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

calendarDecember 14 2019

Image of Kate O'Riordan.

Experienced Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), Kate O’Riordan talks about choosing a school for your SEN child. She draws on her experience both as a SENCO and as a mum of a child with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

Choosing a school for SEN

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

I have 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. The 15 year old earned an academic scholarship to private secondary school. My youngest is just starting out on her educational journey, starting Reception in my local Infant School.

Choosing a school for SEN – attitudes matter

Placing my eldest 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. Her peers would be there and I felt these children would give her the most support.  To strengthen my application, I put another, smaller school, that was outside our borough, as my second choice. 

Our first choice 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). 

Then we went to look at the other, smaller school. Their attitude was, ‘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. Sometimes, someone says something that make choosing the right school for your SEN child that much easier!  Trust your instincts!

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, something that was unthinkable in primary school. 

Choosing a school for SEN in the UK

I think this is a key thing that some parents with children with specific needs are perhaps unaware. In the UK, you can choose any school in the country for your SEN child to attend if they have an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP).  Which is why you should battle (if necessary) with your child’s school to ensure they have an EHCP. If the school is unwilling to apply, you can apply for an EHCP for your child by yourself.  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.

Choosing a school for SEN – work with them!

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!  Assuming you do not work in the school, keep yourself up well to date on all trips and special events planned. Ask the school in advance how they plan to include your child.

Choosing a school – insider knowledge!

My son also attended this primary school and my youngest daughter is about to enter Reception there.  It has always been an outstanding school according to Ofsted (the UK’s school’s regulator), and is heavily oversubscribed. I worked as a class teacher at the Junior School there for ten years, so know many of the staff and families well. It is always good to get insider information, talk to teachers and families that know the school well.

Choosing a school for SEN – wait for it!

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 need to appeal, prepare well!

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. His sister had a Statement (EHCP) and we could choose any school we wanted for her.

Choosing a school for SEN – take your time!

My main advice for all parents searching for a school for their child is to start looking long in advance. I would also take all Ofsted reports with a big pinch of salt.  Right now, I am working in a ‘Requires Improvement’ school. It has the best Special Educational Needs (SEN) offer I have ever come across.  Working in outstanding schools means that the staff can feel pressured to remain outstanding. It can make for a very unhappy team.

ALWAYS speak to the SENCO

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 with your child!

Visit as many as possible and when you have narrowed it down to a few visit again with your child. 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.

About Kate O’Riordan

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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  1. This is a great post. We have been searching high and low for a school for six months now. I have also looked at several different primary school websites and visited a number of local primary schools as well. I read many inspection reports and chatted to a few parents.
    I even emailed the headmistress or headmaster of the school too with some of my questions. Once I arrived at the school, I asked to see everything including the classrooms, private staff offices and bathrooms. On the second visit, I took my children with me to see if they would do well there or not. I made sure to ask them a lot of questions about school events, exam results, lessons, homework, British values, and policies. I also prepared a few questions on school clubs, and meals too.