Wednesday 9 October 2019

Choosing a mainstream secondary school for a child with SEN

Boy looking over a wall

When your child has special educational needs (SEN) it feels like there is an even greater weight to getting the right school for them. Many children with SEN can attend regular mainstream primary and secondary schools and have their needs met well there. Both our boys have an ASD diagnosis but only one went to a mainstream primary school.  When it came to his secondary transfer what would I share about choosing a mainstream school secondary school for a child with special educational needs?

Define your child's SEN and think of how these may be met in a secondary setting

Whether it's some individual learning plans, via the final or draft EHCP, or it is based on medical, therapy and psychological reports, start by getting an understanding of what your child's educational needs are.  Then consider how this could be met in a mainstream secondary setting?  Will they need extra space, access to specific facilities or people? What extra support will they need in school either to access education or for emotional well being?

Visit all your local schools

Lots of people assume that as you get to pick the school for your SEN child if they have an EHCP that you will just pick the best performing school in the area. This may be your final choice but don't assume the best performing school in the area is the right one for your child. Look at your child's SEN and think about what suits them. Would a smaller school be better? Is outside space really important? Or is natural lighting important. What about access? Drop off? School experience with areas of your child's needs?

We'd like every school to have everything but it's more often like buying a house. Perhaps we'd like lots of bedrooms, and a big garden, modern kitchen and a garage and a drive etc etc. But there are things we would like to have, and things we need. Which things at school are most important to your child?

For example, we knew Anthony would need a low distraction learning environment - two schools we visited had glass walls out to the corridor.  They were great for letting in natural light but we knew Anthony would be distracted by not only anyone in the corridor during lessons but by being able to see any other classroom.  Another school had separate dining and lunch areas for the Year 7 and this would have been helpful for him at break time.  Seems like a small thing but it could make a big difference if it's important.

If you can't find one that fits locally - look around.  A SEN child is not restricted by distance but you may find that if the LA thinks your child could go to a closer school then you won't get any additional help with their transport.

Talk to the school's SENCOs

The Special Educational Needs Coordinator or SENCO, will probably be responsible for developing the school’s SEN policy to make sure all children get appropriate support and high quality teaching and coordinating all the provision for children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEN). 

You will be working with this person, so meet them and see how they work. Talk to them about your child and see what thoughts they have on meeting their educational needs.  Share your concerns and see if you feel they have facilities at their disposal that can help.  It's worth baring in mind that not all schools have a full time SENCO as it depends on their needs. What we liked is someone who at least appeared organised, knowledgeable and above all seemed to care.

Have a back up school

A school has to take a SEN child if they are the school named in the child's EHCP, but only if they can meet the child's needs and it won't affect the safety or learning of other pupils. This means they can turn you down.  I spoke to the SENCO at one of our local schools and they pretty much told us they would object to our son coming. As every school is different not all mainstream schools can meet the needs of every SEN child.

They have a responsibility to do all they can to meet your child's needs with support from the borough but sometimes they just can't. Some have break out rooms for small group activities, others don't have for example. Finally, if a you choose a school late, you could have to wait for a place. You can't turf another child out of school for yours. That's obviously unfair.

Visit a specialist unit or school

What, but I'm talking about mainstream? The LA's preference is for mainstream if it is suitable. It's inclusive and gives children a greater possibility of functioning in society sooner. Looking at specialist units or schools, however, is a great way to think about what the other schools offer in comparison. What bits about the units do you or don't you like and how are these characteristics represented in the mainstream schools. And what if mainstream schools can't meet the EHCP requirements? The jump from primary to secondary school is a bigger one than people often think.  At least you have an idea of alternatives.

I know it's a big decision and the more information you have the better. Ultimately you know your child best so you are the best person to decide where they will be happiest and most productive. If you've been through choosing a mainstream secondary school what advice would you pass on?

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