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Finding a suitable school for a child with learning problems can be fraught with difficulty, finds Charlotte Phillips.

By Charlotte Phillips
Published: 8:00AM BST 21 May 2010

“Sometimes I hear other parents fretting about schools and I’d just like to hit them with a shovel,” Louise McDougall says. “They’ll be worrying about whether their child will be stretched academically or if there are enough extra-curricular activities. They don’t know they’re born. My idea of extra-curricular activity is sitting on the sofa thinking: ‘Thank God that day is over.’ ”

Louise’s son, Mike, is autistic. One of the classic signs is an apparent lack of empathy: the clincher, Louise says, was when she fell down the staircase and four-year-old Mike sat at the top, convulsed with laughter.

Educationally speaking he’s one of the lucky ones, diagnosed early and now, aged 15, at a specialist unit in a mainstream local comprehensive. But everything is on a knife edge. Bullying is rife and the attitude of some teachers unhelpful. If Mike can’t cope, what happens next?

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” Louise says. “You just pray.”

This is the topsy-turvy world of schools for special needs children. For many parents it can feel like a parallel universe where the educational certainties others take for granted are suddenly removed.

If your child has complex learning issues, there may be only a handful of schools that can cater for them. As these schools rarely advertise, let alone go in for all-singing, all-dancing “look at me” open days, just finding out where they are can require a lot of detective and networking skills.

“Even if you hate socialising, force yourself to network. It’s the only way of finding out what’s really out there,” says Anna Williams, who estimates she drove 3,000 miles in total in her efforts to track down the ideal school for her son, who has complex hearing and language difficulties. “Special needs parents tend to know about other schools, even if they’re not right for their own child.”

Once you’ve identified the school, you need to plan a visit. Here, too, the rules are different. “It’s like an 11-plus exam in reverse,” Anna says.

You won’t get head teachers vying for your business. You need the right paperwork just to get through the front door. And that doesn’t mean glowing reports or top-grade exam results. Instead, parents can be required to paint as black a picture of their child’s abilities as possible, backed by reports from experts such as educational psychologists, in order to prove how desperately the place is needed.

But even when you’ve found the right school, the odds of your child ever taking up a place there can seem overwhelmingly stacked against you.

Special state schools with a good reputation for a particular type of disability are so oversubscribed they make selective grammar schools, with a mere 10 or so applicants per place, look like a shoo-in.

One state school catering for children with autism has a catchment area that spans an entire county and hundreds of applications each year for a total of just eight or nine places.

And if you decide to try your luck with the private sector, there are also the costs to contend with. Top public schools may have hit the headlines recently with news that they are likely to breach the £30,000 a year barrier, but that’s nothing. With fees at some residential schools for severely challenged children reaching £250,000 a year, the million-pound education has already arrived.

In an ideal world, children’s educational needs would be cost-blind. Unfortunately for parents, local authorities are caught in an impossible situation. On the one hand they have a legal duty to ensure that children with special needs are given the education that will help them realise their full potential. On the other, they’re also required to cough up the funds to pay for it.

Given how tight money is, the result is that instead of parents, schools and local authorities working harmoniously together to find the best possible educational solution for a child, you often get an emotionally draining and drawn-out fight, council officials on one side, purse strings clasped shut, beleaguered parents on the other.

Read in Full:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/7744133/Schools-for-children-with-learning-problems-Disability-shouldnt-leave-children-disenfranchised.html



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