How to select the best post-primary school for a child with SEN
In my opinion...
Choosing the right post-primary school for your son/daughter can be a challenging prospect, and this is more significant for parents of children with special educational needs (SEN). While you want a school that excels and brings the best out of your child, you also want them to belong and feel part of the school community. For some parents, whose children may have complex needs, it is necessary to weigh up the option of attending a special school as distinct from a mainstream setting.
A parent must be satisfied that the educational environment in which their son/daughter is placed should enable them to prosper, provide them with every opportunity to learn and fulfil their potential, and allow them to feel comfortable being different. While academic achievement and the quality of teaching and learning is important, you should seek a school where all aspects of development are considered, as needs change over time. The range of supports offered in Irish schools means that most students with SEN can be enrolled and well supported in their local school.
Recent research showed that of approximately 58,000 children making the move from primary schools each year, in excess of 1,500 are only progressing as far as first or second year before dropping out of education. In order to promote social inclusion and combat educational disadvantage, a better understanding is required about factors that have an impact on students' experiences at school where transitioning students seem to be most concerned about bullying, new subjects, new teachers and the new environment.
It is important to consider a school's physical and social environment, as an effective school contributes to your child's development and general well-being. School access for students with a physical or sensory disability is important and a school in the local community where your child knows other children of a similar age helps reduce the feeling of isolation.
Be wary of school league tables as they are blunt instruments and can be very misleading. School inspection reports - available online on the Department of Education and Skills website, see education.ie - can be a lot more informative. They give a detailed overview of the school including school management and leadership and the quality of teaching and learning.
Most schools have an open-door policy allowing visits by prospective students and parents prior to enrolment, and an open night provides one of the best opportunities to do some investigative work. Look at what the school can offer from both an academic and social perspective and speak to the students. Visit the classrooms and the special needs department and enquire about the resources on offer for students with SEN. Schools offer different systems of withdrawal and resource and this can vary from individual withdrawals to small groups of students who are timetabled for resource as a result of exemptions from Irish. These classes are provided to improve students' literacy and numeracy and address areas of weakness such as spelling and comprehension.
Ask questions! Teachers in effective schools tend to have positive expectations of the students and this should become evident through conversing with them. Teachers' attitudes are important to the successful integration and inclusion of students and positive attitudes will enhance the transition process. Ensure that the school is proactive with bullying as research cites that 50pc of students receiving special education services experienced bullying, compared to 20pc-30pc of students in general education. It is also important to bear in mind that the most effective school for someone else's child may not be a good fit for yours.
Points to consider when choosing a school for a child with SEN include: is a mainstream setting the best environment for my child?; Do I have all the necessary information, including reports for the new school so that they can put resources/structures in place?; Do I understand what the professional reports are saying about my child? - if not, seek professional advice from those who have assessed your child, e.g. a psychologist; Will members of the school SEN team meet with the primary school teacher to get an overview of my child's needs?; Have the necessary assessments taken place?; Will a review of my child's progress occur regularly?
Tom Foley is a post-primary teacher and PhD candidate at UCC. This article is based on research carried out as part of his MEd and recently published in the 'International Journal of Special Education'