Family must come first to ease transition
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?
I recently took my daughter to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, as I do a couple of times a year for the tests and check-ups that her congenital condition demands. In the waiting room, I saw a few parents at the beginning of a journey we've been on as a family for a few years now. Two mothers were sitting next to me; one was carrying a baby with one eye and the other an infant with no eyes at all. A number of the other children present had obvious learning difficulties.
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?
The consultant who informed us of our daughter's diagnosis must have thought me very rude as I constantly interrupted him with questions. The first one - "Does this condition have any learning difficulties associated with it?" - left my mouth almost before he had started talking.
He was exceptional; sensitive, a clear communicator and a good listener. He advised us brilliantly.
"It's your choice. In five minutes you'll meet with the surgeon. He is going to persuade you to operate. Surgeons love to operate, but the decision is yours. You've heard all the facts, so make up your own mind and stick to it."
He remains the model I aspire to when I meet with prospective parents at my school: we are there to advise, not to make decisions for them.
The personal touch
Parents typically visit us when their child is in the penultimate year of primary school. Sometimes they come a year earlier if they want to see a lot of schools or need to gather evidence for a local authority tribunal. Sometimes they visit when their child is in the last year of primary and they are in a tight corner having been turned away from a string of secondaries.
In all cases, I regard this meeting as the beginning of the transition process. We don't show groups around. All parents receive individual tours as they need the space and privacy to discuss their child. Sometimes they also need to offload prior experiences that have left an indelible mark on them.
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. Like the doctor at Moorfields, I present the facts and leave the decision to them.
My students make a far better impression than I do. Parents are always struck by their social confidence and their articulate nature. If your child is not developing in line with normal milestones, it can be tough to imagine what they may be like in five or 10 years' time. This 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. We are not health professionals, yet parents must be confident that we can manage epilepsy, a tracheostomy, tube-feeding or insulin pumps, to name just a few examples. Failure to oversee these health needs properly could result in the death of their child, so this concern overrides all others.
Once admission is confirmed we operate an open-door policy to parents while their child is still in primary school. Some visit numerous times, bringing siblings and grandparents along. We always attend annual reviews for pupils about to transition and introduce new parents to existing ones. Making families feel a part of the school as early as possible is crucial.
So, given our hard work, how is it possible for parents to be unaware of where their child goes to school?
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 with the approach I have described, but we still have some way to go to connect with the most hard-to-reach parents.
Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey. Find him on Twitter at @jarlathobrien
How can mainstream schools help?
Get to know special schools
Send your CSP coordinator into local special schools - he or she is likely to be the first person parents go to for advice about potential places for their child.
Make use of outreach services
This is the best way to create a common approach between schools, which eases transition.
Accompany parents on visits
Parents are vulnerable at this point. They may look to you for reassurance and advice on the type of provision their child will require.
Teachers are buoyed by seeing former students flourishing. Finding out how young people are doing will give you personal success stories to tell future parents and demonstrate the benefits of all your hard work.
This toolkit from the Autism Education Trust will help you to ensure a smooth transition.
Watch a video on helping pupils with special educational needs settle in to secondary school.
Support students with Down's syndrome using this guide.