Start early, six months or a year before you need to apply. Think first about your child’s needs and what matters most to you about a school.
Ask around. Other parents’ views and experiences are valuable. But remember that reputations can soon get out of date and what suits someone else’s child may not suit yours.
Collect information. The Local Offer is a good place to start and you should ask for your school’s prospectus or visit their website. You can look at each school’s OFSTED inspection report (ask the school or use the website www.ofsted.gov.uk). Don’t just judge a school by its league table position or building. Smart buildings don’t guarantee good teaching and schools lower down the league tables may be skilled at managing behaviour and a range of special educational needs.
Arrange to visit your shortlist of schools. You may need to visit twice; once for a general look and a second time to meet the head teacher or special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to talk about your child’s particular needs and how the school can meet them. You’ll need to think about whether to take your child with you. It is useful to take another adult with you too as you won’t remember everything. Many schools now offer a virtual tour. Watching a video will give you a lot of useful information and is helpful if you are unable to travel to the school but you may still wish to visit in person.
Use your eyes and ears as you walk round. Does the school feel welcoming? Do the children seem cheerful, busy and interested? And do the staff? Think about how noisy, crowded, orderly or lively it seems and what this would mean for your child. Are you encouraged to see the whole school? Check the classrooms and think about how they are organised. Is the school well supplied with resources and equipment? Look at the notice boards. Is work by children of all abilities on display? Make sure you get a look at the playground during a break time. Try to observe how the staff speak to the children. What is the head teacher like? He or she is crucial to how the school runs and how happy and supported both pupils and staff feel. Look out for the things that matter to you and your child whether that’s lots of computers, great football coaching or an emphasis on giving pupils real responsibility.
Possible questions to ask during the visit:
How does school define inclusion?
How does the SEND department operate?
When/how are pupils offered additional support?
Who is responsible for upholding EHC (Education Health & Care) plans?
What is the general structure and timetable for the school day?
How many children would be in your child’s class?
How many members of staff (i.e. teachers learning support assistants) would be in your child’s class?
What is the staff’s experience and understanding of my child’s needs?
Has the school had a child before with my child’s needs?
Do any of the staff have specialist training?
What strategies and resources would be used to help my child?
Where would the school turn to for specialist advice and support?
How do they deal with difficult behaviour and what sanctions are used?
How does pastoral care operate in school?
How would they support my child outside lesson time?
What support is there for homework?
How do they help children mix and make friends?
How do they deal with bullying?
How would they meet my child’s medical or personal care needs?
How do they consult and communicate with parents?
What out of school activities are there and can all children take part?
What arrangements are there for parents to get involved with the school?
What support is in place for year 6 transition to secondary school?
If it is a special school or unit you might also ask:
What range of disability does the school cater for?
What therapies are available?
What subjects will my child be able to study?
Would they get some qualifications?
Will they get help with personal and life skills?
What inclusion experiences does the school offer?
Is there an appropriate group of children in the school for my child to learn with and find friends?
After the visit, take time to reflect. Try to imagine your child in that school. Does that feel OK? Trust your instincts on this. Discuss your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust. Did you feel welcome at the school? Did the school answer all of your questions?
You may want to think about your ideal choice and a ‘fall back’ position that you are still happy to accept.
What if you don’t get offered the school you want? If you are really unhappy, you can try an appeal. If you applied through the normal admissions process, you appeal to the local admissions panel. If your child has an EHC plan and you disagree with the school named in the final plan, you can appeal to the SEN Tribunal.