Choosing a school for any child can be daunting, and doubly so for a child with special educational needs (SEN). So how do you go about it?

Choosing a School for your SEN child

William Dunlop
March 2nd 2018

Choosing a school for any child can be daunting, and doubly so for a child with special educational needs.  The task itself, however, remains the same: you are looking for a school which will value your child as an individual, which will support them and challenge them appropriately, where they will be happy and where they can thrive.  So how do you go about it?

The first thing to do is to get to know your child’s need as well as you possibly can.  That means understanding the condition in general, but also the condition as it affects your child.  An educational psychologist's report is almost invariably the best way to do that.  The British Psychological Society website will help you find someone suitable, and it is also worth asking your present school if they can recommend someone.  Do some wider reading, but remember that your child’s specific needs will be individual to them.

Some parents are frightened of labelling their children.  Don’t be – labels have benefits.  Most children with special educational needs know they learn differently and are frustrated by it, so being able to understand why they learn differently is a real benefit.  It also helps them identify adult role-models with the same difficulties, which can be a powerful motivational tool. 

Most children are already in school when special educational needs become apparent, so consider carefully whether the school they are in might be the right one for them.  If your school does not already have the necessary expertise, are they prepared to learn?  Can they make they adjustments necessary for your child to access the curriculum, at least in the short term?

If a change of school is necessary, consider the type of school you might be looking for.  Would a mainstream environment with an enlightened attitude to your child’s needs be sufficient, or would a specialist environment be more appropriate?  This is not a decision you need to make alone.  Consult people who might be expected to have a sensible opinion.  If you saw an educational psychologist, they may have a view.  A good schools advisory agency should certainly have a range of options for you.  Do you know any other parents in the same position?  If so, what do they think?  The internet can help too: the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils (CReSTeD) maintains an excellent register of accredited schools, for example.

When looking at any school there are some key questions to answer.  In a mainstream school, try to find out the attitude of classroom staff to special educational needs.  Are they sympathetic towards children who are not neurotypical, and can they differentiate effectively for their needs?  Are there classroom assistants available to help your child access the curriculum?  However much individual support they have, the majority of your child’s school time will be in a mainstream classroom.  It is therefore vitally important that those classrooms are places where they can learn effectively without being hindered by their difficulties.  Try to find out the school’s attitude as an institution too.  Where is the learning support department: at the heart of the school, or on the fringes?  What is the standing of the SENCo?  Are they on the Senior Leadership Team?  If you are looking at a specialist school, what is their attitude to returning children to the mainstream?  If at all possible, try to make sure that there is some aspect of school life in which your child can thrive on level terms.  It might be sport, art, music, drama, design technology or any number of other things.  Self-esteem and the respect of others can be hard to come by, so try to give them the best opportunity for that. 

Whatever you choose, try to find a school that allows your child to work to the best of their cognitive ability.  That means a school that can develop your child’s functional ability and that can work around their difficulties to access the curriculum.  Both of those elements are important.  Achieving both will ensure that your child is stimulated, engaged and happy at school.  That might seem a far off dream, but it can be done.

Finally, remember that once your child learns to work with their condition it can become a gift.  They understand better than anyone how to overcome difficulties in creative and imaginative ways: they have been doing it all their lives.  Maybe that is why over 40% of millionaires are dyslexic.  Good luck.


William Dunlop is Head of Prep School at Clayesmore, an inclusive and friendly school in Dorset for children aged 2 – 18.  He has a dyslexic child and is regular contributor on SEN learning for William Clarence Education

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