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Bernadette John, SEN advisor for the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants, offers some tips.

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.

Time it right

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, and what the relationships between staff and pupils are like. 

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.

Some schools will try to prevent this saying it will be too much of an intrusion on the residents. But others will try to accommodate you, if to a limited degree, by asking you not to go into any areas where it might particularly upset a certain child. It’s a good sign if they are happy to give you a warts and all picture, but are also well attuned to individual children.

Are you talking to me?

Pay close regard to what the care staff are doing as you walk around. Are they 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?

In the best run homes, the students come first, housework and report-writing later.

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 if your child is sociable and needs to be kept active, beware the site that is too remote, which means that trips out to bowling, swimming, shopping etc might be a rare occurrence.

And big 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.

Schools in university towns can be particularly well placed for the supply of care staff, as these offer a large population of young people able to work the hours, which can be awkward to fit around a family. Often these posts will attract undergraduates or newly graduated people from psychology, teaching, or social care degrees who want a bit of coal face experience and can be passionate about the job.

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

Don’t trust timetables on noticeboards which appear to show clubs for the pupils taking place 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.  You’ll find some are able to reel off a list of activities; others will be struggling to think of anything, which tells you all you need to know.

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. 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.

For individual help on choosing a residential special school see The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants - Special Educational Needs

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