Many times, as a parent myself, I have questioned my choices in relation to parenting. I have been told, by those who have gone before me, ‘there is no rule book for bringing up children’. Each one of us muddles along, learning from other parents and remembering what things were like when we were children. However, when you have a child with additional needs, you require more than a rule book. You need a suit of armour and the energy to go into battle again and again. You will be expected to have extensive, immediate knowledge of the specific needs of your child, so that you can successfully access the right educational environment for them (and you) to fulfil their dreams and aspirations.
And here’s where it gets difficult. It’s a minefield out there. Does your child need a Statutory Assessment that should lead to an Education Health Care Plan? What help can you expect from your Local Authority? What mainstream and specialist schools are there in your catchment area or can you consider schools elsewhere? How can you find your way through complex legislation, to ensure you get everything your child is entitled to by law.
Your biggest battle may be finding the right school. Once told that their child has a learning disability, parents have to accept that they should set aside their own expectations and put the needs of their child first. Your child is an individual with needs, ‘special’ or otherwise, that must be identified before you start looking for a school. The better you know what these are, the easier it will be to ask the right questions and the clearer your choice of school will become.
Choosing the right school when your child has an Education Health Care Plan is never easy, especially when the Local Authority is not in a position to help you. Every Local Authority is legally bound by the Code of Practice of the Children and Families Act 2014 to have a “local offer”, which includes a list of schools in that area. But that is really as far as it goes.
The onus is on parents to ask their Local Authority to consult with the schools of their choice. But the Local Authority cannot advise you on which schools to choose. It will send the schools the Education Health Care Plan along with the reports which support it. Then the special educational needs coordinator at each school will decide if they can meet your child’s needs. The parent then has the choice of the schools which have said they can meet your child’s needs. The final choice is down to you.
There are some government supported schemes which can advise parents on schooling, but none of these can create the bespoke package that an independent SEN consultancy can do. It is essential to understand a child personally, to have close knowledge of their additional needs and an understanding of the education offered in varying environments so that they can prosper. In these fast-moving times, where parents are pulled in all directions, there is little time to scout around the local area or sometimes further afield looking for the right school. Why not let somebody else do the ground work for you?
There are many things to consider and many parents feel more comfortable with an expert guide on their side. Someone they can confide in, someone who can hold their hands through the complex and often lengthy process, someone who is totally dedicated to getting the best for their child, someone who is not afraid to ask the right questions. For instance, many mainstream schools now cater for mild and moderate difficulties. But it is hard to know exactly how good these departments are without asking some searching questions, and many parents worry that by revealing their child’s difficulties, they might be risking their chances of getting in.
But information is out there. At each school, it is vital that you speak directly to the SEN coordinator, and if the support seems impressive, then try to establish how well it is communicated throughout the school by the talking to some teachers.
But then again, are you, like most parents, convinced that you want your child to go to a mainstream school … to lead “a normal life”? Does it not concern you that, with the universal pressure on education budgets, many mainstream schools just do not have the resources fully to meet the needs of children with additional needs? In mainstream schools, children sometimes feel stigmatised when withdrawn from class for extra help. It is by succeeding in a smaller specialist environment, sometimes for the first time in their lives, that children will develop self-esteem and confidence. Confidence and self-esteem play an integral part in a child’s learning and it is vital that they do not lose such confidence.
Most of experts believe that mainstream schools could learn a huge amount from the individualised approach to education offered by specialist schools, with small class-sizes and teaching strategies designed to accommodate children with additional but varying needs. Proof is in the fact that many specialist schools outperform the mainstream schools with their results. Most teachers are sympathetic to parents coming to terms with their children’s difficulties and try to gently encourage parents along the right route. But making the decision between mainstream and special ultimately has to be the parents’, and perhaps the child’s, decision.
Many parents find the prospect of making such decisions quite terrifying, particularly if they feel they have not received independent advice. If you feel that I might be able to help you as an experienced and sympathetic guide