Finding the right school environment for a child experiencing a learning challenge, for whatever reason, can be a complex and time-consuming process, but expert help is available, writes Lorna Woolley.
Looking for specialist provision
Parents may be exploring specialist provision for a child or young person for many different reasons. Clear physical limitations or a medical condition may need to be accommodated, or a child’s social and emotional needs arising from autism or ADHD may be unmet in their current school.
Some parents may be concerned about a child without an exact diagnosis who nevertheless seems unable to reach their potential in the present classroom setting, perhaps because they have a ‘non-standard’ learning style.
Whether a child’s complex needs are not being addressed or they simply need to find a learning environment which values their ‘difference’, the right specialist staff and resources are key to helping them reach their full potential – educationally, socially and emotionally.
Listening to independent advice
Just as an independent financial adviser (IFA) is able to search the whole market and recommend the most appropriate products without being restricted to a particular provider, an independent educational adviser is not affiliated with a particular local authority, solicitor’s practice, school or group of schools.
As well as recommending suitable schools and assisting families in their decision-making, an independent adviser can also facilitate necessary assessments or tests and ensure that any SEN solicitor or other professionals involved contribute their input in a timely manner.
Collating vital evidence
There are many excellent examples of independent, non-maintained and maintained schools and colleges in the UK, but searching for the ‘best fit’ for a child or young person with a range of needs is a time-consuming and sometimes daunting task. Of central importance in this search is the Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, setting out the special educational needs of a child or young person, and the evidence contained within it.
As a legally binding document the EHC plan details the provision a local authority must put in place for your child and it is key to gaining the necessary funding. Expert, professional assessments and reports – detailing what an individual will require in order to reach their potential – give schools and colleges the all-important information enabling them to decide whether or not they are the right match.
Insufficient or inaccurate evidence in an EHC plan can lead to confusion about actual needs, lack of funding from the Local Authority, not enough support for the child or young person and, ultimately, placement breakdown. In addition, in order to achieve a successful result, the plan has to be written in terms of the specific and quantifiable provision which the child ‘must receive’, rather than simply what they ‘would benefit from’. For example, this might be a specified number of hours per week of one-to-one support from a speech and language specialist.
Timing a move
For some children, remaining at a local mainstream school, with the right support in place based on the evidence within an EHC plan, can be a good solution. But nothing will ever compare to fully embracing a specialist setting which offers bespoke provision delivered by a multidisciplinary team of dedicated professionals.
Selecting from the wide choice of schools, each focusing on particular specialties, enables your child to learn in a setting among children having similar profiles, with staff and on-site therapies tailored to meet their specific requirements.
Teaching and learning styles, as well as staff training, can be adapted to match the cohort. The professionals within these special schools and colleges have found their vocation in teaching children and young people who learn just like your son or daughter.
Finding suitable placements after age 18/19 can often be problematic, but guidance in exploring alternatives at this stage is also available from independent advisers. The aim is to match a placement to the young person’s own interests, enabling them to access appropriate vocational skills, qualifications and career guidance, while ensuring that any necessary therapies are continued.
Whenever a child or young person moves to a special school, the outcome for them should be special: as needs are met, difference is celebrated, and confidence and motivation increase, they can truly flourish.
Benefiting your family
I know from my own and my sons’ experience that achieving the best school move at the right time not only transforms a child’s future but brings significant benefits for the whole family.
For children and young people able to board at a special school, the opportunity of an extended waking day curriculum is also life-changing for parents, carers and siblings. Wraparound support helps professionals to guide the children and young people in their care; teaching independent living skills and the ability to manage crucial routines will maximise each child’s or young person’s life chances. This is the work of trained professionals and leaves parents and siblings to be just that – family.
Each school, day or boarding, is a community and alongside new peer groups and friendships for a child or young person come wider opportunities for family support groups and activities which can reduce stress and enrich family life for everyone.
Lorna Woolley MEd is an Independent Educational Adviser. Based on her teaching experience and extensive research visits to schools across the UK, she specialises in helping parents find high quality educational settings for children with additional needs.