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When to choose a special school

What matters, to your child with special needs or learning difficulties, is finding the school that best suits them as an individual and will give them the best chance in life. But how do you decide what type of school or level of SEN provision is right for your child?

Special school, specialist provision or mainstream?

You may not need to choose between a special or mainstream school.

  • Some mainstream schools include ‘additionally resourced provision’ (ARP), a specialised unit for children with eg speech, language and communication difficulties or an autistic spectrum disorder.
  • An increasing number of children are dual registered, spending part of the week in a special school and part in a mainstream school.
  • Most children at a special school will be included in a mainstream environment at some point; those with minor needs may spend most of their time in a mainstream school but with specialist input from a special school. 

Advantages of special schools:

  • Class sizes are smaller, even exceeding one-to-one help in some cases.
  • Work is geared to the child’s individual needs and linked carefully to their own targets.
  • Teaching is matched closely to learning styles and strengths.
  • Children have a peer group with similar needs, so they don’t feel different and find it easier to make friends.
  • Staff generally have an excellent understanding of the needs of the children and how best to teach them.
  • Progress is very carefully tracked and monitored.
  • There are strong links with parents.

Like their mainstream counterparts, special schools must teach the national curriculum and use its assessment procedures, and they have broadly the same duties and responsibilities to children in their care as mainstream schools.

An Educational Health and Care (EHC) plan is invariably required to get a place in a special school. This does not guarantee a place in a special school – or in any particular special school: many parents spend years fighting long and hard for a place in a school they think best for their child. Neither does it mean that a child must go to a special school.

Staff - parent partnership

Good special schools have excellent parent-school-child relationships and communication, and see this partnership as the key to success. Staffing levels in special schools tend to be higher and much more specialised. Therapy is usually integrated with teachers, TAs and therapists working as a team with each child. The specialist teams are adept at responding swiftly to changing and different needs.

With more generous staffing ratios, staff get to know each child as an individual, understanding their foibles, what motivates them, and what causes upset or angst. They are also trained and experienced on how best to help.

Most special schools follow the national curriculum, adapted and adjusted as necessary to meet the needs of the children. A good many have in-house care from a range of therapists, which may include a speech and language therapist (SaLT), an occupational therapist and a physiotherapist. This provision will always be much better than when it is provided by visiting NHS staff.

Longer term benefits

An appropriate education and good therapy provision can also mean: 

  • greater independence skills developed and so less intervention required later;
  • reduced reliance on support services;
  • the ability to obtain and hold down a job/career;
  • gaining self-esteem;
  • avoiding depression.

Ultimately what matters is finding the right provision for your child. You want that provision to be flexible. As the needs of your child change, the type of school that best suits your child may change too. A good team across health, education and social care should work with you and your child, to ensure that your child’s education will maximise their life chances and opportunities.

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