Questions to ask on school visits

Some of you may have just submitted your school preferences; some of you may be visiting schools and provisions now or know it won’t be long until you have to.  Choosing a school for your child, whatever their ability or specific set of needs is incredibly hard.  My husband and I have gone through this process twice and we were there, the night before the deadline, still unsure which school to choose.

I have the privilege of working with children with a wide range of needs and these questions come up all the time ‘Which school do I pick?”, “How do I know it’s the right one?” Unfortunately these questions often don’t have simple answers, but I often advise families about what questions they should be asking when they visit a school.  So I thought I would write a post about it, with some suggestions about what you could ask.  Some may be more relevant for your situation than others, and you may have specific questions you need answering as well, but here is a starting point!

  • How many children in the school have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and what range of needs do they have?

If you are speaking to the Head Teacher or the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCo), they should know this information.  You can also now find out useful information about the schools SEND provision by looking at the local offer which should be available on every school’s website.

The answer will help you get an idea of the balance within the school.  A school that has a higher proportion of children with SEND are likely to have more experience and better understand the systems and procedures compared to a school that has very few children with SEND.  However, on the flip side of the coin, will a school with a high proportion of children with SEND have enough time for your child?  You need to be happy with the balance.

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If you are visiting a special school or provision, every child is likely to have some form of SEND. However, asking about the mixture of needs and specifically the range in the year group or class that your child is likely to join would be useful.

  • How many children are there in each class? How many staff - Teachers, TA's?

Hopefully this is self explanatory!  Again this will give you an idea of the cohort of children and how many adults there are for each group.

  • How is progress measured and how frequently? Who tracks this? How do children with SEND progress in your school?

This is a tricky and rather weighted question! You want to hear a confident answer.  This year has bought many significant changes for schools; the new SEND framework, a new National Curriculum and the end of National Curriculum levels.  Life without levels is still new, but all schools have to have a robust tracking system to monitor pupils’ progress. This should be done termly, or may be more frequently if there are concerns about progress and it is likely to involve a few members of staff.  For example the SENCo, class teacher, possibly support staff and hopefully families as well!

  • Do you offer an induction package for children with SEND?

The answer clearly should be yes! Whatever the child needs to make the transition easier.  They may offer additional sessions or the opportunity to come with a known adult for support.  Some schools offer visual support such as leaflets about them with pictures of key members of staff and places your child will go e.g. classroom, toilets, lunch hall etc.  It’s the flexibility of the school here that is important.

  • How do you involve parents in the monitoring and planning for children with SEND? What support do you offer families?

How does the school communicate with their families; do they have communication books or email? How regularly do they have meetings? – parents evening, reviews, progress meetings.  Can the parents meet more informally with each other? Do they provide any information or training to parents or can they help guide you to people who can help?  Again, want you want to hear is a confident answer!

  • What experience do you have working with and supporting children with language difficulties? What training does your staff have?
  • How much time is spent in the classroom vs. removal for group or 1:1 sessions? Who provides extra support for children with SEND?

I have put these two together as they address some of the same information.

Please feel free to replace language disorder with anything else specific for your situation. For example Autism, epilepsy, attention deficit, developmental delay etc.  Now this question does come with a health warning! I have found a number of schools who will say they have a Speech Therapist – however, if you question them further, they may actually have a Teaching Assistant who has attended a training course in speech and language.  I do not mean to offend any of the fantastic TA’s out there – but this is not the same as having a qualified Speech Therapist.

You want to hear about how the staff access training and where they would go if it was something they hadn’t come across before.  Nobody knows it all, but you should know where you would go to get help!  Many schools do have a Teaching Assistant or Special Needs Assistant specially trained for delivering Speech Therapy or Occupational Therapy programs.  If so, how is this person trained/ supported and how much time do they get with appropriate professionals.  I would also want to hear that the Class Teacher is involved with not only the planning, but also working with the children with SEND.  It shouldn’t just be about a TA taking the child out of the classroom for extra support.

If there is a Speech Therapist or Occupational Therapist on site, how much time do they spend there each week and which children qualify to be seen?  Not all children in the school may qualify for the service.

  • How would you ensure that my child has access to the National Curriculum and also appropriate differentiation?

Now this is something that should be provided to every child, whatever their ability level.  This is about the balance between class, small group and 1:1 work. Who works with the child? How are the child’s targets from the Speech Therapist or other professionals, included in the school day and shared with all adults working with them?  This should be about supporting the individual.

  • What visual strategies do you use in school?

I think nearly every infant classroom I have been in recently has a visual timetable of some description.  Visual support is becoming much more widely used. But do they have different levels of visual timetables e.g. a now/ next rather than a whole day planner?  Do lunchtime staff carry symbols to help support behaviour on the playground?  Does the school have experience of using Makaton or a signing system?  Do they use symbols around the school?

  • What support do you get from outside agencies? How do you deliver/ follow through the advice/ programs from these professionals?

Now, sadly the answer here is likely to be that schools find it harder to access these services.  But if so, what are they doing about it? Have they chased the Council or local NHS? Have they considered buying in additional services?  Where else can they access support from?

If the school does have onsite support from other agencies, how much input is your child likely to receive? What are the criteria for accessing the service? How is therapy delivered – on class groups, smaller groups, pairs or 1:1?

The most important factor is how you feel about the school.  Can you picture your child there?  It may not be the school your friend recommended or chose, but is it right for your child and your family?  I think we often make these decisions on a gut feeling, and as long as you have collected good evidence along the way, hopefully it will be the right decision. Good luck!

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Elizabeth Gunner SpeechBlogUK

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