Choosing a secondary school for your child with an acquired brain injury
Caroline Klage heads up the Child Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp and is also a SEN (Special Educational Needs) advisor. She is the mother of three children, two of whom have Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia. She is passionate about helping her clients to flourish and enjoy life. Caroline assists the parents of her brain injured clients to secure EHC (Education and Health Care) Plans for their children, ensuring they receive the support they need to fulfil their potential at school.
Choosing a secondary school for any child can be a daunting prospect. It is even more so for children and parents of children with an acquired brain injury (ABI). Secondary schools can present so many challenges. Picture how a child with ABI might struggle to cope with:
- Too many children in close proximity to them
- Too noisy an environment
- The harsh sounding of a klaxon
- Buildings that are hard to negotiate, particularly in schools housed in older buildings which may have been extended and added to over the years
- The organisational nightmare of having to move to different classrooms with different teachers and possibly different children for each lesson
- The multi-tasking demands of break times, during which you have a short period to go to the toilet, have a drink and snack and then visit your locker to put away any equipment and materials used in your last lesson and collect the appropriate bits and bobs for your next lesson
- Changes in routine with no warning ie the sudden appearance of a supply teacher without warning because a subject teacher is absent.
Having a learning support assistant following you around and helping you with this stuff is just not a good look and immediately screams that you are “different” which will make it even harder for you to fit in alongside your peers at what is a socially vulnerable time for any child.
Finding the right school
So how can you ensure you find the right school for your child? Somewhere where their subtle needs will be understood and met sensitively and discreetly, where lessons, lesson materials and the curriculum will be appropriately differentiated for your child and where they will be supported not only in academic work but also in their social interactions with their peers and teachers?
Being realistic, it is unlikely that any one school will neatly tick all the boxes. However, it is worth keeping an open mind. Visit a number of schools and compare them on how they rate on the factors I have listed below. Also, try not to rule out schools which may not have the best reputations without having visited them first. You might be pleasantly surprised. A useful way of assessing a school’s quality of teaching is how much relative progress children at that school have made year on year. Many parents focus on just last year’s exam results, which may simply represent the achievements of a certain cohort in that year.
To get the best feel for how a school operates, try to arrange a visit with the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) on a typical school day and observe lessons and school life as they happen daily.
Factors on which to rate a school
Factors on which to rate each school you visit are:
- Class size
- How many other children are at the school with ABI or similar diagnoses to those of your child and what is the ratio of neurotypical children to children with special educational needs (SEN)?
- Have many of the school staff have specialist training and if so, what training and how recently was this provided?
- What access does the school have to specialist advisory teachers and therapists, who are they and how often do they come in?
- Are any small groups organised for children with SEN? If so, what type of small groups, how are they organised and how often do they meet?
- The environment – does the building echo, is it easy to navigate, what are the areas for recreation like, what is the main entrance like, is there a quieter side entrance your child could use to avoid hustle and bustle, how are lesson times heralded and if by klaxon, how can this be managed to cause minimal upset to your child?
- What lunch-time and after- school clubs are available? Would they be accessible to your child and if not, what adjustments could be made to make them accessible?
- Does the school have a specialist unit and if so, what therapeutic provision is provided and what arrangements are there for ensuring inclusion with mainstream pupils?
- What IT equipment does the school make available for children with SEN? Are touch typing programmes offered where appropriate?
- Can your child have the benefit of a scribe if this would help them?
- Enquire as to how learning support assistants are used. Are they used to increase independence (rather than reduce it)?
- How are life skills and independence developed?
- What experience does the school have of arranging extra support for children with SEN in examinations ie extra time, use of laptops, use of a prompt, use of a scribe, use of a quiet room? The approach to exam access can be a good indicator of how experienced a school is in supporting children with SEN. If they do nothing, or say it is too early to discuss this, then this shows a lack of experience
- What is the school’s anti-bullying policy?
- How approachable and experienced is the SENCo? What lines of communication can you have with her and with your child’s teachers? What lines of communication are set up to enable the SENCo to convey information about your child and their needs to their various teachers and to resolve any issues that may arise ie if your child is wrongly reprimanded by a teacher who does not fully understand the impact of ABI on your child, how might this be handled?
The benefits of having an EHC Plan
Do bear in mind that special schools or specialist provision within a mainstream school cannot be accessed unless your child has an Education and Health Care Plan, so without one, your choices could be limited. Also, places in mainsteam schools will usually be allocated first to children with EHC Plans. Therefore, if your child has an ABI but no EHC Plan, it would be advisable to seek advice on applying for an EHC Plan to widen your child’s options and give them the very best chance of securing a place in a school that is able to meet their needs and support them in fulfilling their potential.