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Visiting the schools

Advice Now Web 0036 OpEach year, schools run open days and evenings for parents to give you the opportunity to look round the school, check out its facilities, and talk to pupils and staff.

If you miss the open day or want a more individual visit, phone the school and ask for an appointment.

When you visit
It’s a good idea to ask to speak to the headteacher and the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo) during your visit. They should be able to answer a lot of your questions about specific issues concerning the school’s provision for children with SEN. If your child has a statement, take this with you and ask how the school would provide the help.

In some cases, you may find that you know more about your child’s SEN and/or disabilities than they do. If they treat you as the expert on your child and seem ready to listen, then there is a good chance that the school as a whole will be welcoming. It is rare that schools are openly hostile to applications for children with SEN but they may try to put parents off. For example they may hint that your child would not fit in or that they cater mostly for high achieving children. This could amount to discrimination and you should think about complaining (see If you are unhappy…).

What to look out for on a visit

Everyone will be on best behaviour, so you may not see any problems that the school has. If you have read the inspection report before you visit, it may highlight strengths and weaknesses that you need to check out. Keep an open mind and use any opportunities to raise concerns or the questions you have. Remember school reputations whether good or bad can be unjustified or out of date. Rely on your own observations rather than rumour.

Look at:

  • The school’s classrooms – are they attractive and well-organised or scruffy and cramped? Is children’s work displayed well?
  • How are children with SEN supported in class? Do they seem to be involved and purposeful?
  • Will your child be able to manage moving between classrooms? Are all parts of the school accessible?
  • Is the school well-equipped? For example, books, computers, gym and sports equipment, play equipment, science laboratories etc.
  • Is the outdoor space interesting and cared for, or bleak and boring?
  • Is the school well-staffed? How many pupils are there in each class? How many support staff will be in your child’s class? Will they have to share support with other children? Is the playground well supervised?
  • Is the dining room attractive? Is there a choice of food?

As well as general questions about the school, you will need to ask about matters which are important to your child and yourself.

  • Does the school have experience of teaching other children with similar special educational needs to your child?
  • What training have the teachers who would teach your child had in SEN and in your child’s difficulties in particular?
  • Are they willing to undertake training and understand your child’s needs?
  • What teaching approaches does the school take – for example, are children withdrawn for particular sessions with a specialist teacher or helped in the classroom by a learning support assistant?
  • Are there any particular facilities or adaptations which would help your child?
  • How will the school involve you in supporting your child’s learning?
  • How do parents contact individual teachers and learning support staff?
  • Will the school involve your child in planning their learning and support?
  • Will the school involve you and your child in reviewing your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP)?

Questions for special schools

  • Does the school specialise in your child’s disability or does it take a range of children with different disabilities? How does this affect its ability to meet their needs?
  • Does it have links with mainstream schools?
  • Do any pupils have dual placements, spending part of their time at the special school and part of the time in a mainstream school?
  • If the school is some distance from home, what are the transport arrangements (see School transport) and how is home-school communication encouraged?
  • Are there any specialist therapists, facilities or curriculum adaptations that will benefit your child? How does the school decide who gets these?

Deciding between mainstream and special schools

If your child has a statement, you may find it hard to decide between mainstream or special schooling for your child. It is hard to give hard and fast facts for comparison because so much depends on individual schools and your child’s particular needs.

Some children with SEN in mainstream may try harder because more able children set the pace, while children in special schools may do well because they cannot hide behind a label when everyone has SEN. Bad experiences in the past such as your child being bullied or feeling socially isolated may affect your choice. Try to keep an open mind – just because these happened before does not mean they will happen in a new school.

The comparison table below provides just a few of the commonly used arguments for and against mainstream and special schools for children with statements. The Parent Partnership Service for your area may be able to give you information to help you compare local mainstream and special schools.

Mainstream

Special

Social factors

Better role models among other pupils – particularly important if your child imitates other children’s behaviour.

Children mix with siblings and peers from their home community so more likely to feel part of mainstream life -though some children can feel isolated by their difference. May be able to walk or travel to school with other local children.

Smaller classes may be less scary but the mix of children, often with a wide range of disabilities, may make friendships and learning harder.

Children may lose contact with local friends and miss out on joining in mainstream life in their home community, especially if the school involves travelling some distance from home.

Curriculum

At secondary school, in particular, children have access to a wide curriculum which will be altered or made easier where necessary for them.

Curriculum may be narrower but focused on the needs of children with SEN.

Staffing

Children likely to be supported in the classroom by learning support assistant or may be withdrawn for sessions with a specialist teacher.

Children in small classes with staff who are likely to have good experience of SEN.

Achievement

Children likely to have a wider range of exam options in Key Stage 4.

Children may have fewer exam choices but may focus more on skills for independent living.

Facilities

Range of facilities for sport, science, IT etc likely to be better in larger mainstream schools. Therapists may visit the school to provide speech and language therapy or occupational therapy.

School may be designed specifically for children’s particular needs (for example, a low stimulus environment for children with ASD). There may be on-site therapists and health professionals.

Special units within mainstream schools

Units within mainstream schools can be seen as offering the best of both worlds – or the worst – depending on your perspective and how much the school genuinely believes in inclusion. Units often take children with a statement for a particular learning difficulty such as dyslexia or autism. Your child would have the mainstream school named on their statement, but the provision described in Part 3 of the statement will match that on offer in the unit. Children receive specialist help for their learning difficulty in the unit and may enjoy some classes with mainstream pupils, or they may be just as segregated as if they went to a special school but have fewer facilities. It all depends on the individual unit so compare how your child would be helped in a unit compared to a classroom in a mainstream or special school. A good question to ask is what would a typical day be like for my child at this school?

Questions to ask about units

  • How many pupils would there be in your child’s teaching group?
  • How are pupils selected for the unit – must they have a statement, for example?
  • Do pupils ever progress from the unit to mainstream classes?
  • Is the unit part of the school or very separate? How much time would your child spend in mainstream classes and the playground and how would they be supported there?
  • (for secondary schools) Are pupils in the unit able to take the full range of public examinations?

Home education and flexi-schooling

If you feel no school is right for your child, perhaps because your child has been excluded or has been very unhappy in school, you may wonder where to go next. Some parents find home education is a positive option. At the very least it can offer a breathing space while you and your child recover from battling the system.

You have the right to educate your children at home, even if they have a statement. The law says you must provide a suitable education which is defined as “efficient full-time education, suitable to (the child’s) age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have”.

Although you do not have to be a qualified teacher, teach the national curriculum, or provide the same kind of facilities that your child might have in school, you will need to be able to show the local authority that you are fulfilling your legal duty to provide a suitable education.

You do not have to get permission to home educate. If your child is on a school roll, tell the school that you no longer need the place to avoid prosecution for non-attendance. If your child is attending a special school, you must get the permission of the local authority to remove the child’s name from the school roll. If your child has a statement, you can ask the local authority to specify home education in the statement. The local authority may or may not provide help for you. Many local authorities see it as your decision to go it alone. If your child is injured or too ill to attend school for more than a short time, your local authority must provide home tuition, however.

Some parents agree flexi-schooling arrangements with their child’s school, where the child spends part of their day or week in school and the rest of the time being home educated. To do this, the headteacher must agree to your child’s absence for part of the day. Organisations which can provide advice on home education are listed in Where to get help and more information.

September 2010

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