When you are looking for a school for your child, the first thing to consider is:
- Mainstream school
- Special Needs school
You know your child best and which setting you feel they will flourish in.
Mainstream schooling can be supported with additional help within the classroom; e.g., one on one support during some areas of learning. This can be achieved by an Individual Education Plan (IEP), while Special Needs schooling is the best option for children who cannot cope within a mainstream setting and require support for the entire school day. They may have profound and multiple learning difficulties. They may also be in a wheelchair so accessibility around the school and the playground will not be an issue, as the school will have been adapted to accommodate such needs.
Education and Healthcare Plan (EHCP)
An EHCP is required for additional and complex learning needs. This IS a legally binding document and the Local Education Authority has to provide the documented provisions and support to ensure that your child’s educational, health and care needs are met. It is a very complex document that is reviewed annually. Find out more here. An EHCP is a legally binding document that a school has to adhere to.
Before you visit a school
- Consider how far you are prepared for your child to travel on a daily basis to and from school. Special needs schools are not as plentiful as mainstream school. It is likely your child will have to travel outside of catchment area. Contact the local authority and enquire if your child will qualify for home to school transport. A school escort is usually provided to ensure the children travel to and from school safely.
- Look at every school within that range, so that you can make as informed decision as possible. Make a list of pros and cons for every school you visit. This will help you in making your final decision.
- Search school website and request a prospectus prior to visit to see what values they emphasise.
- Look at the schools different policies. If these are a few years old, ask the Head Teacher when these will be updated.
- Look at past Ofsted results. How is the school doing?Read the Ofsted reports of all schools you wish to visit. If there is not a recent one ask others within the community about the school. This could be friends, local businesses, etc. The Ofsted report tells you about the schools strengths and weaknesses as well as what needs to improve. If the school does not have a recent Ofsted report, ask about these areas which are highlighted in the most recent report.
During your visit to school
- Consider, what is your gut reaction as you walk through the front door of every school you visit. This is really important. How welcoming are the school office staff? How welcoming does the actual school feel?, how welcoming is the head teacher and the class teacher? etc.
- Do you, as a parent, feel comfortable with the school environment? Would you be happy for your child to go that school?
- How is your child responding to the different schools you visit?
- How accessible is the school for wheelchairs; look at doorway widths, classroom layout, access to outside space.
- Are the walls colourful and the children’s work displayed with pride mounted and of quality or just pinned up randomly?
- Talk to the head teacher and the class teacher separately. Let the class teacher take your child into the classroom whilst you talk to the head teacher. How does your child respond to this?
- How approachable is the head teacher? Talk to staff about the head teacher. This is the person in charge of leading the school and if there is a tone of unease you need to bear this in mind when making your decision.
- How many children are in a class? Do they have opportunities to mix with other classes and get to know the other children in the school?
- How much teaching assistance and support does the class teacher have? Are teaching assistants full time or part time?
- How engaged are the children in their classroom environment?
- How are the children at break time and lunchtime play? Plan your visit to coincide with a break if possible.
- How do staff interact with the children during lunchtime/play time?
- See as much of the school as you can. Ask why you are not allowed access to any areas you are not shown.
- How does the school deal with bullying? Every school has bullying. It is how it is dealt with that is important.
- What staff turnover is like / how much of the staff is newly qualified/limited teaching experience (this often equates to inexperience and so are therefore cheaper to employ). Experienced teaching staff is vital to children with complex needs.
- Will the local authority provide transport to and from school with a school escort?
- Does the school cover post age 16? If not what happens next? You will need to look around and see what schools do offer further education that can meet your child’s needs. If the school does have post -16 is it able to cater for your child’s needs? (e.g. hoisting in the classroom) If not, can the school offer a post 16 hub elsewhere within the school? If the school states they cover post 16 (ages 16-19) then they should consider all children who are at the school. If this is not available, challenge the head teacher on this. Similarly if you are told yes and then there is a change of head teacher, check that your child can still attend post -16. One reason a lot of families choose a school that caters for ages 3-19 is so that their child has a smooth and uninterrupted transition through their schooling years from nursery/infant to juniors, secondary and then Further Education. Challenge the head teacher on what the prospectus and school website states regarding the age range provided for. (You can always raise concerns with the governors and County too. Look on the county website for details of the head of education services. However, the final decision regarding educational placements rests with the local authority. If you are unhappy with their decision you can appeal this decision at a tribunal.)
- Ask teachers questions. Would they send their child to this school? It is most likely a teacher will say yes; but watch their body language to see if this tells you no.
- Are staff trained to deal with gastrostomy tube feeds?
- What is the schools policy on administering mediation?
- Is there a school nurse?
- If your child is in a wheelchair, are the staff trained in manual handling and use of the ceiling hoist system?
- What therapy does the school offer? Speech and language, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, Specialist teacher advisory for visually impaired, hydrotherapy.
- How often are these visits? Are staff trained to carry out exercises and targets set by the therapists?
- Do the therapists provide exercises for parents to carry out at home to help their child’s development?
- Ask what communication systems school uses: PECS (Picture Communication Exchange System), Makaton signing, Big Mac switch (allows you to record a short message which is played back by pressing the big switch), etc.
- Ask to see a timetable of the weeks planned activities. Although these may be subject to change (if they have a community visit from therapy dogs or musicians, etc) it will give you an idea of what learning activities and therapies will be available to your child.
- Do they have any switch adapted toys, cooking equipment, sensory equipment and communication devices?
- Is there a sensory room?
- Does the school have its own hydrotherapy pool?
- Are there any clubs on offer either during lunchtimes or after school?
- How does the school communicate with parents? Is there a home / school diary what parents and the teacher can write in? Or, is there an electronic communication system the school uses that parents sign up to?
- How do children get involved with taking on responsibility roles within school such as school council, library? etc.
- Does to school involve the wider community and involve people from outside school; zoo lab, musicians, visiting artists, authors, etc.
- Can the school meet your child’s needs?
Things to consider after every school visit
- How did your child cope with the journey to and from school? This will give you an idea as to both the distance and time limit you are prepared for your child to travel to and from school.
- What was your gut reaction when you went into the school?
- Do you feel your child would be happy/cope at the school?
- What positives did you come away with?
- What negatives did you come away with?
Making your decision and what to do next
- Once you have decided which school best meets your child’s needs you will need to let your local education authority know that you wish your child to attend that particular school.
- If the local education authority agrees with your choice, they will confirm this place in writing and will also let the head teacher at the school know.
- You may wish to contact the school again and arrange another visit and maybe leave your child with the class teacher for a short while so you have a chance to discuss applying for home to school transport with the head teacher, uniform requirements, etc.
- Your child’s class teacher will decide how best your child’s transition into the school environment will happen. It may be that your child starts doing a couple of mornings a week, gradually extending this to a full week of mornings, before gradually introducing full days until your child is attending school on a full time Monday-Friday basis.