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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 support your child’s needs. 

Safety and happiness first 

Academics must 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. ‘A bunch of GCSE results are useless for anyone who can’t leave their bedroom,’ adds Kiran Hingorani, CEO of Swalcliffe Park School, a residential school for autistic boys. 

Choosing a special school 

Our SEN consultancy service frequently works with parents who are making the difficult decision between mainstream, special and residential schools for a child with needs. When the child is academically able, parents are often strongly inclined to keep them in mainstream education, believing that a special school will limit 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 avoider, or being excluded because their anxiety is treated as poor behaviour. 

A specialist or special school can be an all-round happier experience for a child with autism. The environment is set up with much smaller class groups, better staff to student ratios, teachers are trained in neurodiversity and associated behaviours and are able to differentiate the teaching to the individual, for example enabling a child to learn through their special interests. In addition, timetables are designed with attention breaks and sensory needs in mind. 

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.  

Autism in special secondary school 

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. 

Further and higher education 

They may also support a child with autism in transitioning to FE colleges. It may come as a surprise to learn that children with special needs can and do go on to university. Jason Arday, who had a childhood diagnosis of autism and global developmental delay, became the youngest-ever black professor at Cambridge University and we know of an increasing number of SEN students taking up University places, some of which are offering preparation courses for students with autism during the holidays.  

Mainstream schools for children with SEN

That is not to say that special schools are always the best option. Some mainstream schools can cater well for children with SEN such as autism, especially those schools which house a resource base in social communication issues but places at these are scarce and you will need to research those on offer in your area. 

In some cases, a child with autism will have other learning needs like dyslexia, and may be able to apply to a specialist school for specific learning difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc), which will support their social communication difficulties as a secondary need. 

You need to be sure that SENCo and 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. 

Choosing a residential special school 

When your child is going to a residential school, the educational establishment is only half of the equation. You need to pay great attention also to the home they will be living in while at school. 

It can be such an unsettling and emotional matter to think about sending your vulnerable child away to school, that you are shown around the living accommodation in a daze, and unable to apply any critical process to it. So here’s what you need to be thinking about.

Visit schools at the right time

Schools will routinely plan to show you around the accommodation in the middle of the day, when it is freshly cleaned and there are no students about. However this will prevent you from seeing how it functions normally. Make a firm request to see it at the end of the school day or at some other point when the students will be in residence.  

Take note of the relations between staff and students. Are staff clustered in the office chatting together and attending to paperwork, or busy vacuuming or folding clothes? Or are they sitting alongside pupils, playing on the Xbox with them, talking about the TV programme, or helping them to email home? 

Town or country? 

A campus out in the middle of nowhere can look attractive. And for some autistic children particularly, being surrounded by open space and nature, with plenty of grounds to run around in, can be calming and just what they need. 

But all children need social skills practice, so beware the site that is too remote, which means that trips out to bowling, swimming, shopping etc might be a rare occurrence. 

Town centres will be hubs for activities for young people with disabilities – these should have a good range of clubs offered by organisations such as Mencap; rural locations won’t have the numbers to run them. 

Can’t get the staff 

A red flag for a rural location is the difficulty this will bring in recruiting care staff. These are often minimum wage posts which make it impossible to run a car, and if there is no good public transport infrastructure you might see a large turnover in care staff and a lot of agency staff employed, which will be unsettling for your child. 

A good tip is to casually ask all the staff you come across in the residential home, ‘And how long have you been here?’ – you’ll soon build up a picture of staff turnover rates. 

And don’t be afraid to directly ask the care manager for specific figures on how much use he or she makes of agency staff, and beware the fudged response of ‘Well we try not to’. 

What’s on after school and at the weekend 

Timetables on noticeboards may appear to show a wealth of clubs every night and at the weekends. These can be outdated, or a far stretch from reality. Ask the pupils you meet which clubs they go to every week, and where they went out to the previous weekend.  

One of our reviewers was left speechless by a school which said it left pupils to initiate outings, when this was a school for pupils whose difficulties would make it impossible for them to dream up and plan outings. 

Community care 

Remember that when children are resident at school, they should also become part of the local community, and their education should include learning to use local facilities, like scouts, youth groups or church. So how welcoming and inclusive is the local area? A chocolate box village may look pretty, but attitudes towards the learning disabled may not be as warm as in a gritty town centre. 

If you need help with finding a suitable school, talk to our specialist SEN consultants.

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