What to look for in a school for a child with SEN

Bernadette John provides ten useful tips for parents visiting potential schools and colleges 

A school visit is your opportunity to check out a school and its personnel in some detail, to see whether it is likely to be a good fit for your child. But often parents find it daunting; they may feel they lack sufficient knowledge to judge a school, they may be worried that they won’t ask the right questions, or they might feel that there are questions they cannot ask.

For children who have SEN, it is crucial to scrutinise in depth the provision that a school can offer, and the expertise of staff involved, to avoid placing your child in the wrong place, which it will be difficult and time consuming to remedy. Here are my suggestions to help make the process a little easier for parents.  

1. Organise a private visit

Mainstream state schools in particular can be reluctant to offer you any opportunity to visit outside of the scrum of an open day. While this can be a useful exercise for information gathering, and a chance to get an overall feel for the school, you need to insist on an opportunity to talk to staff at length, and in private, about your child’s needs and how the school will help them.  

Some special schools might offer you the option to come to an open day or a private visit – the latter is always much more valuable, in my view. If you are applying with an education, health and care (EHC) plan, some special schools won’t allow you to have an individual visit without a referral from the local authority; in this case, while you are shortlisting schools, you will have to get what you can from a group tour and attempt to get further information by phone from the SENCO.  

2. Visit lots of schools

For many people, looking at a school for their child will be the first time in their life that they have stepped inside a special school. They will have no point of reference if they have previously only seen mainstream schools. There can be an initial shock factor to get over, as often parents have not envisaged their child going to a special school. You need to look at several schools so that you can begin to compare them. In addition, once you throw SEN into the mix there will never be a perfect school; you will always have to compromise in some respect so it is a case of getting a good idea of the spread of provision, then deciding which comes closest to your wishes.

3. Take notes

If you are looking at several schools in a short space of time, the details will soon begin to merge together. Take a list of questions with you, so you don’t forget any important ones, and write down information you are given as you go along. Immediately after the visit, make notes on your impressions. These notes will prove incredibly useful both to crystallise your own thoughts, and also because you will need to present a good case to the local authority on why one schools suits your child and another will not do.

4. Don’t worry about being PC

Parents are often worried about asking direct questions which may not seem politically correct, or which they think might offend the school. It is vital to know about the peer group your child will be placed among, and in my experience schools are unruffled by questions about the school community. If you are worried about placing an able-bodied child among others who are non-mobile, or a verbal child among those who use other means of communication, just say so. Of course, schools have to protect confidential details about their pupils, but they will be happy to give you a broad brush idea of a group your child would be placed with – such as, the academic levels they are working at, how social/verbal they are and whether there are behavioural problems in the group.

And don’t be afraid to ask the school to outline what qualifications have been achieved by their students or what progress they can demonstrate they have made with children’s key skills; they won’t consider this rude. 

5. Trust your gut feelings

There are a lot of similarities to looking at a school for a mainstream child. Does the school feel like a happy place? Are the receptionists welcoming and helpful? Are there warm relationships between the Head and staff, or can you feel the strain? What do the walls tell you – have the children been on interesting visits, and been inspired by classroom work?  And does everyone get a chance to shine? For one parent, seeing walls of perfect work was enough to put her off, as she knew her severely dyslexic daughter’s work would never be put on show.  

6.  People not places

It’s easy to be won over by glitzy new builds with pools and swanky sensory spaces. But don’t let that sway you if the children and staff alike seem glum. The people will always be more important, so if you are choosing between a cramped inner-city place with an inspiring head and staff team, or one with lavish grounds and all the bells and whistles but a head who leaves you cold, the grotty building is probably a better bet.

As you tour a school, ask staff how long they have been in post. It’s not uncommon for there to be considerable turn-over of low paid residential support workers and classroom assistants, but if there are no long stayers, that should ring alarm bells. Search job listings to see how desperately, and what quantity of staff, the school is recruiting. Ask about staff training and progression; teaching assistants who are given the chance to gain qualifications on the job, and who see their work valued, are likely to stay the course, not to mention provide more professional levels of support. Find out what training the staff have in your child’s condition and, if it is unusual, are they willing to facilitate additional staff training?

7. Heads up

You should always be sure to meet the Headteacher and SENCO, as they will have an overwhelming bearing on how good the school is. Decide whether you like them. Do you feel they are people you could easily go to with a problem, and do they come across as people who are happy to work in partnership with you? It is inevitable that there will be some bumps in the road when your child has SEN, but the key thing is how easy it will be to reach a resolution on these, and whether the head’s door will be open to you.

8. Do they get your child?

I always advise sending in reports on your child ahead of your visit. The good schools will be familiar with their contents when you arrive. They should be able to detail how they will support your child, what expertise they have in-house and what might need to be brought in, and how they will deal with specific issues your child has. If you leave feeling that they haven’t really grasped your child, or don’t seem to have a clear plan about how they would support them, that’s your sign to walk away.

9. Mug up and ask tough questions

Read Ofsted reports and look at forums for comments about the school in question. And don’t be embarrassed to raise concerns; if Ofsted has highlighted a particular weakness, question the school on how they are addressing this. In most cases, they will be able to put your mind at rest and explain improvements underway. Negative comment online can sometimes be generated by one disgruntled parent, but it’s better to raise it in the open. You can ask whether you can speak to current parents to learn more about their experience of the school, or you could even hang around at pick-up time to quiz other parents.

10. The devil is in the detail

Remember that school is not just about lessons; other parts of the day can prove to be make or break for some children. Think about all aspects of school, such as mealtimes, breaks, off-site trips, friendships, uniforms, assemblies, school shows and sports days. If you know that any of these will pose potential problems, ask the school to outline how they will resolve these. How will any therapy be supplied? Will they make adaptations if your child has access difficulties? Make a judgement on how flexible they are willing to be, and on how convinced you are that any potential difficulties will be well managed.

Finally, if you are really struggling with identifying the right school for your child, an SEN education consultant can help you to find suitable provision and work through your options. But always remember that you are the expert in your child. If something feels off about a school, even though you can’t put your finger on what it is, you should trust your own judgement.

About the author

Bernadette John is an SEN education consultant who advises parents on selecting a school for their child. She was, until August 2019, SEN director at The Good Schools Guide.