Careful preparation is key to minimising the traumas of change for special needs children moving to secondary school, writes Diana Hinds
Making the move to secondary school, with its complex timetable, vast sea of new faces and bewilderingly large buildings, is a challenge for the most able and competent child. For a child with special needs, it can be overwhelming - and doomed to fail unless schools devote sufficient time and thought to the transition process.
Alison Matthews, assistant head of special needs at Stantonbury Campus, Milton Keynes, knows the difficulties a school can face if it is not prepared.
Stantonbury is an inclusive school with a thriving special needs department, but on two occasions it accepted pupils with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) without being fully aware of their needs. As a result, the two pupils took a long time to settle, which was distressing for them and disruptive to those around them.
"They found lesson change-over very difficult," she says. "One boy had a lot of problems moving around the school: he would carry a huge rucksack on his back and respond in a disproportionately angry way if anyone bumped into him. He also liked to act out Power Ranger routines, which made him seem peculiar to the other children."
In time, the school found ways of adapting - making sure, for instance, that the boy moved classrooms after the other pupils, and finding him a discreet space to do his Power Rangers routines. But when the local authority last year asked Stantonbury to set up a resource base for a new group of six ASD pupils, Alison made sure that their needs would be fully anticipated.
Few people relish change, but children with ASD find it almost impossibly hard to bear. "My anxiety was that they would be unsettled by the routines unless we helped them to understand what these routines and changes would be before they came," says Alison.
So in the spring term of last year, teachers from Stantonbury began visiting the schools the ASD pupils would be transferring from, and meeting their parents. In the summer term, Stantonbury teachers made several more visits to talk to pupils about their new school, followed by the pupils coming to Stantonbury for progressively longer visits over three or four weeks.
The induction programme has paid dividends. "The children came in September and they started normally," says Alison.
Jean Salt, past president of the National Association for Special Educational Needs and for 20 years special needs co-ordinator at a large comprehensive in Wiltshire, is concerned not all schools are managing transition for pupils with special needs as well as they might. She stresses the importance of contact between feeder primaries and secondaries and the need for planned programmes of induction.
At her own former school, Hardenhuish in Chippenham, the links with feeder primaries began when the children were in Year 5, overseen by a teacher with special responsibility for primary liaison.
An open day for Year 5 parents was followed by open evenings for all pupils early in Year 6, with information about any pupils with SEN being passed on to Jean, via the primary liaison teacher. She would then arrange extra visits to the school for these families, as well as, where necessary, seeking further advice from the local authority advisory team and arranging for extra staff training.
Generally she succeeded in meeting most of the parents of children with SEN in the summer term before the children started school.
Linda Harrison, head of Fir Tree Primary in Stockport, agrees that winning parents' confidence and support is important.
Almost half of its 142 children have special needs and from this small, secure base where everybody knows everybody else, most will go on to the local 1,500-pupil comprehensive.
Without a carefully planned transition programme, many of these children "can get lost in the system", she says. The children with special needs but no statements tend to be more vulnerable so working in partnership with parents and with local schools is crucial.
Many of Fir Tree's parents had poor experiences at school, and Linda's approach is to draw parents and children into a Sats and Transition programme. From just before Christmas, parents and Year 6 children attend a series of after-school sessions to look at what is involved in Sats (with help from an adult tutor for parents that need it) and prepare them for secondary school.
Families attend science lessons at the local secondary and there are extra visits for vulnerable children, with extra support available in the last week of summer holidays and first week of autumn term.
"The children are part of the secondary school before they get there, so they know what is coming," says Linda