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Article published 6th June 2008

Ultimately what matters, is getting the most appropriate type of schooling at the right time and having a choice available.

The choice of provision for children with learning difficulties and disabilities isn't necessarily static. While some children will remain in one type of provision throughout their school career others do not. Some parents choose a special school first, to get the added input and early intervention that will help their child cope in a mainstream school later. Others find mainstream primary school ideally suited to their child with SEN, but opt for special provision at secondary level.

A good school for children with SEN will:

  • Have high expectations of all pupils including those with SEN.
  • Use a variety of teaching and learning styles to match pupil needs.
  • Use the best and most skilled teachers and therapists to work with the most challenging pupils.
  • Have clear guidelines for, and expect, good behaviour.
  • Establish good family links including regular home-school contact and parental support as necessary.
  • Employ trained SENCo's who are in integral part of the school and a member of its senior management team.
  • Have a governor with a designated responsibility for SEN.
  • Operate an effective policy of zero tolerance towards bullying.
  • Use clear, SMART targets.
  • Monitor and assess pupil progress and regularly review IEPs and/or targets to meet changing pupil needs. 
  • Share best practice; discuss effective teaching and learning. They will share experiences of what works as well as what doesn't, and why. 
  • Be enthusiastic about their successes, the value they add and the difference they make.

Mainstream, special or specialist provision; how do you decide?

At secondary level, demands can seem overwhelming to any child, let alone one with SEN: the additional organisational skills required; moving from class to class; seeing five or six different teachers a day, none of whom may know you well; boisterous older children whose actions may be harmless, but to a tiny 11-year-old seem fearsome; the size of the place; new subjects to grapple with.

Many schools are working to address these issues by special classes with fewer teachers for some children, the use of learning mentors, inclusive policies Nurture Groups etc. As provision changes, boundaries blur, a continuum of flexible provision with units and resourced facilities is talked of, rather than a straight choice between special and mainstream education.

Additionally, a couple of thousand children are dual registered, spending part of their time in a special school and part in a mainstream.

Sophie's story

Unfortunately, sometimes provision, let alone a choice, can be incredibly hard to find. One parent we spoke with has a child (Sophie – details changed to protect identity) with Down’s syndrome. Sophie can read and write, enjoys art, is musical, and has a good level of independence (as demonstrated on a recent residential with mainstream primary classmates). 

Sophie is sociable, popular and happy with a love of drama and realistically expects to get some GCSEs.

Being a more able child with Down's meant Sophie was unlikely to fit in a special school, yet mainstream schools weren't clamouring to take her either. Sophie’s parents visited stacks of senior schools (a mix of independent and state); and were prepared to move house for the right school. Some schools were unsuitable; the rest thought of reasons why not to take Sophie; it took a long time, a lot of hard work, determination and heartache before they finally managed to persuade an independent mainstream school to interview and assess Sophie.

The way forward?

Abandoning preconceptions, adopting flexibility and catering to the needs of the individual are paramount. In the world of SEN there’s no such thing as a typical SEN child and one size does not fit all.

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