Your child has a diagnosis and an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in place clearly setting out all their educational, behavioural, emotional, social, sensory and physical needs. The EHCP may already indicate that these needs can only be met in a special school, or as parents you may be fighting for a school of your choice.
An independent (day or residential) special school will offer specialist knowledge of related disabilities or disorders, high staff to pupil ratios, small classes, and a waking day curriculum. However your Local Authority may well suggest a school that you feel cannot meet your child's needs or they may leave it up to you to find a school. Your LA should have a list of mainstream special schools and some independent special schools that you can approach, a parent can also look at schools 'out of county' if nothing is available locally.
A residential school could be an option which may benefit the whole family - your child would be with specialists who fully understand their condition/s; they would learn strategies to self regulate their behaviours; have a peer group with similar behaviours/interests/anxieties to their own who would understand them. Other children in your home would be able to concentrate on their own life/school/college work without worrying about their sibling's behaviours and as a parent you would get time to concentrate on things other than your child's conditions.
When your child returns home for a weekend or school holidays, you will probably notice that they are able to better manage their behaviours and family relationships. Sending a child to a residential school can be a hard decision to make but the benefits can be huge for everyone concerned.
Visit the Schools
Your LA will expect you to have visited several schools to be able to make a fair comparison and argue your case. Most schools will welcome informal visits from parents; many will set aside a day a term for just such 'inspection' visits, so phone them to check when the next day is planned. These visits are best done by the parents alone, not accompanied by the child, who may get very confused visiting several schools in different parts of the area.
What to look for:
Try to visit schools during a normal school day. Don't just look at the 'hotel' aspects, the beautifully elegant Edwardian townhouse, the large country manor, the indoor swimming pool, etc. The standard of such facilities is obviously important, but there are other important things you should check: aim to visit for 1.5 to 2 hours, especially if you are looking at a residential placement and ask to see part of lessons and unstructured times.
While walking around, ask yourself the following questions, make notes or ask someone at the school:
• Was the person delegated to show you around knowledgeable about every aspect of school life? Did they answer your questions helpfully? Were they friendly, and giving you the impression that they were giving you the time expected as a prospective parents of a student?
• Were there any locked up areas you could not visit? If so, why?
• Is the site secure if your child has no sense of danger or is prone to running away?
• Were you encouraged to talk to staff and students? Were you offered opportunities to do so?
• Are Ofsted Education (and Care, if residential) Report available for you to see?
• Many schools may list your child's disorder under their 'special needs' provision - but will they be addressing the issues, and striving to lessen the problems your child has experienced in other schools? If not, they may just be 'containing', not 're-educating' and modifying behaviours.
• Does the school have specialist services and consultants? Do they have their own speech therapists, occupational therapists, nurses etc. and are there regular visits by doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists etc?
• Does the school encourage visits from parents, referring agencies and other professionals?
• How are parents involved and kept informed about their child?
• How does it monitor its own standards?
• Is there a Complaints Procedure for students and parents to use?
• Is there a Risk Assessment policy for all activities which students might be asked to do?
• Ask to see a copy of the Behaviour Policy.
• Are restraints used - if so how and when? What official training have staff undertaken?
• If your child needs any special domestic arrangements - such as a special diet, bedding, etc. would the school be able to respond happily to these individual needs?
• Are there always qualified first-aiders on site at all times?
• Does the school keep an accident book for any incident, no matter how small?
• Who runs the school: is there a Board of Governors? If not, who are the Headteachers/Principals answerable to?
Staff and students:
• Did they seem happy? Do you see them smiling and laughing?
• Did you feel there was a rapport between staff and pupils?
• Is there a suitable peer group for your child?
• You need a lot of commitment and enthusiasm to work in special education - is this evident amongst the staff?
• Does the care and concern for the well-being of their students come across?
• Does the school - and all the staff that your child may be involved with - have an in-depth knowledge about their particular learning disability and the problems which challenge them?
• What training do the staff undertake? Are staff encouraged to request further training if they feel this is necessary?
• What is the staff to student ratio?
• Is there an Independent Person that any student can talk to confidentially if they have a problem?
• How many children per class?
• How many adults (teachers plus assistants) in each class?
• Are the rooms colourful and pleasing to the eye?
• Or are they calming and low arousal if your child is hyper-sensitive?
• Are they noisy? Too busy?
• Is there a quiet place?
• Is there an 'escape' area in the classroom, or very close by, for a student needing a brief 'time-out'?
• Are there activity areas?
• Do they offer differentiated learning and individual plans?
• Do the pupils have their own work-bays and visual timetables?
• Is there a communal table for group work?
• Are there computers and other IT equipment that your child can easily access to support their learning?
• Does it look as if learning is fun?
• Are books easily accessible? Are they developmentally appropriate?
• What are the standard procedures if, for example, a child needs the lavatory? Has a minor accident? Gets over-wrought and rushes out of the classroom?
• Do they look 'homely' - is there 'normality' - posters, family photos, electronics?
• Do they look clean?
• Are they tidy? Most teenagers woud not see a bedroom as a number one priority, but if you see an unmade bed at three o' clock in the afternoon, ask why. There may be a very valid reason - an individual development place required the bed's owner to air and make the bed themselves; the student may have been poorly, etc.
• Is there single occupany bedrooms and en suite facilities?
• Many independent schools are in large country houses: what is access like? Will you be able to visit regularly? Will your child feel isolated? Are there community facilities nearby that the students can use?
• What do they offer at weekends?
• Do they have a 'waking day' curriculum?
• Is there a separate television lounge?
• What rules are there on time spent in front of the television; internet access, etc?
• Is there free time when they can be themselves, e.g. if diagnosed with ASD can they hand flap, follow special interests, etc?
• What level of contact is there with the 'outside world'?
• How is home contact maintained and how often?
• Do students go to local youth clubs, the cinema, local shops, sports centres? Activities should be kept at a normal family level - if they are too high, your child may have excessive expecations when they come home.
• Even though it's a residential school, a daily 'head count' should still be seen as necessary. How is this carried out and monitored?
• Are there staff on duty each night? Where are they located? Are they waking night staff or do they sleep?
• Check the menus - go to the kitchen if you can.
• What sort of training is given on independent living skills?
• Are older students taught to budget, shop, cook, wash, iron, mix and socialise with the wider community? What other skills, appropriate for your child's level of abilities are taught? For example, how to fill in forms? What they can expect to find at the post office, libraries, council offices and other community resources, etc?
• Do they have a work experience initiative? Is this carefully monitored and risk assessed?
Don't ignore intuitive thoughts - if everything looks wonderful, but you just don't feel that the school is right for your child then listen to your instincts. Remember, people can thrive in the most outlandish of places and unkempt of homes: genuine affection, enthusiasm, patience, concern and knowledgeable understanding from staff rate far higher.
For more information or advice, contact us here, or call 0161 507 3723.