Choosing a school for your SEN child by Kate O’Riordan

calendarDecember 14 2019

image of a smiling Kate O'Riordan

Finding the right school place for your child is one of the most important, stressful and challenging decisions you will ever have to make, whether your child has needs or not.  I have three children all at different schools, and I work in a fourth, that is a lot of INSET days to juggle!  The reason for this is partly age, but also that they are in the right schools for them.

My three children are aged 15, 12 and 4. My 12 year old daughter has Myotonic Dystrophy which means she has mobility difficulties and mild learning and developmental needs. My 15 year old son earned an academic scholarship to private secondary school and my 4 year old is just starting out on her educational journey, starting Reception in my local Infant School.

Placing my daughter in Secondary School was a very big challenge.  I initially wanted her to go to the local Secondary School, at the end of our road with all her peers, as I felt that these children would give her the most support.  I applied, and to strengthen my case, put another smaller school, that was outside our borough, as my second choice.  The first school had an attitude of, ‘This is our SEN package, and your child has to fit into it’.  They refused to give her a place and at first I was planning to appeal.  The Local Authority advised, ‘We can always turn no into yes if that is what you really want.’  (It does help be friendly towards your case officer).  We went to look at the other, smaller school who had an attitude of, ‘Let’s put your child in the middle and see how we can make it work for her’.  We instantly knew we had found the right school.  Realistically, the last year has not been without some challenges.  Mainly that my daughter did not know a soul when she started and this caused her some anxiety.  But recently she attended the school residential trip.  This was something that would have been unthinkable in primary school. 

I think this is a key thing that some parents with children with specific needs are perhaps unaware; you can choose any school in the country for your child to attend if they have an EHCP.  Which is why you should battle (if necessary) with your child’s school to put this in place, and if they are unwilling to do so, apply yourself for an EHCP for your child.  Sadly, you have to be as negative as you possibly can in this application, describing your child on their very worst days.  If you want your child to have a school place in a different borough, be prepared to prove why your child’s needs cannot be met in any school in your local authority.

My middle daughter coped very well in mainstream primary school.  Surprisingly they had very few children with additional needs (for an ‘outstanding’ school) and were a little ignorant regarding inclusion on occasion; I was always there to remind them!  Even if you do not work in the school, keep yourself up well to date on all trips and special events planned, and ask the school in advance how they plan to include your child.

My son also attended this primary school and my youngest daughter is about to enter Reception.  It has always been an outstanding school according to Ofsted, and is heavily oversubscribed, but I have insider knowledge which made it my first choice as I worked as a class teacher at the Junior School there for ten years, so know many of the staff and families well. If you really want a particular school and you don’t get it, I would recommend going on (and regularly updating your place on) the waiting list.  Moving a child after they have started at a different school whilst they are in Reception or Year 1 will have far less impact on their development than keeping them at the wrong school until the end of Year 6.

If you are not offered your choice of school you can go to appeal, but have to have a strong case and do your homework before doing so.  I went to appeal to get my son a place in this primary school and out of seventeen appeals we were the only one that was successful.  I remember preparing well, with a four page written statement and lots of background evidence.  Some of my other documents (Head Teachers statement for example) were inadmissible at the time, so instead I quoted his key points in my statement.  It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life, they were brutal and asked some very upsetting questions.  I was basing the appeal on a ‘reverse sibling’, that although he didn’t have a sibling at the school when he started, he would do so within two years as his sister had a Statement (EHCP) and we could choose any school we wanted for her.

My main advice for all parents searching for a school for their child is to start looking long in advance, and take all Ofsted reports with a big pinch of salt.  I am currently working in a ‘Requires Improvement’ school and it has the best Special Educational Needs (SEN) offer I have ever come across.  Previous experience of working in outstanding schools means that the pressure on staff to remain outstanding can make for a very unhappy team. Insist on speaking to the SEN Coordinator (SENCO), if they are unavailable to meet with you be very suspicious, ask lots of questions (make a list beforehand) and go with your instincts.  Visit when there are children there so you can see how the adults interact with the children, and don’t be swept away by modern, shiny buildings with great displays, this does not necessarily make for great inclusion.  Remember, if you are looking for a Secondary place for your child in the UK, you will have to name a first and second choice when they are in Year 5 (aged 9/10).  Visit as many as possible and when you have narrowed it down to a few visit again with your child, this can be done outside school.  After all, your child has a voice and this is the most important one to listen to.

If you need to discuss which schools are best for your child, visit our safe and anonymous Education discussion board by clicking here.

Kate O’Riordan has been a teacher for more than a decade and a SENCO for 4 years and is the mother of a beautiful 13 year old with Myotonic Dystrophy.

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