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The first day at nursery is a milestone for any child, but even more so for those with SEN whose parents are often more anxious and wobbly than the child.

Don’t delay, the evidence is overwhelming: early intervention for a child with developmental delay or difficulties is the best way of helping them progress. The Centre for Excellence and Outcomes (C4EO) expert group on early intervention found that ‘it is better for the individuals concerned, their families and society more broadly; it avoids a lot of personal suffering, reduces social problems and generally, it costs less than remedial action’. However, early intervention for a SEN child should be appropriate and applied well.

Research shows that what a child experiences during the first years of life influences the whole of the rest of their development, yet still many parents are unaware of this or of the pattern of normal child behaviours. With the dwindling of cross-generational advice passed down in families and communities, our universal services such as health, social care and schools have taken on the responsibility of informing parents about early child development and engaging families in supporting the child’s needs.

Nurseries play a key role in recognising a child has special educational needs and providing support for the family; the government has recognised the crucial role that early years practitioners play in the revised 0-25 SEND Code of Practice. However, finding a specific nursery to play this vital part in your child’s life is a parent’s job and can leave you feeling alone and confused.

Who is eligible for a free nursery place?

The government website makes it clear when a child can secure funding for a nursery place. Children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) are eligible for free childcare from age two, as well as looked after children, children of parents who are in receipt of certain benefits and some asylum families. All 3 and 4 year olds are entitled to 15 hours free nursery care and may be eligible for up to 30 hours, depending on their status and the parents’ work. The childcare hours may be taken during the school term times (38 weeks per year) or working parents may find it easier to spread the hours across the whole year (570 hours per year).

Once the child is eligible, they will receive a code to access the free hours; the government website lists suggested times of the year to apply for the code, depending on your child’s birthday. In addition it may be possible to buy extra hours of childcare at a nursery and claim a proportion of it back, under the government’s tax credits scheme.

How do you find a nursery where your SEN child will be welcomed, supported and helped to flourish?

Nurseries may be connected to a mainstream school or independent school; they may be maintained (such as a community nursery) or voluntary-run (for example as part of a church or faith group) and some are linked to an academy school. Some workplaces provide their own nursery setting; some nurseries are privately run; some may follow a particular ethos such as Montessori or bilingual.

A good place to start is the website of your local education authority, which will list the early years providers in your area, then check what the Ofsted report tells you about the nursery as a whole, and the SEN provision in particular, as well as asking other parents for their opinions.

If in doubt, contact the SEN department of the local authority and explain your child’s needs – even if they do not have a diagnosed condition, the SEN officer may know of similar cases or suitably trained staff in another nursery nearby.

If they are not forthcoming, there is always SENDIASS, an independent advice service for families of SEND children. Remember, attendance at a nursery attached to a school does not guarantee or disqualify your child from a place at that school in reception; this is a separate (later) application. However, the flexible system of separate early years and primary school applications does mean you are free to choose a nursery on its own merits, character and practical issues, like proximity to your workplace.

Don’t overlook the obvious. The perfect nursery may be hiding in plain sight, just round the corner. Shiny new facilities are not intrinsically better at supporting SEN children than familiar old village halls; it is the staff that counts. Ask to look round, noting how happy the children are; make a note of the number of staff to children, question the manager about special needs. Find out if they have staff who are trained in special needs and signing and ask to speak to the SENCo.

Quiz the SENCo

All nurseries have a special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) who is likely to have most to do with your SEN child. Their experience is key. Talk to them – at length. Find out if they have children with similar needs to your child, how they support these children, whether within the peer group or with extra one-to-one support.

You will want to know if the SENCo is familiar with engaging external care-providers eg NHS therapists, or perhaps they have an understanding with private therapy services to visit. For a child with significant special needs, the SENCo will need to have experience applying for extra funding and possibly an EHCP and may make direct referrals to the health visitor or community paediatrics department. If you get blank looks when asking these questions, shop around.

Specialist Nursery Provision

If your child’s special needs are already clear at an early age when they enter nursery, it may be that a specialist nursery placement is the best fit. These may be part of a larger special school provision eg a community special school for physical needs or for specific conditions, such as hearing loss. Alternatively, some nurseries for special needs are run by charities or independent organisations such as ICAN communication charity has accredited nurseries in some local education authorities such as Ealing, in which the children participate in a communication programme designed by their outreach work team.

The specialist nursery providers should be trained in the need eg signing for hearing-impaired children and the staff should undergo regular professional development training. Many local authorities will have a nursery provider which specialises in speech, language and communication needs, which provides intensive therapy for interaction and communication needs like autism. Day care providers can care for special needs children from the age of six months.

So do some research, pick up the phone and question the SEN team and take the first step to nursery with your child with confidence. And for support along the way, the Good Schools Guide Special Needs Advice Service is here to help.

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