Finding the right school for your autistic child (UK)
Not a whole lot of positivity in this blog that takes roughly 10 mins to read but, I do hope to shed some light, spew forth good advice (largely learned in hindsight) & hopefully help speed up a few processes here & there with some useful tips?! If all else fails, you will come away at least knowing you are not alone in your pain, suffering & frustration. And that possibly, there is hope.
Taking things from the point of having received the holy grail of documents that being the EHCP (Education, Health & Care Plan) here. This document in itself requiring the equivalent of a 2yr + crusade of deep concern, paperwork mountains & exasperating to-ing & fro-ing with & waiting for your LA (local authority) /council SEN Dept.
To now be faced with either a choice of local schools on a state provisions only list or, your child already in mainstream with some form of agreed support or, in a unit attached to or, a specialist provision where none of them seem right or are going well for the child, and you need to change schools. Help!
Tip 1. Please know that whatever age, your autistic child is highly likely to change schools, more than once, in fact more than twice probably, up to the age of 17/18. It’s ok.
Finding the right school for your special needs child is so incredibly difficult. They change as they grow up, their needs change, the schools often change from one Ofsted or head of to the next, there are different school types & that’s without the other life factors of family, jobs, home, location, siblings, additional diagnosis’s, social fit etc.
Tip 2. Try to stay on the very best of terms with your child’s current school, no matter how much you feel they are failing your child or not helping. It’s a bit like standing at immigration, you need to be extremely polite & well mannered, always.
You also need to be resilient & persistent & keep very good, regular, open & honest communication channels. From class teacher to any specialists (OT’s, SlT’s) working with your child, to SENCO to school head. Use your annual reviews to make sure you all agree, it will make an enormous difference if the current school is in support of the change.
The current school may not want this change for two reasons:
A. They lose their funding for your child unless another pupil is waiting for a space. Or lose the funding they were not spending on your child but elsewhere on the school...!
B. they need to admit they are not meeting your child’s needs & they don’t like admitting this one for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with your actual child. It might be easier if you go from the angle of our child’s needs cannot be provided for (met) by this school…see what I’m saying?
No-one is better equipped to find the right school than you the parent/carer & you can find it, it just takes guts & grit & determination & masses of patience & self belief (& possibly professional help that will mean financial sacrifices - it will be worth it). Oh, and maybe moving house also! It may mean your child not being in the right school first & for quite a while in order to get to where you want them to be. It just is what it is I’m afraid.
Tip 3. The actual process of changing schools other than from end of primary to secondary can take literally years, I’m deadly serious. If you have a hunch/gut feel all is not well get planning & book school visits way, way in advance or certainly ASAP. Some of them have 4 month waiting lists just for a visit!
Use the state provision/schools list from your LA; ask the specialist teachers/learning support departments; ask other parents/carers; Google “The Good Schools Guide - Special Educational Needs” & cover/visit different types of designations from independent/private mainstream schools to autism units attached to mainstreams to ‘severe & profound’ schools to autism specialist ones. Visit them all & get a good solid understanding of how each school operates & what your gut feel says.
Tip 4. Do not dismiss/judge certain types of school eg ‘severe & profound’ provisions. They are all so different & can have a huge range of funding, facilities, staff, pupils & learning approaches.
Book your school visits as far afield as you dare (within a 90min drive). Know that your LA’s aim will be to put your child in any one of the schools on their state list that has spaces & is nearest your home whether it’s the right school or not (you may need to prove why it is not ie identify your child’s needs in the right EHCP sections that cannot be met by the school they are offering/suggesting).
As a parent you have the right to name your preferred choice of school & your LA has to approach that school & the school has to consider it. If it’s an out of county; private; independent; specialist; residential ANY type school that is not on the LA’s list you will again need to prove that this school is the only school that can meet your child’s needs. You will not pay any fees & can have transport to/from chosen school provided for your child also.
Tip 5. When you have found the school you want your journey has only just begun. Match everything that this school offers in terms of meeting your child’s needs to their EHCP (typically only done at annual review & key stage changes so timing is key).
The UK Government’s aim, in total non academic Mum speak here, is to provide every single child in this country with an education & to see each & every child in the best possible light so that they reach their fullest academic potential ie get the best/highest level of education out of them because basically they are the future taxpayers!
When you look at other countries especially for children with learning disabilities, the UK really is quite amazing, we are lucky, there are many, many different highly specialist schools to help your child that the Govt will & does pay for.
On the downside it is important to understand that this translates as your LA placing your child in the most optimistic ie closest to mainstream option possible & only when your child is not able to reach National Curriculum levels & then the lower P-Scales equivalents for their age group do they consider specialist support/schools. It means you will be spending an awful lot of time handwriting all the things your child cannot do & proving how bad they are. It can be soul destroying & have a huge emotional impact.
How much money the Govt provides councils & more importantly what those councils choose to spend that money on is a whole other unaccountable for kettle of fish & the reality is a stretched, inundated, outdated, inefficient, swamped system with very poor quality staff/employees that will make your life very frustrating indeed.
Tip 6. Private independent specialist reports eg Educational Psychologist (Ed Psych); Speech & Language Therapist (SlT); Occupational Therapist (OT) etc. could prove to be extremely beneficial.
The difference in quality of these independent reports is massive. They will back-up the EHCP & also provide you with the most accurate, detailed & current assessment of your child’s needs so that you can make sure your choice of school can provide/meet those needs. Eg “Child requires 1:1 OT therapy sessions with senior specialist for 30mins three times a week”.
It’s going to be ok. Don’t let others judgements affect you. Know yourself, your coping abilities, your families needs & your own needs, not just education but as a family caring for their child/sibling. The Social Care part of the EHCP is vitally important, funded separately to Education, & can include things like the impact on sibling & parent relationships also. Did you know there is such a thing as an independent Social Care assessment? There is!
Tip 7. Paying for a SEN lawyer re a tribunal is also highly advised.
They take everything off your hands, are experts in the EHCP section wording (it is a legally binding document after all) & are so experienced in dealing with judges, the LA, independent specialists & schools.
I have yet to hear of anyone who had a positive outcome from a mediation process. You can waive it & go straight to tribunal. It will save precious time. Do not be afraid, many cases don’t get that far ie the LA caves in before reaching tribunal date (because it costs them a lot of money to turn up to a tribunal also).
The sad reality in todays world is that the ‘panels of experts’ in the SEN departments do not have your child’s best interests at heart. They are not interested in your child at all. I swear they get a directive from the head honchos that basically instructs them to decline/say no to every application/request until they give up or fight even harder again & again & eventually, threaten tribunal.
Their decisions are almost entirely budget based & they will do anything to pass a cost on to another department also. If you believe your child is in the wrong school you must fight & fight & fight. Never give up. If they tell you your child does not need xyz school or xyz support, you do not have to believe them, know what you believe is right for child & stick to it.
Tip 8. Claim every single benefit available to you & your child! I mean it, it’s one of the biggest mistakes we made. For example, DLA (disability living allowance); Carers Allowance; Young Carers Allowance; Social Worker (eg for Direct Payments towards help at home in the holidays).
It is NOT about the money & whether or not you can afford not to claim it or feel it’s best left for those in real financial need. By claiming the benefits you are entitled to it ticks those all important boxes in terms of your child’s NEEDS in the SEN Govt/local departments who, when it comes to changing schools (esp when you want more specialist), will look at the paperwork & wonder why parents are seeking a specialist school when their child has no social worker for instance or they do not claim for xyz allowance meaning their child doesn’t meet the need for specialist education. It’s crazy, I know.
If it feels wrong or you feel guilty, put the money in a savings account for your child for their future or use it to pay for independent specialist reports/tribunal etc.
Tip 9. Look at the www.gov.uk website or your LA website for detailed instructions on the entire EHCP process all the way through to tribunal, in easy-to-understand language that just takes time to concentrate on & absorb, and errr, sometimes re-read.
There are often websites/groups advertised there too that offer free advice, they are excellent. Know also that if the statutory time frame for the LA to respond to or make a decision on says for example, 20 weeks, it will take exactly 20 weeks, no sooner. And 20 weeks is what like 5 months!!!
Tip 10. The LA/School/Parent communication is a triangle! Not great. It’s also broken in my opinion, ah-hem. You will need to be a constant, vigilant & polite go-between.
As soon as one document heads off to say a school, you can phone every other day to chase it. Otherwise it sits on desks underneath a pile of others. They might tell you it’s with the LA & you again need to step in & now phone the LA to chase it. On & on & on, literally every other day, super polite & well mannered but, also super persistent. Can’t get school SENCO or whoever to return calls or respond to emails? Go & sit in the reception & say you’ll wait for them. If it’s the LA, call & find out who the line manager is & copy them in on the next email, & again 2 days later, & again. You’ll get there, you will.
I need a drink just reading this through! Go & get a drink gin/coffee/beer/tea/vat of wine & breathe. Preferably stand barefoot on the earth (grass) for a few minutes every day too, it helps restore you, I swear. You are not alone.