Choosing a primary school can be a worry for parents – after all, it’s often a child’s first steps into formal education and the pressure to ‘get it right’ can be overwhelming.
What happens then if your child has special educational needs? What questions should you be asking of schools and would independent education be a better choice if you can afford the fees?
This week, one parent whose son has a severe visual disability, wonders what route she should take.
Here the experts offer their views. Get in touch with your own education question and see it featured on Telegraph Education (details below).
Question: Will private or state schools better cater to our son’s vision disability?
Our son has quite a severe visual disability which leaves him with very limited vision. He gets around OK but will need large print books and won’t be able to participate in ball or contact sports.
He will start school in September and he’s got into two very good independent schools both of whom are fully aware of his problems. We chose the one with the largest number of SENCO staff. The commute will be approx 30 mins door-to-door by public transport.
The local state schools are generally ‘good’ and walking distance from our house. There are many families nearby.
Our son is very bright and it looks like he’ll do very well academically, something the independent schools picked up on during the assessments.
We are very conscious of wanting to build up his confidence and give him the best possible start in life. Having a network to rely on will also be important for him. Having said that, state schools will get additional funding to spend on him.
Our finances would be stretched but we could probably make it work, just about. Which system is likely to cater better to his needs?
Susan Hamlyn: Your son could benefit from the security and confidence of being at a local school
When one has a child with a significant “difference” – something that marks him or her out from the crowd – this could be a rare talent, a disability or something exceptional in his background – it can be hard for loving parents not to define the child by this “difference” and let it limit their view of him and make decisions on his behalf from the point of view of this one feature.
You clearly have a bright lad. He will grow up with this disability and will not, presumably, ever have known himself without it.
You are fortunate in having good state schools within walking distance of home and, with this physical problem, he should get into the local school of your choice without difficulty.
The school will have – as you note – funds to support him. However, this money is not ring-fenced and you cannot be certain it will all be spent on your son. On the other hand, independent schools might well charge extra for additional support. In each case, you need to ask careful questions about the provision they will make for him and, for example, what he will do during games lessons.
“The money you would save by not paying independent school fees would enable you to supplement any shortcomings with extra tutorial.” Susan Hamlyn
The money you would save by not paying independent school fees would enable you to supplement any shortcomings with extra tutorial or specialist support at home. Your son’s friends will be local and they will know him and accept him as he is – as he will them. When he is older he will, perhaps, be able to find his own way to his friends’ homes as they will be close by.
Since he is clearly an able boy, he could apply to academically selective, independent, schools at 11 or 13 by which time he may well be able to use Braille type or dictation if need be.
He would, therefore, be able to benefit from the security and confidence that being at a local community school will bring in his early years and spread his wings into a more challenging academic environment later on if that is what you and he want and if that seems likelier to be found in an independent school. And he will still have his local friends round about.
Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide Advice Service
Vivienne Durham: Seek assurance from the state school on what funding might be available
Firstly, huge congratulations on your son’s success. The offer of a place from a good local state school plus offers from two independent schools is a fantastic achievement. Your son’s success is all the greater, given his specific learning requirements. The current educational provision for pupils with severe visual disability is better than ever, in most UK schools.
In my experience, almost every school will be keen to support your son, in any way possible. There are several questions you might want to ask all three schools, prior to making your final decision, regardless of the funding available, the numbers of SENCO staff, maintained or independent.
Firstly, has the school successfully supported pupils with a severe visual disability before? If so, how was this achieved?
Do request a meeting with your preferred school (ideally a meeting with the Head or Deputy Head) to ask exactly how the school could support your son on a daily basis.
“Do request a meeting with your preferred school (ideally a meeting with the head or deputy head) to ask exactly how the school could support your son on a daily basis.” Vivienne Durham
Beyond SENCO provision or any funding allocated, what adjustments to the normal teaching and learning provision will the school make for your son? How will teachers ensure your son’s academic potential is fully supported? What suitable sports will be offered to him? What extra-curricular clubs and activities will he be able to join? Will all school trips be available to him?
In terms of funding, I would seek assurance from the state school on what funding might be available and how it could be used to support your son.
One final thought: it might be worth contacting your local educational authority – and even your MP – to ask whether funding could be made available to your son at an independent school.
In exceptional circumstances, a few local authorities have authorised this, especially when a pupil was already in receipt of funding at his /her local state primary school. The low pupil: teacher ratio in independent schools is likely to make a very positive impact on all aspects of your son’s future education – an important consideration.
I wish all my luck to your son and I hope he flourishes in whichever school you choose for September.
Vivienne Durham, schools advisory director at Enjoy Education and former head at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park