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So how do you choose a secondary school if your child has additional needs? Some conclusions....

In my first post on this I looked at the discrepancy in the number of students with additional needs between secondary schools and the possible reasons for that. In my second post I considered the SEND register and the inherent unreliability of the SEND figures.

So, given the issues raised in my earlier posts how do you choose a secondary school for your child? There are various support websites for parents/carers of children with SEND - for example SEN Help , specialist charities... Each local authority publishes its local offer for children with SEND, which can have varying degrees of usefulness - Lancashire's is here.

Of course I am assuming that you have a choice! In many areas no such choice realistically exists and therefore this post is better read as a list of the qualities that you should push for in your local school.

Firstly, you won't find a perfect school for your child. All schools have their faults and all schools will make mistakes. Primarily you want your child's school to work with you, listen to you and take your concerns seriously. You definitely won't agree with all the decisions that they make - they are balancing the needs of your child with the needs of several hundred others and the wider school community - but you need to know that they will listen and collaborate.

All schools talk about meeting individual needs and all schools talk about "standards" and conforming to school rules and policies. They talk a lot about expectations. None of that is wrong, but you need your child's school to acknowledge that these ideas are often in conflict! How flexible are the behaviour rules, uniform policies etc... when considering the individual needs of your child? It is a complex area for a school to get right, because "preference" is not the same thing as "need". My general line (as a headteacher) was that if I couldn't explain why we had a particular rule then we shouldn't have it and, if a particular child needed that rule amending because of their needs (identified by professionals and family) then, as long as it did not endanger the child or others we should do our best to accommodate that amendment. Simple things would include amending uniform rules because of identified sensory needs, allowing children to move between lessons slightly early to avoid crowded corridors etc... That is not the same thing as the child deciding one day that they don't like PE so they aren't going or that they aren't going to wear school uniform because they don't like it - these decisions are taken based on need. So find a school that will work with you on reasonable adjustments - co-production is the technical term. I cannot emphasise enough how important the sense of collaboration between school and family is in ensuring that the child thrives.

All schools have behaviour policies. Some schools adopt "zero-tolerance" - find out what that means for your child. It is absolutely fine to have zero tolerance of violence and bullying, but a child who needs to fidget and move around is not going to thrive in a classroom where absolute silence and immobility is expected for large parts of the lesson. What is the school "zero-tolerant" of?

The phrase "every teacher is a teacher of SEND" is worth trying out on your selected school. Of course it can be easily said and not implemented, but if the school has a whole staff approach to SEND provision and sees children with SEND as children rather than as someone else's responsibility then that is a good sign. We all have needs; every child has individual barriers to learning from various causes, some more obvious than others, and the adults in the room need to value each child equally.

Communication can often be a nightmare. If you are concerned about something are there clear paths of communication - who do you talk to? Sending multiple emails to the SENCO, general school email address, tutor, Head of Year etc.... is very hard for a school to deal with and causes parents a lot of stress - so the question is, if you have concerns, who do you talk to? Where children have significant needs a single point of contact is essential because you may need to be in contact on a very frequent basis. Who that person is matters less than the consistency of communication.

In the end it comes down to ethos. That is a tricky thing to assess, but read the information on the school, listen to the headteacher and other staff and listen to what other families say. Sometimes school have externally assessed "badges" - for example the Inclusion Quality Mark - which indicate their commitment to meeting individual needs as far as they can. What are the school's core values and how are they lived out? If the message is about valuing the individual child then that is a really good start! If it is all about conformity and standards then, please hear me clearly, those things are necessary when running a large school community, but the questions are about how the school will work with you and how flexible they will be to ensure that your child thrives.

Good luck! Get in touch if you need help.

James Harris

I am, as always, happy to discuss these matters with anyone and to help parents and carers navigate the secondary school system Please see, email or message 07767142877.

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