The decision to move my son from mainstream to specialist school was a decision lingering over me for some time. Hours, weeks and months went by hoping that things would improve. Would my son cope if he gets more support? He may get an EHCP and teachers will understand him and things will be in place legally so he will have to have the right support and then things will get better.
Each month went by and things were not getting any better. It wasn’t just about my son being able to cope it was about him being in the right environment. At age 7 he was having huge sensory difficulties so was it fair for him to carry on? I had to look at the bigger picture – he was struggling with the amount of children in his class. The peer pressure of competition, the noise, the rules, the playground, the whistle, the teasing, the struggle to fit in and be like his peers often resulting in spending the majority of his day sat at his desk in the corridor. Well that or his ‘second’ classroom which was the headteachers office. As parents we had to step back and make the decision before his whole self esteem was shattered.
His mainstream school was a good school. One of the best in the area with outstanding ofsted reports for many years. The teachers were good. The children were well behaved and received good grades. So many ‘reasonable adjustments’ were made but things were getting worse and in my eyes I was counting the days till we found another provision that would be more suitable for our sons needs.
This is where my search started, My first port of call was Facebook where I asked a local group if others had children with similar needs as my son – high functioning aspergers with PDA? If so, what schools were they accessing? There was a mixture of responses which included units that were part of a mainstream setting, whereas some parents chose independent specialist settings.
My next step was to go view the schools and do as much research as possible. You can only get the feel of a school from actually seeing it with your own eyes. We had only just started the EHCP application process at this point but wanted to be on the front foot. Have your questions ready at hand and take a notebook and pen. I’ve included some examples of the kind of questions we asked during our visits and responses:
What experience in PDA do your school have and are your staff trained in PDA?
“Oh we just learn about it online”
“Our staff have no training but have dealt with children with these traits but the school does not have children with this diagnosis as its not nationally recognised in this city”
“If they have what?”
“Yes our teachers have great experience with children with PDA, and have worked with children for many years with PDA. We will work around your child’s needs”
How many children are there in a classroom?
We got a mixture of answers from a mainstream with a base, bases can have up to 15 children to specialist settings that can have less than 10 per class.
What happens if my child goes into meltdown? Where would they go for quiet time to regulate?
“Oh we just let them go in this room here (opens to to toilet) they shut the door and have a good scream” – This was a mainstream school with a base attached. I have to say I found this pretty shocking and it saddened me to hear that children thought that this was the right way to be treat. The same teacher who mentioned this told us a story about a pupils she had “cured”.
“Ah yes I will take you there …” The lady takes us up a corridor with cell like box rooms. Each room has a small seating area and the walls are just plain. I ask if they shut the doors when a child is in crisis, she tells me they don’t. I then question why they have doors on them in the first place?
“They can regulate wherever they like – we don’t have rooms or areas, we have a wide space outside if a child needs some space to move around.
How does it work if I keep my child in mainstream but there is a base, when would my child access the curriculum?
Most explained that they would only access the curriculum in the mainstream setting with a support worker, if they could not cope in a mainstream class they would be able to sit outside the classroom to access this work.
For us our key needs were the following:
- Group class sizes of no more than 8 due to sensory difficulties and PDA. Anything could tip our child over the edge for a number of different reasons, the main being be competition with other peers.
- Teachers had to be clued up on PDA strategies and understand PDA for my child to be understood.
- Outdoor space was important, especially to regulate and get some quiet time.
- A similar peer group in order to form friendships and understand how to make good friendships.
- Accessing the curriculum in a small class setting and not being put outside in a corridor to exclude him.
- A calm and nurturing environment.
- On site psychologist if possible and an onsite SALT team.
A school that my child could thrive in and not just cope in.
I spent a long time looking at different schools and finally came to the decision that only a specialist school that could meet my sons needs. But this is where the tricky part hit us. Where are schools for high functioning children with aspergers and PDA? Most specialist schools didn’t provide a curriculum geared up for high functioning children. At this stage, we hadn’t obtained an EHCP either which was a pre-requisite for most of these schools.
It was time consuming but I knew I had to do my homework and view the majority of schools in my area whilst we applied for an EHCP.
Many visits later and there was still no school that ticked all the boxes, apart from two. One school was an amazing environment for high functioning boys who had aspergers and PDA. We visited and from the moment we walked through the door we knew that this was where our boy needed to be. The school was an one hour drive away but in my eyes it was worth the travel. Sadly one big barrier came across our way, which was our sons age. The school only took admissions from 9 years old. So the search was back on!
In the meantime our EHCP was granted and we were still trying to figure where my child would go as the local authority even held their hands up and said that they were struggling to find a suitable school in the area for our son. They advised us to possibly start looking out of authority schools.
As I sat with my computer trying to find the perfect school my inbox pinged and a friend I met from our local autism group on Facebook asked me if I had viewed a school that was very similar to the one we had set our sights on. She believed that they started admission at age 7 and that this school was 40 minutes away and ticked all our boxes!
So a few days later I was walking around this school and astounded. After meeting the teachers and seeing the huge support that pupils received I knew it was a no brainer! I raced home in delight to tell my husband that I had found the one!!!
The next worry was a big one. Would the local authority give us this school? It was out of area and an independent school. We had heard of parents having to fight and go through tribunal and pay thousands of pounds to fund legal costs to get a placement like this. We spent many hours writing notes and preparing for a tribunal case, expecting the worst.
How do we get this right? With my guard up and thinking that the Local Authority were going to shoot us down in flames and try their best to avoid naming this school on the EHCP, I pushed and pushed for answers from them.
Nights passed that filled me with worry – we were being left in the darkness about what was going to happen to my sons future?
After a few weeks and not without a lot of effort and pressure on the local authority we received the news we had been waiting for. Our son had been granted a place at the school by the local authority and could start in September. What a relief!
I think our case was pretty clear cut – our child’s complex needs could not be met in the local area We remained open to suggestions and viewed all the local schools. We suggested that if a school popped up closer we would of snapped it up.
So our journey to a specialist setting starts next week. I have to say I think I am more nervous than my son but I know already that it is the best and the only choice now for my boy.
I know I am not the only parent going through the new school move and I wish all your children a good transition, I am bracing myself for a rocky start but hoping things must get better!