How to find the right school

I have been asked by numerous followers on our social media handles how did we find the right school and if I could give more details on this part of our journey.

Speaking to parents online and as a keynote speaker, the conversation always reverts back to school, and whether there is actually a possibility to find the right kind of school. I can relate to this subject so much because it has been the hardest aspect of our family life – my daughter has always desperately wanted to go to school full time but has never been able to manage it. We have had four school placements, and time home schooling too, but the appeal of being in a provision and having friends has always been a driving force for her.

Other parents also talk about it being impossible to find the right fit – all too often their children are too academic to be placed, or their behaviour is too unpredictable for other students, or they require more bespoke provision than the average school can provide.

I can only talk from experience and the process we have been through to find a provision that, and we are still hoping, will be able to meet my daughter’s needs. The reason being is that to manage herself in a school environment, coupled with some of the trauma she has been through and the system not necessarily being conducive to her learning style, has led to a very difficult path to find the right kind of school.

If I’m honest, towards the end of last year, I ran out of hope that we would ever find a solution. Although I knew of some great provisions that were having successful results with children, they were still too far away and often the spaces were already full.

Again and again consultations were returning from specialist schools saying that they couldn’t meet my daughter’s needs either. Specialist schools were turning her down, mainstream schools couldn’t cater for her, so what on earth were we left with?

Although, we had been given a great opportunity at our last mainstream school (which we will always be grateful for) and with so many adjustments we were still not able to get my daughter to ‘adapt’ enough to fit in. Rather, the environment could not adapt enough for her.

For anyone new to our journey there was a case study, published by the PDA Society, which summarises more about the difficulties we had leading up to that point. It also highlights some great steps the mainstream took in order to accommodate my daughter and may be useful to parents or school staff who are struggling with a child that just needs something different.

The last mainstream school really did think outside of the box and allowed her to follow her own interests, never forcing her, so that she could feel more in control. Things eventually started to fail when she wanted to join in with her peers and to do the things they were doing. She wanted to be be able to but just couldn’t.

So, I began researching the option for my daughter to have ‘Education Otherwise Than at School’ (EOTAS) which falls under Section 61 of the Children and Families Act 2014 and is agreed when the Local Authority is satisfied that:

“… it would be inappropriate for the provision to be made in a school or post-16 institution or at such a place.”

I was aware that this would only be agreed in a tribunal if there was an abundance of evidence to prove that it was not viable for her to go to school and that it was a temporary measure. I was also aware that I risked the chance that it would be agreed the LA had an appropriate provision (which although I felt was incompatible to meet her needs), still their choice of school had offered a place and would be a solution.

At which point, it’s useful to explain what type of schools I did visit and my reasoning behind why they would be more detrimental in the long run.

As I touched upon I had visited numerous Moderate Learning Difficulty (MLD) schools but at panel it was decided by the LA that my daughter did not have a learning difficulty so they were unsuitable (in all truth the LA never consulted with the schools I suggested, which was their legal requirement, and they only did send the paperwork once I quoted every legislation available).

Our county only have ‘Social and Emotional Mental Health’ schools (SEMH), which in their paperwork behind the scenes (I had to push for a subject access report on my daughter’s files to find this information out as part of our case) they had already expressed that they knew these schools were not conducive to her needs. It was stated it was the only option they had for us and were trying to rush us through to satisfy the mum.

I visited the SEMH schools (both in our county and in neighbouring counties) to get an ‘informed’ view to evidence whether they were suitable or not. It was a useful thing to do as it gave me lots of information as to why they were not appropriate for my child – I knew that she would struggle in this type of environment as they were built on rewards and punishments, as well as still using exclusions for behaviours they deemed deliberate, plus still having many aversive factors that would overwhelm her in the environment.

I had quotes building from the evidence I had accumulated with admissions from professionals saying what my daughter really needed and that the problem they had was their specialist schools were full. It was at this point they were finally agreeing that mainstream could not meet her needs.

I also went onto the admissions guide for my county and used it for this specific quote on the LA’s criteria for SEMH:

“Pupils with a diagnosis of ASD who require this provision are unlikely to have autism as their main presenting need, but this additional or associated need will mean their combination of difficulties present as a complex profile of overlapping, co-morbid needs.” 

What was also apparent at this stage was that much of the reports from the professionals had been omitted from my daughter’s EHCP and that they had ‘moulded’ all of the information on her to suit the type of provision they had – making her ‘presenting need’ as SEMH.

Her plan read as a child with behavioural needs rather than a child with associated difficulties relating to having an autism spectrum disorder. It was at that point that I needed to also fine comb the EHCP and seek specialist help to ensure it really was reflective of my child’s real difficulties and the correct provision the LA should be providing her with.

I also began looking at independent special schools which were ASD specific and requested that the local authority consult with these types of schools. Again, it was met with resistance, but in the mean time I began making viewings and we had the potential placements offered from two schools (it won’t go as any shock that the offer from the school we really wanted was not released to us). Again I had to quote lots of legislation, to the point I was then ‘silenced’ by the local authority and they would only agree to communication through our legal teams. Luckily, after many weeks, we had an offer from a school and we were able to visit.

The tribunal also directed the LA to provide more information on their chosen SEMH schools ahead of the imminent tribunal.  The pressure was building and eventually the phone call came to say they were conceding to our choice of school.  By this time we had already made connections with the school and began the slow transition into becoming acquainted with the school.

I have shared some updates on this via the Facebook page (see here) but in general it has been an answer to all of her prayers. She has exceeded any expectations I had about starting a school, of course there are issues when she is there, but they can manage it successfully. I get told daily that she has been incredible and it leaves me in tears – I never thought I’d hear the words that she is ‘good!’

The environment is therapeutic, it’s small and it feels safe.  It is well managed with staff who have appropriate training on working with children who have ASD with demand avoidance. Not only do they have the skillset but they have the grounds that can help her develop at her own pace. She has access to specialist teaching that can be tailored to how she needs a curriculum to be delivered. There is access to therapy and her class is not based on a system of rewards and punishments – she is never blamed for any meltdown but is managed through them to feel balanced once again.  

Each lesson is tracked and if incidents occur there is a plan in place to address any issues so that she is fully supported. Often this will be focussed on staff and what they can do to help her rather than the onus being on what she has done wrong – there is no guilt or blame. The teacher has a philosophy that if something happens they move straight on ten minutes later and that is exactly the approach that is needed.

I hope that this will start the path to give her the tools she needs to manage herself independently.  Her education is about learning to live in society rather than being taught the things we expect an eight year old to be taught or what the school system wants from a box being ticked.

Most importantly she comes out with a smile like this every day:

My daughter after her first full day in school

So to answer the question, how do we find the right school for our kids – well there is no definitive answer! Each and every child is unique and what works for one child may not work for another.  It is always asked what type of provision really suits an individual with PDA and there isn’t always a set formula.  Some thrive in mainstream, others in MLD or ASD specific schools, as well as some success can also be found in SEMH with the right ethos.

The question is even more ambivalent because the school system or rather the model that is being offered as it is may not always be accessible to someone with PDA – so trying to find an alternative can be hard to do.  The lack of specialist placements and funding are also driving factors in the reason we struggle to find another option that is more suitable to our young ones.

So, to find the right school, it takes a lot of time, effort and perseverance. Research and information is also key as it may be the case that you will need to go to a tribunal to appeal a school placement in order to find what is really needed.

In the mean time, I want to leave you with some key links, that I found useful to refer to or try in order to win our appeal. It would be great if you want to add any further information in the comments below and I will update this list in order to help other families:

Special educational needs and disability code of practice (SEND COP) – statutory guidance from the government (download this link) and is useful to quote and reference in any appeal and worth being familiar with so that you can ensure the local authority are meeting their legal requirements.

Children and Families Act 2014 – (part 3 – link here) I referred often to quotes from sections 19, 20 & 21 of the act with specific regards to the duty of care for SEND children/young people and the rights of their families.

EOTAS – for further reading on looking at alternative educational options then I would start with the information on this site Not Fine In School as it’s such an informative place to go for advice. There is also a fairly recent CASE LAW which is useful to look at, and can be referenced in a case of appeal when school is not a viable option; M & M v West Sussex County Council (SEN) [2018] UKUT 347 (AAC).

Independent special schools and collegeshere are some lists provided by the DfE.

Subject Access Request (SAR) – to build evidence it may be worth submitting a request to access all of the files being held on your child or young person.  This guide and template may be a good start to use.

Freedom of Information (FOI) – it can be useful to make a FOI request to any school or establishment to find out in more detail about how it runs (this is particularly helpful if you feel that a school is not appropriate but has been put forward as a placement from your LA).

Remember to research the guidance admissions for your own local authority (which should be available on their local offer online) as this will establish the specialist schools available and what the criteria is they have set out.

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