What to look for when choosing a special needs school for your child

Posted on 6th Jan 2016 in SEN legislation, Choosing a school

Educational psychologist and author Ruth Birnbaum offers practical advice on seeking effective education for children with special educational needs

No-one is prepared for having a special needs child and developmental difficulties know no boundaries. Parents are often in a quandary about whether a school is appropriate and suitable for their individual child and even whether they should travel the mainstream or special school route.

In writing my book, Choosing a School for a Child with Special Needs (2010), I hoped to demystify the process and empower parents to ask questions of schools when they visit, so that a more balanced view can be reached and an objective decision can be made. Parents need to work together with schools and other professionals to decide what their child needs and how their strengths can be realised in a school context. While parents live with their child every day and have much to offer, they also have to listen to advice. Weighing up what really matters is possible and choices can be made on the best evidence available. 

Choosing a school is such an important decision that it cannot be left to chance.
Here are some helpful pointers:

1. Look at the primary area of need
The 2014 Code of Practice sets out four areas of special educational needs:
Communication and Interaction
Cognition and Learning
Social, Emotional and Mental Health
Sensory and Physical

2. Understand the Background
Understand the role of psychological assessment and draw up a list of schools which state they can meet the assessed need and then obtain the documents that will help you restrict your list to those schools that need to be visited.

3. Set up a Visit
Make sure a visit is set up with the right people; look at the general physical school environment, as well as the classroom environment. Make a record of the school visit. Look at the Local Offer in your Local Authority.

4. Look at Specific Provision/Intervention
Consider the type of provision in both mainstream and special schools. Probe and analyse what is available in reality and the professional support the child will receive. What are the qualifications needed? What type of intervention could be available? Does the school offer help with Specific Learning Difficulties/Sensory Needs/Autistic Provision; are different therapies available; eg Art Therapy; Music Therapy; Drama Therapy; Play Therapy or Psychotherapy. Does the school offer Counselling and Mentoring? Can the child access Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy?

5. Consider other important issues
Levels of Integration and Inclusion; Religious Beliefs; Co-Education; School Size; Small Classes; Transition; Equality and Discrimination. In all cases, there will be practical questions to ask.

6. Think about other School Models available
There can be a range of different school models to consider, depending on the need; such as mainstream, special units in mainstream, special schools, dual-placements, pupil referral units, residential schools, home education, hospital schools, studio schools and virtual schools.

7. Summarise your thoughts
Evaluate findings on a spreadsheet with your own comments and compare school visits. Trust your first impressions and feelings but be open to other views. Use websites, resources and organisations in the area you are researching. The Local Offer should help you understand what education, health and social care services can provide for your child.

Perhaps, a few selective questions from my book will offer some examples:

– A key question, when looking at special schools, is to determine whether all teachers share the specialism, or only some of them; eg if a child is placed in a specialist dyslexic school, will the child receive lessons in History and Geography at secondary level from specialist teachers in their subject area, who have also undertaken SpLD training? If not, one must consider whether the value of attending such a school outweighs a mainstream experience.

– What happens to the class work that the child misses when they are in the special unit? How do they catch up or will they be following the same curriculum in the unit? If the unit has a number of different aged children, are lessons taught across the age ranges in the unit or will children be taught separately?

– Is the Occupational Therapist trained or certified in the use of any standardised diagnostic tools that are used to assess children who might have sensory processing disorder? 

– How often is the Speech and Language Therapist in school? Is the focus on individual or group therapy? Does the SaLT spend time in the classroom? How much time?

– In a special school, how many staff have a recognised qualification in the area of need? eg ASD.

– Is there any special equipment already being used in specific subjects; such as Food Technology, Maths, Science, PE, etc?

– In the classroom, note the class sizes and the physical space. Is there room for additional resources; eg a work station or wheelchair? Are the goals and objectives of the lessons clearly set out in a visual format and do the children understand them? Are different strategies used for children who cannot access the usual format?

By making a decision, based on factual evidence where possible, a parent should be able to accept or reject a school on the basis of impartial evaluation. 

Using the combination of this guidebook and Choosing a School for a Child with Special Needs, parents will be able to make an informed choice and act as advocates for their child who may not be able to speak for themselves. The new Code of Practice (2014) now extends education for young adults up to 25 years and there is a clearer focus on the views, wishes and feelings of the child and young person and on their role in decision making, so take them on visits and ensure their views are heard whenever possible. It is important that the young person remains at the centre of decision making so that the best possible educational outcomes are achieved.

Ruth Birnbaum is an Educational Psychologist in independent practice with over 30 years’ experience in education. She is a registered psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council. She visits schools across the UK to consider provision and advise parents and consultants on which schools are most appropriate for which children. Website: www.ruthbirnbaum.co.uk