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Choosing a school for your child can be a difficult and stressful process, especially when your child presents with additional needs. In order for this to be successful, there needs to be implicit trust in the ability of the school you choose, as well as in the staff that work there.
Unfortunately, many mainstream schools aren’t yet fully equipped to support autism in the classroom, although there are some that can manage to do it quite well. Hopefully by understanding the systems a little bit more, you as parents and carers can be confident in your decision.
Luckily, there are a few options as to the types of schools for children with autism that can be looked into; these include mainstream, autism resource provisions (ARPs), and SEN schools. Understandably, many parents become quite overwhelmed at the choices available and understanding the differences. To help with this, please see below for a brief summary of each type of provision, along with a general idea of how they best support children with additional needs:
Mainstream – These schools may offer general TA support, intervention groups and support from the school’s SENDCO. Children are expected to be able to access the mainstream environment and curriculum with the above extra support. It is usually in the environment that can become quite challenging for children on the spectrum to function at their highest ability. Some mainstream schools are set up better than others to support children with autism, and this is a case-by-case scenario where parents will need to ask what expertise, programs and support the school can offer. Usually children in mainstream would be expected to follow the National Curriculum to the best of their ability. Children who can access the mainstream environment and education are generally on the higher end of the spectrum.
ARP – An Autism Resource Provision provides a specialist program for children with autism. They are usually located within a mainstream school or close by. Many ARPs expect children to access the mainstream environment around 70% of the time, but with a high level of support such as TA support, specialist teacher support etc. This environment can often be tailored for the children’s needs given that they are often located in a separate area. ARP’s tend to teach an adapted and personalised version of the National Curriculum, and may be best suited for those children with moderate needs.
SEN – Most SEN schools are for children with a higher level of need and who require more intensive support overall. They are not expected to access the mainstream environment, as these schools are typically completely separate. Many SEN schools have their own curriculum that is suited to the child’s overall needs, which could include solely life skills and independence, or an adapted version of the National Curriculum. They require a high level of expertise and can support with a range of needs.
Please remember that these are very brief and ‘typical’ descriptions; all schools can vary dependant on the ethos and how the Headteacher decides to run the school. Whichever route you decide to go down, research is always needed!
When deciding upon the provision that you choose for your child, it is helpful and important to ensure you listen to the professionals involved as it can be difficult to separate emotions from such an important decision. Think about what is ‘best’ for your child right now, as well as where they will be happiest and well taken care of.
Some of the main things to consider when looking at a potential school are:
- Therapy programmes
- Behaviour approaches and policies
- Autism knowledge within the school
- Experience of working with autistic children
- Accessible curriculum
- Peer group
- The Headteacher’s view of SEN (if it is a mainstream school)
Something that sounds obvious but is not always at the forefront of education, is that all children need to be happy in order to learn. Happiness from our autistic children usually comes when anxiety is lowered, and anxiety is lowered by being in the appropriate environment. Too often the emotional wellbeing and happiness of the child is not considered enough, when it should be a priority. It would be difficult for us as adults to work in an environment where we were constantly anxious and misunderstood, yet we flourish in workplaces where we feel understood and happy – the same applies for our children.
Parents often tell me that they are worried to bother the school too much, or are concerned that they could come across as ‘difficult’, in fear that the staff transfer any of that frustration onto their child. Now, I am by no means saying that you need to drive your Headteacher/teachers crazy (I would never say that being a Headteacher myself!), but I will say that you have the right to understand your child’s education, and if there are things that you feel you don’t understand or worry you – ask, ask, ask! The staff are there to explain things to you, including about how your child’s program is working and how they are developing – whatever questions you have running through your mind, don’t be afraid to ask them. No question is a silly question! If they are confident in what they are doing, staff should be happy to sit with parents and multi-professionals to work together and build the best education plan for your child.
It isn’t always easy, and sometimes you will have to fight for your child’s education, which can be a negative and draining experience – but it is worth it! Always remember, that children have one chance at a childhood and it is our role to ensure they are as successful as they have the potential to be.
Gianna Colizza is headteacher at Gesher School which she opened in September 2018 and achieved Outstanding from OFSTED in all areas within the first year. She is a specialist leader in autism and education.
Copyright © 2019 The Brightest Star. Content curated by Petra Ecclestone