Tuesday 26 January 2016

SEN: Accessing specialist units or special schools

You already know your child will need extra support at school. The question is what type and where it is best for them to have it The preference is always for your child to go to a regular mainstream school if this setting can meet their needs, but that's not always possible. We knew after our experience with Anthony, our first child with ASD, who went to a mainstream school that there was no way that David, our second, could cope with it. We knew David would need a specialist unit, so what did I learn about getting him into one?

1. Special units and schools cater to different needs so you have to find out what ones might suit your child

You should be able to get a list of all the local (Borough) maintained special units and schools from your borough. This should list specialisms such as Autism, SCLN (social, communication and language needs) and BESD (behavioural, emotional and social difficulties). Or it may group into mild, moderate or severe learning difficulties.  Get the ones for your neighbouring boroughs too, they may be closer or better suited.

Look to see which ones might work for your child, then visit all of the ones you have identified with your education, health and care plan (EHCP), draft or otherwise, in your hand. Compare their offering with your child's requirements.

2. Ultimately your borough places your child and allocates places to special schools

Of course the borough take your preference into account, but its a bit of a shock to realise you actually get more say when choosing a mainstream setting than a specialist one.

Most special schools require to be named in the child's EHCP.  Make it easy for the borough to place your child where you want. Match your child's  EHCP with your preferred schools offering, facilities and abilities.  Make your preference known to the borough as soon as possible.   Then, have a back up in case it goes wrong. We were all set for one school then it had planning permission delayed and couldn't take our child as it simply didn't have space.

3. Become phone friends with your case officer

Your case officer is your voice within the borough office.  Given that the borough decides where to offer you a school place it makes sense to use this resource.  In most cases a SEN panel meets once a week to approve or discuss SEN school placements in the current EHCP process.   Your case officer can make suggestions about where to look and what panels might say. They often know where there are 'spaces' in specialist settings or can guide you on who to contact for visits.  They tend to be very busy people doing a of leg work - make sure that it's for you.

And remember you can get help or an adovate to help if you can't make these calls. Follow the link below about EHCPs for organisations that can help. 

4. Don't assume that you won't get in

Places in special schools change.  Pupils grow out of the school either in terms of age or their needs so places can open up.  The borough may be able to provide additional support to a school or unit so they can meet the needs of your child.  

In our case, we originally dismissed the school which David is now thriving at.  However, in the six months between starting and getting towards the end of his EHCP, the school was reorganised, it's staffing was changed, it was able to take more children and it suddenly became the top contender. 

5. No places?  Don't rule out independent or private special schools

We went to see a school maintained by a charity collaboration and two independent special schools.  Two of these were outside our borough.  The difficult part was actually finding out where these schools were as there is no list like the one you can get from the borough that's easy to navigate or that names all of the schools.  Often these schools were started by parents or advocates who couldn't find the right school for their children so made one. If it had not been for the planning rejection I mentioned earlier our second son, David, would now be in one of these. 

At another point we thought David was going to have to be in a taxi for 90 minutes to get to a suitable (independent) school. If there is no place suitable within a maintained school, then under the borough's legal obligation to provide suitable education to meet your child's needs that will need to place your child in a school, even if it means having to come to a fee paying arrangement or sending them out of borough.

Our blog - SEN: 5 things to know before seeking an EHCP 
Our blog - SEN: Choosing a mainstream school 

I'm not a legal or council expert, just a parent whose gone through the process a few times.


  1. These are great tips; so many parents with autistic children fall in that gap just between mainstream and specialist schools sadly. It's all about parents doing research (as if we aren't busy enough already...!)

    1. There really is lot on the parents! Just cos we, as you say, are experts on our kids, doesn't mean we are experts in the system!

  2. Wow, I bet this would be a huge help for anyone trying to find a special school or specialist unit for their child. So far we're working on the assumptions Tyger will cope well with mainstream school but if not (or if Bear won't) I'll definitely be coming back to this post!


    1. Like I said, we have one in each. I think it was easier to have the mainstream child first. He has thrived there. But it also made the second decision easy. Good luck, when is Tyger school age?

  3. it is such a difficult decision. Our son is in mainstream but we constantly question whether we have made the right decision and ask are his needs being met adequately. He is happy and so we are happy too.

    1. I know, it's so hard! Esp sometimes when things don't seem to be working right. I'd say trust your gut but even it's not always sure.

  4. Some good pointers here..
    My son is in mainstream but he is happy. If that changes, then we will review the situation. So far, we can't fault the school for effort. #SpectrumSunday

    1. That's brilliant. Always good to hear a school is doing a good job!

  5. Really great tips lovely! Such an informative post, and so helpful for many. We were lucky in the fact Hayden's mainstream school were quite accommodating of his needs, but it may not always be that way I know. Thanks for linking up to #spectrumsunday hope to see you again this week xx


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