Part 2: Special Educational Needs when selecting a school
When it comes to Special Educational Needs (SEN), the more thorough the research the better. Rather than just asking one person – usually the Head - about provision for children with specific needs, ask a variety of staff in different roles. They should not be surprised as a good school will have teachers who are all aware of individual learning needs and who aim to accommodate these needs as much as possible in every one of their lessons. By asking a handful of detailed questions to a cross-section of staff, and even students, the importance of SEN within a school will soon become clear. We wary of a school that says none of their students have special educational needs.
Do ask if there is help readily available, a specialist to hand to assess and address difficulties and, in the independent sector, whether there are fees attached to extra classes. The time frame from a child entering the school to a child being reviewed and eventually receiving help is important to understand. If the process takes longer than might be expected or desired, question the reason: is the system thorough and well thought out or disorganised and slightly chaotic?
For more able children, enquire about differentiation in class and whether there is enough scope to extend and broaden the minds of the gifted and talented. Is there a risk of a child getting bored or treading water because they are not being stretched? Does the school address this or is it up to parents? Ask about setting within year groups and whether this is subject dependant or common practice across the board. Some schools may be proud of their mixed ability classes, in which case, ask how they differentiate within the lesson and how avoid frustrations at children either at the upper or lower end of the spectrum.
This need to go outside the lines of the syllabus can come in a more specific form with bilingual children. Schools will have different approaches, usually tailored to the individual. For example, a bilingual French child might have near perfect listening and reading comprehension and oral ability but still need support with written work. Some will organise a weekly instrument lesson in place of one French class. If available, others might have time to stretch their language use with a French assistant during all or part of one French lesson. There maybe a suggestion for extended reading and writing a book review in French on completion of a text.
Linguistically, there is also often a percentage of children in need of support with English as an additional language (EAL). Ask what this percentage is in the school and, if relevant, enquire further about whether there is a fee for EAL lessons and whether these would be group or individual sessions. It might be worth asking if any system is in place to help EAL children to integrate smoothly and, of course, ask for examples of how this would work in practice.
There is no harm is asking specifically about awareness to differing learning styles and whether teachers are happy to venture away from the status quo in order to accommodate a child’s needs.
If one person does not answer all of the questions, ask another person and persist until the picture is clear. No school will be perfect but, when looking for as close a match as possible for a child, the detail is crucial.