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Article published 9th June 2008

Few things cause so much angst for parents as finding the right school for their child. Once offspring have been through the system most parents wise up to what’s really on offer, how good a school actually is; what they really want for their child.

But unless you've got a crystal ball the best advice we can give is: do your homework; check out inspection reports; seek the opinions of neighbours, friends, fellow parents, specialist advisers; visit schools; and use guides such as this one. 

We outline how to draw-up a shortlist of schools to visit.

What to look for when choosing a school

Education must be challenging, and bring out a child's full potential if possible, going beyond what that potential is currently perceived to be.

  • Look for schools that are excellent in areas where your child can shine despite any difficulties or disabilities; achievement in one specific area often gives a child confidence to succeed in others.
  • Begin by thinking of the end point. What would you realistically expect your son or daughter to be doing in 20 years’ time?
  • Academia is important but so too, is the development of the whole child. 
  • Strengths in non-academic areas. Your child may have special educational needs, but they have other things too – hobbies, interests, strengths, a personality...seek out a school that has strenghts outside of the classoom.
  • Search for an all-round school - especially for a child who finds classroom tasks a burden. Find a school which has the ability and desire to turn out an all-round child who will reach their potential.

Practical advice

Before you decide

Be honest with yourself. Neither emphasise your child’s problems nor diminish them. Be honest with the school too. The more a school knows about your child, the greater their ability to decide if they can cope/help.

If you think it will help, get as good a professional assessment as possible. Use an appropriate support group, which will be able to recommend professionals who can give you a frank description of your child’s needs.

For a child with a physical/genetic problem you will have lots of useful expert information from the clinicians who have worked with them.

For the child with behavioural difficulties, autistic spectrum disorder difficulties, learning difficulties, specific or global, get as much up-to-date advice as you can.

Generally, a school will require a report from an educational psychologist (EP or edpsych for short) at some point for all but the mildest of cases. You can pay for a private EP report, though the local education authority may decide you must use the EPs they recommend.

Parent support groups are often brilliant, with more information than your so-called experts. The web is a good hunting ground, too, and don’t be afraid of looking up sites in other countries – Australian and American ones are often packed with information.

State schools - health warning

State schools by law have to be inclusive, so in theory they should cater for anything and everything.

It’s extremely important to visit and to ask lots of probing questions to make sure they really can get it right for your child.

The flip side is that many independent schools do very well by children with SEN, but don’t advertise the fact as they don’t want to be viewed as a special needs school. If they appear to meet all other criteria, check them out; they may just be able to help.

Prior to a school visit

At this stage you’re trying to discover if the school is worth visiting. Send for a copy of the prospectus. Some special schools will require additional information before sending a prospectus, or inviting you on a visit. However, many have informative websites, so check these out: are they child orientated, informative, up-to-date? Find out about:

  • Facilities, specialist help.
  • Attitudes to special needs and the types of special needs the school can cater for. Consult guides such as this one – we’ve been busy gathering information on attitudes to SEN from a broad cross-section of schools.
  • The SEN policy and/or inclusion policy or similar. Ask for a copy; this may be in teacher-speak, but will be a useful benchmark from which you can formulate questions on the visit and it shows you’re on the ball. Remember to ask how the policy would work for your child and check when you visit if the school really is doing what it says it is.
  • Fees. If it’s a fee-paying school ask about additional charges made for SEN provision. A few mainstream schools include provision in the fees, but many don’t, and SEN or learning support can work out a very costly extra. Remember, even special schools may charge extra for some therapies so always check how inclusive the fees really are.
  • Ask what procedures are in place for home–school contact.
  • Ask for copies of recent newsletters. Do they celebrate pupil achievement? Which pupils, what kind of achievements? Are they informative, bossy or just a glossy marketing tool?
  • Try to get the views of parents with children already at the school, especially those whose children may have similar difficulties.
  • Check out what the school’s inspection report says about SEN provision – see ‘Reading the reports’ below.
  • Outline the needs of your child and (if the school doesn’t offer) ask for the visit to include time with the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo), learning support department or teacher in charge of special needs. Ensure your visit will include departments where your child has interests/talents as well as those where difficulties are expected to occur.
  • Ask for advice from the school on entry requirements and how these may be adapted to accommodate your child’s SEN.

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