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Children with a Statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care Plan are eligible for free childcare from age two. Yet a recent parliamentary enquiry reports that many families are unable to access the support they’re entitled to, or find appropriate provision. And if they do, they may well be charged more for the privilege.

Unsurprisingly, many parents give up, either cutting back on their working hours or giving it up altogether. Local authorities and nurseries, meanwhile, are confused about what their duties to children with disabilities are.

So how do you find a nursery where your SEN child will be welcomed, loved and helped to flourish?

One problem is that while mainstream nurseries can be brilliant with SEN, they can be wary about advertising the fact. ‘We don’t want to get a name for special needs,’ is something advisors at the Good Schools Guide Special Needs Advice Service hear on a regular basis.

The official reason is that children with learning needs but minus state funding require more staff, putting nurseries in a financial fix.

Off the record, there are tales of families being fobbed off by early years providers reluctant to upset other paying customers. It shouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, it does.

As a result, some parents might wonder whether it’s even worth bothering to chase a nursery place. But nurseries have a vital role to play to helping children take that first step into the wider world. For those with learning needs, it has to be accomplished gently and with sensitivity and compassion. While not over-protecting your child or making excuses for their disability, you want the nursery staff to know when it’s time to slow down the pace so that exposure to new experiences, from staying for lunch to learning how to take turns in a team game, is always exciting rather than overwhelming, never too much to bear.

Hiding in plain sight

So where do you find these paragons of early years education? Don’t overlook the obvious. The perfect nursery may be the one just round the corner, its surface appearance - shining children in shining surroundings, busy creating, acting and learning in a quiet, homogenised way – concealing something altogether more inclusive just beneath the surface.

One Good Schools Guide favourite, part of a highly academic and successful Catholic independent primary school in Kent, welcomes every pupil, with or without learning needs, with the same alacrity and warmth.

Empathetic owners

The key will be the nursery manager or owner. If they’re not SEN-friendly, individual staff members, however exceptional, may find it impossible to give their talents free rein, particularly if SEN is just one of their job responsibilities.

One notably calm owner at a Sussex Montessori believes children ought to be able to develop at their own pace. She often takes children with SEN for a year ‘to pinpoint what they might need later on,’ and, where beneficial, will try to push for deferred entry into reception.

Admittedly, not all nursery owners or managers come in easy to recognise formats. One Surrey legend was known for her ability to champion children with learning needs with effective and devastating charm.

‘I know Ariana hurt your Delilah,’ she would tell parents, when Delilah arrived home with a neat set of bite marks up one arm. ‘But what you have to realise is that not every child has Delilah’s fantastic verbal skills.’

Super SENCos

While the backing of management is essential, some nurseries will have a SENCo (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) who is likely to have most to do with your child.

Their enthusiasm is key. Talk to them – at length. Find out the extent of their previous experience and the scope of their current role. Their knowledge of special needs and their enthusiasm - or the lack of it - will quickly become clear.

One-to-one support

Some mainstream nurseries will agree to take a child with SEN if a one-to-one assistant can be provided. This will need to be agreed to and funded by your local authority. This will be easier to achieve if your child has a diagnosis – so it’s worth addressing this if you’ve been putting off having your child formally assessed.

Outstanding inspections

Check inspection reports. ‘Outstanding’ can be a start – but in which areas does it excel? Ensure that support for children with special needs is singled out for particular praise. Similarly, if a nursery fails to get top billing overall but still garners bouquets for its SEN support, it may still be worth investigating.

Suitable spaces

When you visit, check out the use of space. If everyone is milling about in an echoing church hall, even with younger children in a partitioned-off area, ask how children who struggle with the noise are identified and supported so that they acclimatise at their own speed.

Mainstream or special?

Nurseries can be mainstream yet incorporate SEN expertise. One Hertfordshire establishment, for example, incorporates an enrichment group for pupils with speech and language difficulties.

For other children with a specific diagnosis, a specialist nursery can be a better option. Often run by charities, they may offer on-site therapists with the expertise to deliver very specific support, something that can make a significant difference to a child’s progress and development.

One playgroup in Buckingham, for example, provides early intervention for children with ASD, as well as offering outreach support (helping families at home) and helping with the whole assessment process. Another, close by, takes a broader range of difficulties, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome.

In neighbouring Berkshire there’s even a special needs playground catering for a range of ages and with carefully created excitements even including a special wobbly bridge.

The next step

For any child, the right nursery can be invaluable as the first stage in learning what it means to be part of a community. Not all will find the process an easy one and for children with SEN it can be particularly demanding. But given the right support in an inclusive environment, they can gain a huge amount from the experience.

So it’s worth seeking out the nurseries that will support you and your child and demanding the funding that as the parent of a child with a disability, is your right. And for support along the way, the Good Schools Guide Special Needs Advice Service is here to help. 

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