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Former teacher and school leader, and Education Advisers consultant Sioban O’Connor outlines the provision in the UK for children with Special Educational Needs 

 MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT which school is right for your child is difficult at the best of times, so how do you know where to start if your child needs extra support? Some children and young people require more help to learn and develop than others of the same age. In this case they may be classed as having Special Educational Needs (SEN), and are entitled to get extra support. This could include anything from more accessible information to one-to-one support at school or college. For all conscientious parents, irrespective of nationality, providing your child with the best education is undoubtedly a priority, but for a SEN child this can be a difficult road to navigate. This is especially true when you are moving to a new country and when that country’s approach to education is very different to your own. 

Government figures suggest that there are 1.25 million children in this country with some kind of recognised Special Educational Need. This is roughly 14 per cent of all school aged children, and these needs range from Moderate, Specific or Severe Learning difficulties, to Social, Emotional and Mental Health issues, Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Physical disabilities. The range is vast and complex, and very often a child may have a combination of needs that do not sit easily under one type of difficulty or disability. 

State maintained schools in the UK are required to provide appropriate support for SEN children. The requirements for a child’s provision are set out in what is known as an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), and the state, in the form of the Local Education Authority (LEA), is legally obliged to ensure that the child’s educational needs are met.  However, provision in the state sector can be patchy and sometimes parents become extremely frustrated by the length of time it takes to get their child assessed. Even when a child has an EHCP, parents may find their local school is simply ill-equipped to provide the specialist support needed, in which case the LEA may be obliged to subcontract the SEN provision to an independent (fee-paying) school.  However, with fees sometimes starting at £60k per annum, LEAs can often be reluctant to allocate the funds for one case and this can lead to lengthy disputes and delays.  

Whilst foreign residents can apply for a place in a UK state school for their children, the application process has more constraints than when applying to a private school, and in particular you must live in the target school’s catchment area in the first instance.  In London, the better state schools are understandably oversubscribed which can exacerbate the problem of finding a school with the level of learning support compatible with your child’s needs. It is therefore far easier to look to the independent sector, where provision is more widespread and available. 

Should you need to start looking for your own child, it might be helpful to understand what is available in terms of school provision.  Essentially there are two options:  

(1)  a mainstream school with additional learning support, overseen by a SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator),  


(2)  a specialist SEN school which caters for children with specific learning and support needs  

It is very common for us to be asked by parents to try to find mainstream school places because they are afraid of what they perceive as the stigma of their child being at a specialist school. However, in our experience, this is really not the case and it is far better to approach the search for a school with an open mind. We invariably find SEN schools are immensely happy places that achieve great things for their pupils. At Education Advisers, we usually start from the principle of showing both types of school to parents so that they can make an informed choice. 

When considering a mainstream school, you need to be sure it offers the right kind of support and is not an academic hothouse. A mainstream school is usually suitable for children with mild dyslexia, dyscalculia, Asperger’s and other high functioning Autistic Spectrum disorders. Parents should be aware, however, that if the school is selective in terms of its admissions, which most London senior schools are, some children may find it difficult to pass the entrance tests.   

Inevitably, all special provision involves some kind of extra expense, which can range from the cost of extra equipment and resources such as pens, paper, and specially printed text books, to ICT and bespoke therapies and other individualised support.  Many schools struggle to support children with multiple or complex needs. In the state sector, large class sizes and constant budget constraints mean that individual targeted support is limited. In the independent sector, the pressure for schools to perform well in addition to the limitations in respect of building regulations mean that children with physical disabilities may well struggle to access all areas and therefore be disadvantaged in relation to their able-bodied peers.  

On a more positive note, there are a number of consortia working hard to improve the provision for SEN children in the private sector. Groups such as Cavendish Education, for example, have a range of schools in their portfolio which cater for a variety of educational challenges from Speech and Language issues to dyslexia, dyspraxia and ASD.    

It is important to be aware that mainstream schools often struggle to cater for a child with severe behavioural problems, which is sometimes the case with ADHD. When advising on choice of such a school we particularly look at the child’s age, the severity of the SEN condition and the facilities of any prospective school, including the curriculum on offer. It is often the case that as the SEN child progresses through senior school, their ability to access the curriculum falters and some SEN children are more suited to vocational courses such as BTECs. Schools such as Bredon in Gloucestershire offer a wide-ranging curriculum, with specialist teaching and a variety of technologies to support learning, and alongside the traditional academic subjects there is a strong focus on practical and hands-on learning. 

Education Advisers Ltd has a wealth of experience in the SEN sector and publishes the website www.best-sen-schools.co.uk that lists all specialist SEN schools in the UK.  We welcome enquiries from any parent with a SEN child on T: 01622 813870. 


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