Many parents of children with special needs feel strongly that they wish their child to remain in the mainstream system. You have every right to make this choice, and the law requires schools to provide support and physical adjustments as necessary so that your child can participate fully in the school. The only grounds on which a mainstream state school can refuse to admit a child with special needs or a disability (SEND) is where this would interfere with the efficient education of the other children.
However there are huge variations between schools in the welcome which will be offered to children with SEND, and in the quality of provision that will be made for them.
If you are considering mainstream schools you need to scrutinise extremely closely what kind of support your child will be given, and how much expertise the school has in your child’s condition.
Don’t rely on an open day to find out all you need. You should always ask for a private visit with the head, and an opportunity to meet the special needs co-ordinator (SENCo) – they will be key to how good the SEND support is.
These are some of the areas you should look at on a visit:
If the head isn’t enthusiastic about helping SEN children, take this as a red flag. The head will be controlling the money that is spent on any aids or additional support for your child.
- What is the head's attitude to special needs? Ask if he/she has ever had to remove a child from the school owing to special needs.
- Do they have other children with your child’s condition? 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.
- How do they celebrate successes? Will your child have a chance to shine even if she is not an academic or sporting genius?
- Will your child genuinely be included? Ask how much of his/her timetable may be spent working individually with a teaching assistant (TA). Working alone in a room with a TA is not most parents’ idea of inclusion.
- For some needs the level of pastoral care may be as important as specialist understanding of a particular disability – question the head about the academic/pastoral balance.
- If your child needs therapy, how will this be provided, and how reliable will this be? If the school uses visiting NHS therapists, your child will rarely see them as they have so many other demands. And a teaching assistant cannot deliver speech therapy with the same expertise as a trained speech therapist.
- Ask about the SENCo’s qualifications. Is the SENCo a specialist teacher, or the RE teacher with a few spare hours in the timetable? Does she have postgrad qualifications in special education, or professional qualifications in particular types of need?
- Is the SENCo employed full time?
- Does she have the support of a team, and are these specialist teachers or teaching assistants?
- Is she on the senior leadership team, and where is her office (heart of the school, or in a portakabin in the fields?). Tells you all about the head’s attitude.
- What does she know about your child’s condition, and how has she helped similar children?
- How will she go about briefing the rest of the staff on your child?
- How available will she be for you if your child runs into problems?
- 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?
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 from certain activities or parts of the curriculum because of their needs. 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.
- 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 if this is what you need.
- 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?
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?
- 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?
And ask to be put in contact with current and recent parents, who can give you a truthful picture on the school’s support.
If you need help in finding a good mainstream school for a child with special needs, our SEN team can help.