My son Harry was born prematurely at 32 weeks along with his twin brother Oliver. Not only was he tiny (3lb 9oz) and very vulnerable but at his birth we discovered that he had a rare craniofacial condition called Goldenhar syndrome. You can read how I coped (or didn’t cope) with that news in the day that changed life forever. By the time he was three years old he also had a diagnosis of autism which at that time, didn’t make a massive difference to life as he attended the same nursery as Oliver. However, as the time drew closer to consider which school was best for the boys I began to struggle. I really did not want my child attending one of those horrid sterile special schools and so we looked for a while at local mainstream schools in the hope that he would cope well with extra support. Of course, this was more about my needs and feelings rather than Harrys and accepting that he needed specialised educational provision was one of the best things I have done as his parent. Please do read my blog, 3 reasons not to send my son to special school, to understand how very misplaced my fears were.
If you are currently considering special needs schools for your child (the idea of it is far scarier than the reality) then I hope my points below will help to guide you through it. As ever, I write with the advice I would have wanted at a time when I felt overwhelmed and under pressure to make a very significant and important decision for my son. Here are my ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ for considering special needs schools.
Visit more than once
A good school will welcome you as many times as you need to go to help you form an opinion. Much like a house viewing, you see different things on different visits. I’m not recommending weekly tours here but a couple of times will help you to feel relaxed and see the school at different times of the day.
Find out how learning is personalised.
Schools will differ in their ethos and views. One of the special needs schools that we visited catered primarily for physical disabilities and worked within the framework of ‘conductive education’. I had never heard of it and after much research was very impressed but knew that it wasn’t suitable for Harry. Find out if the school follows a particular framework and what their school ethos is.
Consider the learning environment for your child.
There is one argument that colours and interactive displays over stimulate the already delicate sensory disposition of autistic children and that a neutral, calm environment is better. We visited two settings which differed greatly in this respect and while I do appreciate the point about over stimulation we found the neutral school far too cold and clinical for our liking. Bare in mind the environment your child is used to now and how they respond to sensory stimulation.
Write questions down before you visit
Take any questions with you and don’t be afraid to ask them – Examples include; how many children are in a class, how are children grouped, what is the ratio of staff to children, how often are children in outdoor space, how will staff communicate the day to day of your child, what sort of menu options are there, how often do they engage in the things that interest your child (for Harry that’s music, for your child it could be art or swimming). No question is a silly one. Ask them all.
Consider the schools links with the community
How proactive is the school in encouraging children to participate in the community and build skills to help them in the future? Even at primary school Harry was taken to the local shops and the bigger shopping centres to spend his own money and to take part in class visits. The thought of your child out in the world without you is terrifying at first but its exactly what they need to ensure they are comfortable and relaxed when they are out and about.
Feel that you have to take your child all the time.
We didn’t take Harry once. We know our son and what he does and doesn’t like. We also know that he would struggle in new surroundings and would probably become very overwhelmed in a different environment which would impair our ability to really view the school properly and ask the questions we really needed the answers to so we went alone. If you need to do that too, then its fine.
Feel pressured into a school
If you feel that the school simply doesn’t suit the needs of your child, don’t be afraid to say. There are many reasons why you may be recommended one school over another (often its related to funding issues) but trust your own judgement and choose the one which will suit and help your child the most. That may mean appealing against transport agreements or placement allocations but if you truly feel that your child is better served there then roll your sleeves up and prepare for battle. Its not always easy but your conscious will be clear that you didn’t just accept the option which was more convenient for everyone else.
Choose a school based on convenience.
Its easy to choose the school which is the closest or the one where your friends child is going to be attending. For high school, its easy to choose the one that the primary school feeds into. Transition visits may be more frequent and links between primary and secondary staff may be better but at the end of the day your child will make new friends. The staff will get to know them soon enough. Don’t go with what feels easy, go with what feels right.
Rely on other parents’ opinions
When people ask me for my advice on choosing the right school I don’t fly into an ofsted style recommendation of the schools which Harry has attended (although I could because they have both been incredible). Instead, I tell them everything I am telling you now because never has the uniqueness of our children had greater implications than in choosing the best setting for their education. Schools may cater for ‘children on the ASD spectrum’ or ‘children with moderate / physical learning needs’ but those are terms for such a wide range of needs. Find the school that caters for the needs of your child. Other opinions are always valuable but should never replace your own research.
When Harrys Dad and I walked out of his primary school after visiting for the first time, we just knew it was the right one for him and we were right. Similarly, when we visited the high schools we knew that the orderly calm of one would dampen the vibrant spirit of our boy and so we chose the organised chaos of music, lights and colour which may overwhelm another child. Again, we were right and our boy is thriving.
There is no denying that enrolling your child in special educational provision is a huge decision both for the child and for the parents but with the right time, research, consideration and trust in your instincts as a parent you won’t fail them. Good luck.