The process of choosing a school can be fraught with difficulties; throw into the mix a child with special needs and the challenges increase. You want your child to have an unparalleled education, but what are your options, and how do you work out what really is best?
What counts as a special need?
If your child has a difficulty that makes learning harder for them than for most children of the same age – whether the difficulty is social, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, physical, sensory or a mixture – then they may well have a special need. The most complex needs are generally diagnosed at birth or soon after, but other conditions, such as mild autistic spectrum disorders or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, may not be identified until well into their schooling. Indeed, you may well have to work hard to have your child’s need recognised as ‘special’. These needs may be transitory or permanent, but what matters is getting good help and support as soon as possible.
SEN: a state of flux
Since September 2014 any new assessment for the two per cent or so of children with greatest needs is via an Education, Health and Social Care (EHC) plan rather than a Statement.
Many of the finer details of EHC plans have yet to be worked out, but they are intended to cover both education and health needs, giving greater flexibility and greater autonomy for the child and their family. The picture is less clear for those whose needs are less severe, but most likely schools will have to provide help for them with no extra funding.
All state schools are in theory open to children with special needs – though for grammar schools they will need to pass the entrance exams.
If your child has an EHC plan or Statement you can, with the help of your LA, name the school you would like them to attend.
Mainstream or special state schools, and independent special schools, must in theory admit your child unless the governing body thinks doing so would be ‘unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or SEN of the child or young person; or the attendance of the child or young person there would be incompatible with the efficient education of others; or the efficient use of resources'. If the school says no, you can appeal to the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) tribunal.
Mainstream independent schools choose the pupils they want to teach – if they don’t want your child there is not a lot you can do about it. Some keep a handful of places especially for children with special needs, others have a healthy, helpful attitude and will look at each child on merit.
The UK does have some very good independent SEN specialist schools (as well as some excellent state SEN schools), but the number and type of places available are limited. They tend to be expensive, too.
Occasionally, an LA may agree to fund a place at an independent school (even if it is not in their own area) but such places and funding are increasingly rare.
If a special or specialist school catches your eye, approach the school and ask them if they think your child might fit. They are likely to ask you to send reports, visit, even pay for an assessment. If they subsequently think they can help, they may offer assistance with the knotty process of securing LA funding, but be prepared for a long, fraught, frustrating fight with no guarantees
Evaluating schools for children with SEN
Before signing on the dotted line, check out inspection reports, school policies, school websites and any independent reviews such as those by The Good Schools Guide – do they reflect a positive approach to SEN?
Once you’ve done the virtual work, arrange to visit schools, request a tour and ask to meet with the head and SENCo (special educational needs co-ordinator). If it's a mainstream school you need to discern whether they have a flexible and positive approach to SEN. Is support an integral part of school life? How is individual progress monitored? Is there a widespread celebration of achievement? Is the school generally geared up for diverse needs?
Try to visit two or more schools so you can compare them and make the best choice possible. Keep an eye on entry requirements and deadlines; rules and timings can and do change. Finally, remember to look beyond your child’s special needs to ensure their strengths, talents and interests will be well catered for too.