapt teaching and learning for children with SEN. Are they as clued-up as they should be to your child’s needs? If not, will specialist provision be made available for your child and what guarantees can the school give that it will meet your child’s needs?
- Ask what lengths the school would go to, to accommodate a child with SEN? For example, are all areas of the school accessible to a wheelchair user? If not, would they consider capital projects such as building a ground floor lab to accommodate a child in a wheelchair? We know some who have so don’t be afraid to ask. By law all schools have to be inclusive and have disabled access, so make a serious fuss.
- What learning support and classroom assistance would be made available to your child and how often? Does this meet with your expectations and your child’s requirements?
- Ask what specialist facilities, equipment and resources the school uses for SEN. There are concessions permitted to SEN pupils taking public exams. Is the school alert to these, such as providing a laptop or an amanuensis? (Push for the legitimate use of these via an EP report.) Is a full degree of training available for your child in how to make best use of any aids provided?
- Ask how many pupils in the school have special needs like your child’s and how many teachers offer specialist support. A sizeable peer group will ensure that support is there in depth, and that your child’s difficulties are not underestimated, misunderstood or looked down on by staff or pupils. What about class sizes?
- Are SEN pupils withdrawn from class for specialist tuition, or does the school double-teach, with a classroom assistant for those with problems? Deaf children often have a mentor at all times and the teacher in charge will often have a specially linked microphone. Ditto children with dyslexia, where a teaching assistant will offer help to the struggling pupil and also to the very bright who may be easily bored and lose interest.
The pastoral system: behaviour and support mechanisms
Find out how the school’s sanction/reward system flexes to take account of problems, difficulties and specific needs of children. Is positive behaviour praised? How? What behaviour management programmes are in operation? Is there a planned programme to help build self-esteem? If so, what?
- Are all staff briefed on potential triggers for outbursts by individual children? What contingency plans are in place should confrontation arise in class?
- Will the school control and administer medication if need be?
- Home–school liaison and contact. How often are reports sent home? Does the school communicate on a regular basis with parents? How? Do they hold information meetings or run courses for parents? Do they have a parent support group, social group or other activities?
- Are there any quiet or time-out areas where children who may become stressed or anxious can spend part of the day? Are there distraction-free work areas? Are they used? How? When?
- Is there any peer support, mentoring or buddying, where an older child assists a younger, perhaps because of shared problems or difficulties?
- Is a key-worker system or equivalent used? If so, how is the key worker used in supporting the child? (A good key worker will have a positive relationship with the child, monitor progress, pull together multi-agency support, pass on relevant information to staff and mediate between teacher and pupil where relationships are strained.) Try to find out how pupils perceive their key worker.
- What is the school’s policy on bullying? (Beware the school that says they don’t have any bullying!) How are children taught to respond to or deal with bullying and teasing?
Speak to children. Ask them what they think about learning support, children with disabilities etc.
This can be very telling of how accepted children with SEN are.
- What is the atmosphere like in classrooms?
- Do teachers and learning staff appear to be working well together?
- Are children relaxed, happy and learning?
- Talk to some pupils with the same diagnosis as your child. Are they bubbling with pride and confidence?
When you speak with the SENCo or equivalent ask which SEN they feel the school caters particularly well for. Do they have. a dedicated inclusion team or similar?
- Ask if the school tests all children on entry. If not, who? When? How often? What conditions are screened for? What do they do once they have the screening results? There are lots of ways of screening and if a school is really switched on to SEN they will be testing and subsequently proactive with the findings.
- What facilities does the library have to support children with SEN?
- Are there any extra-curricular activities linked to SEN, such as signing classes for non-hearing-impaired children?
- What staff training has recently taken place? What changes have recently taken place in teaching and learning for children with SEN? There has been an awful lot put out by the Government and the Department for Education on SEN in the last few years so there should be plenty of changes and developments afoot.
- Ask if any of the teaching staff hold specific qualifications in the teaching of your child’s SEN.
- What, if any, in-class support is there?
- Ask if children will be given individual education plans (IEPs) or set targets. If so, how are targets decided upon? By whom? Are pupils involved in the process? What involvement do parents have with this process? Do children know what their targets are and do they understand them? Are targets linked to work set? Do targets take account of personal goals? How are they monitored?
- How regularly are they reviewed? If IEPs are used, ask to see a sample: is it useful?
- If relevant, ask how often specialists such as the educational psychologist or speech therapist visit. How are requirements met: in class, via small groups, individually, or a mixture of these?
- What ICT provision is available, how frequently is it used and by whom? Who pays for any specialist provision such as individual laptops for individual need?
- Are there any outreach teams or similar working with or from the school? For what? Outreach teams should provide and cascade expertise.