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If your child has specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia it can be a dilemma whether to place your child in mainstream or specialist education.

A special school won’t be what you envisaged when you felt those first kicks and imagined the baby’s future; and no-one rushes to put their baby’s name down for a special school at birth. So it’s a big step to opt for a specialist school. And doing so is a psychological leap as it forces you to accept that your child has a degree of learning difficulty.

Once over that hurdle though, many parents can feel a great sense of relief after placing their child in expert provision for specific learning difficulties. Many children with difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and processing issues will first go to a mainstream school where extra support is promised. The quality of this support can be variable, and it can be wearing to both you and the child when they are always the odd one out.

‘We encountered issues in his previous mainstream school where 1:1 support was either very good, but not full time; or people weren’t trained properly and inexperienced; or simply didn’t understand our son - meaning we had to keep very close tabs on everything,’ one parent said. ‘We had initial reservations, actually misconceptions, about sending him to a special school, but after three years, we’re pleased we did,’ he said.

Benefits of specialist teaching

The teachers will not be specialists in mainstream schools, and although they will do their best to adapt work for your child, they may lack the skills to reach him. Parents we talked to have been delighted by the way children have flourished when they are taught in a way which caters for them individually, after years of struggling and failing at a mainstream school. One mother who moved her child to the specialist sector at senior school after spending primary in mainstream told us: ‘He had been at the new school for about two weeks, when he came in beaming, saying “Mum, I can do maths now”. The specialist school knew how to teach him, and he could feel he was achieving something instead of always left behind.’

Children can be only too aware when they are bumping along at the bottom of the class, and the effects on their self-esteem can be considerable. Another parent who made the switch said: ‘In mainstream school she was always the least able in the class and she had very low self-esteem. She’s completely changed since coming here: she feels able, she’s got confidence and she’s happy.’

Specialist schools can be a better environment to develop that confidence than mainstreams, says Michael Taylor, headmaster of Fairley House School in Pimlico. ‘The single most important factor in a child’s education is the self-confidence to feel that they are capable of the task at hand, even if it involves a certain level of persistence,’ he says ‘Self-confidence and good results work in tandem – and specialist schools are frequently best placed to encourage confidence.’

How do you decide when it’s the right time to go specialist?

Children will often do fine in mainstream for the first couple of years, when their peer group will be equally struggling with organising themselves, handwriting and reading. But as their friends master these skills, their difference will become more apparent.

‘Indicators that a specialist provision might be appropriate often relate to pupils feeling a significant sense of frustration in class,’ says Charlie Pinel, special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo) at The Moat School in Fulham. ‘This may be as a result of pupils being bright and intelligent and therefore wanting to learn, but not being able to access the curriculum owing to their learning differences. This can sometimes manifest as anxiety because pupils’ ability to think is far higher than their ability to communicate their thoughts, either verbally or on paper.’

Other red flags to look out for are ‘unwillingness to go to school, disruptive or inappropriate behaviour and an obvious change in the child’s patience levels,’ says Taylor.  

‘Many children do not simply announce “I’m struggling” - you almost always need to read between the lines,’ he says.

What will a specialist school do differently?

In a mainstream school one or two teachers may have training in specific learning difficulties and pupils will need to work with them out of lessons, and/or have support assistants working with them in class. In a specialist school every teacher will have additional training, so there will be a consistency in the way the children are taught and expert teaching across every subject.

And it’s not just in the classroom that it counts. PE coaches in a specialist setting will understand why dyspraxic children take 10 minutes to do up their laces, can’t hit the ball on the cricket pitch, and frequently forget an item of kit.

Specialist schools will also have in-house therapists. Occupational therapists can devise therapy and specify equipment to help with issues in fine motor skills such as tying shoelaces, cutting and handwriting; in hand-eye co-ordination, where children have problems with copying from a blackboard or ball games; and in sensory integration, when children find it difficult to process messages from the senses into motor responses which can result in clumsiness. Speech and language therapists can work alongside teachers and advise them on lesson delivery to children who have problems with verbal processing or language delay.

In a mainstream school this provision will be delivered by external agencies and it can be extremely patchy, and it will be an add-on, instead of integrated into every part of the day in school.

The downside is that the specialist, extra support doesn't come cheap, and fees at these schools are hefty. If you aren't able to self-fund, you need to expect a traumatising battle with the local authority to obtain funding, often requiring a costly tribunal hearing

No need to feel different

A big plus for pupils in a specialist setting can be not feeling the odd one out. ‘Being educated with peers who have similar needs to their own helps lower anxiety and a sense of failure which can manifest when they judge themselves against seemingly more able peers in a large mainstream environment,’ says Pinel.

Parents also report feeling less lonely – everyone at the school gate will be dealing with similar issues. ‘Knowing there’s an ear to talk to at school makes a difference,’ one said.

Will it stretch my child?

Won’t a special school have low expectations, so my child might not do as well as she could? It’s a question we are often asked through our advisory service. Yes a poor special school is going to squash a child, in the same way that a poor mainstream will. But a good special school should be able to unleash potential which is likely to remain locked without the right approach to teaching.

‘Approaching subjects in a different way – such as making teaching multisensory, or more practical, and breaking down barriers to poor literacy, working memory etc - allows pupils to access curriculum that would otherwise be out of their reach. In fact, I would argue to parents that by breaking down these barriers pupils will be stretched more in a specialist setting then they may be in a mainstream classroom where expectations may be lowered by poor grades, leading to a downward spiral,’ says Pinel.

Whether your child would be able to return to mainstream after some specialist input is something you would need to discuss with the schools on an individual basis. This will depend on factors such as the degree of difficulty they have; whether these are of the type that can resolve over time, or have a greater impact as schoolwork becomes more demanding; and the stage at which they enter the specialist school.

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