Note: While the term Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) is specific to the education system in the UK, the following information is valuable for any special education program.
The transition to secondary school can be a challenging time for any parent, and there are a number of additional considerations for the transition from primary to secondary school for children on the autism spectrum. The following are some pointers to guide your discussion with each of the prospective school’s Special Education Needs Coordinators (SENCO).
In advance of the school visit, check the school’s website for their special needs policy, read through and see if there’s anything that you’d like further clarification on. It might also be useful to read their behavior and bullying policy and see if it makes specific reference to behaviors resulting from special educational needs, or when pupils with SEND are targeted. OFSTED inspection reports are available online and provision for pupils with SEND is an aspect that is observed and evaluated.
SENCOs love paperwork, so if you have a copy of a report as evidence of your child’s diagnosis, that’s a good starting point, plus any other recent assessment reports from outside specialists is helpful. If you have an appointment, provide a copy of this in advance of the visit and expect that the SENCO will be able to comment specifically on the strengths and needs of your child.
- Are there are other children in the school with similar needs and can the SENCO give exact figures?
- How is the information about children’s diagnosis and strategies for best practice communicated to teachers?
- How experienced are the teachers in working with pupils with ASD and do any have additional skills and qualifications?
- How often does staff INSET training take place and has ASD been covered?
- If your child finds it difficult to manage unstructured time, social situations and noise such as break and lunch times, are there activities in place/classrooms open with staff supervision for them to go?
- How does the school handle communicating unexpected changes to routine – what notice is given for changes, e.g. staffing, room changes, school trips?
- How are instructions given, for example, homework and do teachers recognize the importance of literal instructions for tasks?
- What are the communication systems from school to home and how much information is expected to be communicated from the pupil to you? Are there alternatives if this is problematic for your child?
- What support is given with friendships, is there a buddy system for all year 7s?
- What support can be provided for emotional difficulties e.g. if your child finds it difficult if they are not chosen to answer a question in class, picked for a team, making a mistake etc.?
- How are punishments and consequences such as detentions explained and children supported to understand what is expected in terms of behavior, punctuality, appearance etc?
- Is support available for certain subjects or tasks that require imagination and how can these be differentiated to reflect your child’s understanding and ability to interact? E.g. acting in drama, creative writing, poetry?
- What provision is there for exams and assessments if your child is unable to cope in a large exam hall and manage their time effectively?
- What pastoral support is in place from staff – e.g. will your child have a named person such as a personal tutor in a consistent location that they can go to with any concerns?
- What support will be given in terms of finding the way around – are the classrooms clearly numbered/labeled, are there signposts around the building?
- Does the school use Individual Education Plans and what involvement you will have as parents in target setting and review?
- Are there any Teaching Assistants or classroom assistants in school, and if so who, and how, do they support?
- How are children set and what are the class sizes like?
- When is the first parent’s meeting in year 7 and how often are reports written?
- Once a place is offered by the local authority, what transition planning is there and what is the time frame?
It is important to bear in mind that some of the questions may bring up considerations that prompt further discussion and clarification. Areas for development do not necessarily mean that the school isn’t right for your child. SENCOs may not have all the answers, but then they also don’t know your child as you do. As at least five years of your child’s life will be spent at secondary school forming a positive partnership and having open communication is crucial. You as parents need to feel confident that the SENCO will understand your child’s strengths and needs, not only this but that they are also able to clearly communicate this to the rest of the teaching team so there is a consistency of approach.
Once a place has been offered, consider whether a follow up meeting would be useful. Ask the school if it is possible to arrange visits for your child in addition to the standard year 6 taster day/evening where they will be one of many children. Request to meet key staff such as the year 7 head of year / your child’s personal tutor if that is known then. Suggest taking some photos to make a booklet or poster about the new school for, or with, your child, so that the concept of the future is more concrete for them.
Schools need to be willing to work with you, to be consistent, and yet also be flexible when needed. Every child is an individual and there may be matters of concern that are specific to your child that will need further discussion. The future years may bring unexpected issues and difficulties that need to be overcome together. Decide on some of the key things that you are looking for your child as they start the next stage in their education and gear yourself up for the new.
Catherine Sarginson is in her 15th year as a teacher. She has a master’s degree in Inclusive Education and post graduate qualification ‘National Award in Special Educational Needs Coordination.’ She is working towards an MPhil from the University of Manchester, focusing on how to train teachers and influence best practices for pupils with various special educational needs. Catherine has experience in specialist residential college for young adults with learning difficulties, mainstream high school and now independent boarding school. Her current role is Head of Learning Support at Sedbergh School, Cumbria, England.
This article was featured in Issue 42 – Autism: Fighting the Stigmas