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Choosing a school for a child with autism

Boy with puzzleIt’s natural for parents to assess the suitability of a school according to where their child lies on the academic spectrum, but when a child has any form of special needs, in particular when they have autism, the first priority needs to be whether the school can cater for those needs. In this situation academics come second, because if your child does not feel safe and happy in the school, they will learn nothing, no matter how bright they are.

Our SEN consultancy service frequently works with parents who are making the difficult decision between mainstream and special schools for a child with autism. When the child is academically able, parents are often strongly inclined to keep him or her in mainstream education, believing that a special school will quash their ability. In fact quite the reverse can be true. You may have an 11-year-old who understands quantum physics, but whose social and sensory difficulties mean a mainstream classroom is nothing short of torture. Too often we’ve seen children in this situation spending their time instead cowering in the toilets or fleeing school, and later becoming a school refuser, or being excluded because their fear-related behaviour is treated as a disciplinary matter.

A special school can be an all-round happier experience for a child with autism. The environment is set up with an awareness of how sensory issues will affect the child, and with much smaller class groups, teachers are able to adapt teaching, for example enabling a child to learn through his special interests. On one school visit we saw a boy who was intensely motivated by anything to do with flight but would not engage with regular lessons. Staff adapted his teaching so that he learned geography through plotting flight paths, literacy through writing pilot’s logs, etc.

A growing number of special schools now cater for high functioning autism where children can sit a full set of GCSEs or alternatively take other qualifications such as BTECs if they are likely to crumple in the all-or-nothing nature of a final GCSE exam. It may come as a surprise to learn that children who attend special schools can and do go on to university. We know of one boy who went to Cambridge from a special school.

That is not to say that special schools are always the best option. Some mainstream schools can cater well for children with autism, but you need to scrutinise deeply those on offer in your area. You need to be sure that key personnel at the school have a good deal of professional knowledge about autism, a track record in successfully catering for autistic pupils and clear plans about how they will manage your child’s individual needs.

If you need help with finding a suitable school for a child with autism, talk to our specialist consultants [] or come and see us at The Autism Show (London ExCeL, 14 and 15 June, stand A17) Our SEN director Bernadette John will be speaking at the show (14.30 on 15 June) on troubleshooting issues with your current school and finding schools for autism.

Ten top tips on exam revision

The exam season is nearly here. Teachers are finishing off their GCSE and A level courses, students are drawing up revision timetables and parents are looking for ways to support their children in the best way they can. Here are our tips for parents.

If possible, get your child to make a revision timetable – and encourage them to stick to it. It’s a good idea for them to identify weak areas and set aside time to tackle these early on. Check the exam dates and put them in the calendar. Make sure your child is familiar with the exam specifications - all exam boards publish these along with practice papers and mark schemes. Help them find the methods of learning and retaining information that work best for them. These could be reading and making notes, using flash cards, Post-it notes and brightly-coloured wallcharts, watching video clips, playing back recordings of their own voice or mind mapping. Search out revision apps and online resources to clarify areas your child feels less confident about. Useful apps include GCSE Pod, Gojimo, Seneca, Quizlet, Get Revising and iMindMap. The lure of social media is very hard to resist. Encourage your child to put their phone out of reach so they’re not distracted by who’s on Snapchat while they’re trying to revise. Stock up with favourite drinks, biscuits and other treats to keep them going. Little gifts such as new stationery can also be a motivator. Advise them to plan regular breaks. Rather than ploughing on for hours at a time, it’s better to break revision into manageable chunks. A number of short revision sessions is more effective than one longer period. Exercise, fresh air, regular healthy meals and lots of sleep are crucial. Your child may say they want to have friends round to discuss exam topics and test each other. This can be a good idea even if you suspect that not much work gets done – it’s a chance to let off steam and may make them feel less isolated. Encourage your child to keep exams in perspective. The better they prepare and the more confident they are in their subject knowledge the less stressed they will feel when the exams actually start. But remind them that by the end of June the exam season will be over and they’ll have the summer holidays to look forward to.

The Good Schools Guide look forward to seeing you in London at The Autism Show

the autism showThe Autism Show, the national event for autism (including Asperger syndrome), is a one-stop shop for the latest autism information, practical advice, products and services for the condition.

Parents and professionals seeking information on schools for children with autism will be able to meet with staff from some of the UK's leading schools for autism at the shows in London, Birmingham and Manchester. London show visitors will also be able to a seek individual, independent advice from the Good Schools Guide's SEN consultants.

Visitors can hear from the UK's leading autism professionals; discover hundreds of products and services; listen to autistic adults speaking about their experiences; learn new strategies and approaches for home and the classroom; and access one-to-one specialist advice. All content is CPD accredited for professionals.

Good Schools Guide readers can save 20% on tickets here:

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Children’s book of the month

Each month the Good Schools Guide Newsletter team chooses a new book for children to enjoy

No ballet shoesNo Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton (Nosy Crow, £6.99)

Age: 8+

Catherine Bruton got the idea for her latest children’s novel when she heard the legendary Judith Kerr speak about the parallels between her own story and the situation in war-torn Syria. Bruton set out to write a contemporary version of Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword – and so No Ballet Shoes in Syria was born.

Eleven-year-old Aya and her family have just arrived in the UK, seeking asylum from the war in Syria. She unexpectedly stumbles across a ballet class in the local community centre, watching shyly from the door and remembering her own ballet lessons in Aleppo. When the formidable instructor Miss Helena spots her practising her dance steps in the outside yard she immediately spots her potential, inviting her to join her ballet class and urging her to try for a place at the prestigious Royal Northern Ballet School.

Aya’s determination to win a prized ballet scholarship will captivate young readers but the flashbacks to how her family made the harrowing journey from Syria to the UK, becoming separated from Aya’s father on the way, are moving and thought-provoking. Even when the family arrives in the UK, they must fight for the right to remain in the country and make a new home for themselves. Not only that, as the scholarship exam approaches it looks as if Aya’s dreams of becoming a ballerina will be dashed by the immigration authorities.

Dedicated to 'the 11.5 million refugee children around the globe who have been forced from their homes and are currently seeking safe haven,' this is a wonderful novel. It resonates on so many different levels – from Aya’s memories of family life in Aleppo to her determination to look after her bewildered mother and baby brother.

With echoes of Noel Streatfeild’s much loved Ballet Shoes, No Ballet Shoes in Syria looks set to become a classic.

Going up, going down

Going up

Primary school class sizes. ‘Supersize’ primary school classes are at their highest since 2007 according to figures published by the Department for Education (DfE). Just under 11 per cent of pupils are now taught in classes of 31 or more. Reasons for this include a rise in the birth rate and problems with teacher recruitment and retention. The average primary school class size is 27.1 children per class.

Chinese takeovers. According to Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), the recent increase in Chinese firms investing in British private schools is ‘very encouraging’. Mr Lenon, who was formerly head of Harrow School, had a bullish response for those who say this is a matter for regret. ‘We should be jolly pleased that they regard English schools as something that they wish to invest in.’ Chinese firms have recently bought a number of struggling private schools including St Bees in Cumbria and Ipswich High School for Girls (now co-ed).

Going down

Sats. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn delighted delegates at the National Education Union (NEU) conference in Liverpool by announcing plans to abolish Sats and reform the ways primary school children are tested. Mr Corbyn claimed that children are ‘unique’ and should not be put through the ‘unnecessary pressure’ of Sats. He proposed an ‘alternative’ form of assessment that would be designed in consultation with teachers and parents. Critics pointed out that since 2004 when Sats were done away with in Wales, GCSE results there have fallen by two grades on average.

On the register. On the face of it the government’s consultation on whether to impose compulsory registration of the UK’s 60,000 home-educated children doesn’t appear particularly controversial. Proponents say it would help to identify children at illegal faith schools as well as those ‘off-rolled’ from mainstream schools (as an attempt to minimise the issue of expulsions). However, some fear that such a scheme would fail to identify the most vulnerable children while curtailing the rights and privacy of parents who choose to educate their children outside the school system.

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