'In 10 years, I've known two sets of parents who not only never visited their child’s special school but didn’t even know where it was'

21st June 2015 at 08:00
special school transition
In the 19 June issue of TES, Jarlath O’Brien – headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey – reveals that transition from mainstream education can be problematic for parents as well as students. Below, in an extract from the feature, he explains why

I have worked in special education for 10 years. In that time, I have known two sets of parents who not only never visited their child’s special school but didn’t even know where it was. Reflect on how astounding that is for a minute.

The problem may be one of transition. Much time and effort is devoted to managing the pupil’s move between school sectors, but how much thought is given to the emotional demands that this places on parents, particularly when the transition is from mainstream to special education?

The lives of these parents will be punctuated by meetings with health, social care and education professionals, during which they will have to retell their story time after time. The natural daydreaming about the future that all parents indulge in will be constantly reassessed as they worry about the probability of their child leaving home, going to university and getting a job.

There can be grief associated with this and it must be borne in mind when meeting parents of children with learning difficulties. How often do we remember this as teachers? And when we do, how well do we manage it?

I make it clear to parents that I’m not a salesman. I obviously want to show my school in the best light, but I’ve never met their child so I have no idea if we will fit the bill. I simply show them the whole school, from top to bottom. I present the facts and leave the decision to them.

My students make a far better impression than I do. A chance to talk in-depth to students a few years down the track is vital, as is seeing pupils who could be friends with their son or daughter, work their child could accomplish and a curriculum that focuses on improving young people’s chances of success as adults.

Parents also need to know that we can keep their child alive while he or she is in our care. The reassurance required here is impossible to underestimate.

It can be difficult for some people to accept that their child attends a special school. In these cases, they often don’t visit before admission, attend parents’ evenings and annual reviews or take any other opportunities to come in. They are attempting to retain an image in their mind of where their child is and I suspect that it looks like a mainstream secondary school. The fact that pupils at special schools can often live a long way away and that the school normally provides them with transport to and from home makes the gulf even harder to bridge.

But if we can get transition right, then parents won’t want to hide away. We are making great strides, but we still have some way to go to connect with the most hard-to-reach parents.

In the full feature in the 19 June issue of TES, Jarlath lists four ways mainstream schools can support transition to special schools. Read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 


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