Leaving school starts at Year 9…

Start early. Be prepared!

I have sat in many annual reviews where parents have been in tears at the thought that their son or daughter will have to leave school one day. Sometimes they have fought their way through tribunals and courts to get a place in the school and now here I am beginning to discuss their leaving…

But the future is unavoidable.

The first thing – and probably the most difficult thing – to do is start looking as early as possible. Transition planning should start in Year 9. You will need time to come to terms with the fact that your child will leave school between the end of Year 11 and the end of Year 14: time to think about the future you want for them and for yourself, time to travel around and see what is available, time to find – and sometimes chase – the professionals that should be there to help you and time to see your child grow. Time to deal with the stress.

Live in the real world

Try to remember that although you will have the clearest possible understanding of your child’s needs, we have to live in the real world and – for the most part – make choices from what actually exists there. Neither you nor I can conjure facilities from nothing; at least not quickly and easily. The seemingly impossible might take some of the time you gave yourself by starting your search early.

Hygiene Lists and Wish Lists

Sit down and think about what you are really seeking for your child. Think about how you will choose. It’s very easy to find yourself in a confused state; constantly weighing the attractions of one option against another unless you have some clear criteria for making a selection. What is really important for your child and for you? What must a placement provide that is not negotiable? At a basic level you will want it to be physically and emotionally safe. Bullying should not be tolerated and anti-bullying policies must be active. Young people must be recognised as unique individuals and supported as such. The atmosphere should be cheerful, calm and purposeful. Activities should build upon prior learning and lead to recognised accreditation. Staff should be properly qualified and experienced in meeting the needs of young people with disabilities or difficulties. Communication with home should be good. Your child might absolutely need to follow a particular vocational route or route to enhanced independence. They might need particular therapies or medical and/or psychiatric interventions. The placement must be run for the students, not for the staff. Support staff from the local community should be intelligent, committed and engaged; working well with teachers or lecturers. Make a list of your absolutely basic, non-negotiable selection criteria. Think of them as basic hygiene in a restaurant: If the place doesn’t meet the standards on your Hygiene List, leave and don’t go there again. There’s a rat in the kitchen…

Ofsted reports can also be of immense help in alerting families to the challenges faced by particular schools and colleges and the experiences of learning and being cared for there. Often school and college managers have made changes since Inspectors visits but it is as well to go explore post-16 options with the knowledge their reports provide (even if they are not 100% reliable or up-to-date). They can be found at http://www.ofsted.gov.uk

Hygiene Ticked Off? Now Consider the Menu

In the course of writing down your basic criteria you will almost certainly find yourself listing things that – like the sauce, ambiance, decor etc. in a restaurant you can only appreciate if the place is clean – you’d prefer but could maybe do without if really pressed by circumstance or lack of funds. These might, for example, include a location in an urban or countryside countryside community, a day or residential placement, being part of a large or small establishment, being close or distant from home. These should go on a second list: a wish-list. You might or might not get them all but you could tolerate their absence knowing your child would still have a worthwhile experience because all your non-negotiable criteria will be met.

Take a special private moment to consider any irrational prejudices about class or ethnicity you might have and try to set them aside. Besides being unacceptable, destructive and limiting, funding organisations will not be influenced by them.

You should pause here to consider your basic assumptions. It is easy, for example, to assume that you are seeking another post-16 school place or college placement for your child to move on to and that might indeed be appropriate but question whether continuing with full-time education is the best way of meeting this young person’s needs. College placements can last up to three years. How much will their academic, independence or vocational skills have improved over that time? What will they be able to do then that they can’t do now? What would a school or college place bring them? Could they find those things elsewhere? Are they just fed up with learning from a teacher? These are serious questions. Ask yourself, ask your social worker, specialist careers adviser or Connexions Personal Adviser what else is available.

Post-16 Education: Where should you – must you – look?

Harsh Reality Check: A Statement of SEN will lapse when your child leaves the school system voluntarily at any age after Year 11 or at the end of the academic year in which they turn 19. A change to a school placement – or even the continuation of a school placement in some areas – requires an amendment of the Statement and this might need to go to your local SEN Panel. All the usual Code of Practice procedures apply. It is thus very important to carry out such visits before the Year 11 Annual Review so that the Review Meeting can consider, advise and recommend the outcome you want to the Local Authority.

If your child attends a school outside your home borough or county – particularly if he or she has a weekly or termly boarding placement – you may find someone from your Local Authority turning up at the Year 11 annual review (maybe for the first time) to urge you to consider a placement in a school or college in your home community or area. Strangely, such a placement will turn out to be less expensive for the local authority. One can understand why they will ask the question and why they might insist you visit home area schools and FE colleges – sometimes it might really be better for the pupil to learn how to use home area facilities – but do not commit yourself to any change unless it meets your child’s needs. If they have been taught by a specialist teacher for the deaf alongside other deaf children in a small class, for example, are they ready to cope in a large FE classroom with an ordinary lecturer, a sign language interpreter and a note-taker who is almost certainly unqualified in the subject being taught?

It is very easy for parents – particularly those for whom English is not their first language – to nod away their rights when someone from the Local Authority turns up and says “Of course, if she is achieving as well as these predicted grades say she will not need the support in the 6th form…” and thereby assent to the withdrawal of the support that enabled their child to engage and achieve in the first place.

Further Education is funded by the Education Funding Agency from whom budgets and decisions about eligibility for funding are now delegated to Local Authorities, who for the most part have set up panels to consider individual requests and assessments for specialist FE placements.

Often these delegated specialist FE placement budgets amount to a great deal less than what was actually spent on such placements in previous years; effectively a hidden cut pressing down on the disabled student’s right to FE – on the compassion and flexibility of local decision-makers, at the same time demanding innovation, imagination and flexibility from all concerned (including students and their parents).

If you are thinking of pursuing a place in a residential special school 6th form or residential college you will need to make a very strong educational case and to have explored local day provision seriously and with as open a mind as possible.

With immense pressure on budgets, Local Authorities are extremely unlikely to agree a specialist placement, let alone a residential one, unless they are completely satisfied that there is no local or mainstream alternative. And, increasingly, they are working hard with local schools and colleges to resource, develop and open up local alternatives to residential specialist provision. Their view is that they have a duty to get you from A to B; they have no duty to provide a Rolls Royce unless every other vehicle is proved to be absolutely inappropriate or dangerous…

What might you find out there?

So – living in the real world, having started early and now armed with your child’s Statement, your “hygiene” list and your wish list as well as knowing why you are looking, and how harsh budget restrictions or cuts might apply – what might you find out there?

Local mainstream school 6th Forms. These are not just for young people who’ve been educated in a mainstream school to Year 11. Even if you didn’t choose a mainstream school at secondary transfer, look again now. Things won’t have stood still for the last five years. 6th form classes are usually smaller and pupils often don’t have to be in school all day every day. 6th formers often have their own learning suite or block, that has a calmer, more focussed atmosphere. 6th formers rarely wear uniform. Many Academies set a high standard for entry: sometimes four B grades at GCSE but local authority maintained schools, where teaching standards and facilities can be just as high often ask for less. Be warned though, the non-A level offer might be quite restricted. Even if you are very clear that another year at school is required to allow your child to mature, think very hard before condemning them to a year studying level one construction or child care because it happens to be available when they have no interest in the subject at all.

Special school 6th forms. If your child has been educated in a special school that has a 6th form it is likely that she or he will be offered a place in that 6th form unless there is some very clear reason – very volatile or dangerous behaviour, for example – why the school may not wish to offer an education beyond the statutory minimum school-leaving age.

You do, of course, have the right to consider other schools but if your child has been reasonably happy and has made reasonable progress and has had their needs met there to year 11 it is unlikely that the Local Authority will agree to a change unless your child has been learning at an out-county or boarding school when they will want you to reconsider their own local offer in schools and colleges (see above). This can be very stressful for parents. They may have fought to get their child into the school in the first place and may now face the prospect of having to fight all over again to keep them there.

Independent special school 6th forms. Many local authorities do not have many (or any) maintained special schools. Of those that do exist, some do not have 6th Forms. Not all independent special schools have 6th forms. If they do and you feel that one or two might meet your child’s needs post-16 go along and visit. Your child’s present school may recommend schools on the basis of where former pupils have gone. However don’t be swayed by desperation, fashion or the positive outcomes for someone else’s child. No matter what level of ability and disability, every child is unique and this one is yours. Take the Statement, your Hygiene and Wish lists with you. Check the school against your criteria. Do not commit to an assessment at the school until the Local Authority SEN Panel has agreed to send the school your child’s papers to consider. It is thus particularly important to carry out these visits before the Year 11 Annual Review (before the Year 10 review if possible). Try to get the Year 11 Annual Review arranged early in the autumn term though. Sometimes these schools have few places available and the processes of seeking the Local Authority’s agreement to amend a Statement to name an expensive post-16 option can take time, even if they agree that it is appropriate.

Local Further Education (FE) Colleges. Local colleges have an enormous range of courses for an enormous range of students. Think of them as mainline railway stations like Victoria or Manchester Piccadilly. People of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders, abilities etc. embarking upon their personal journeys to hundreds of destinations; all starting with their particular train and their fellow-travellers to that one destination. If you are going to college you might have to go in the same door and move down the same corridors with hundreds of very different people but you are only going to one room, to one course, to one destination with your fellow students who have joined the course on the basis of their choice and their ability. Colleges can look large, lively and even a little intimidating from the outside but get past security and inside the walls and different possibilities can open up. There are some excellent lecturers, committed support staff, a range of support mechanisms, equipment and enabling facilities. Students can be met at the door and accompanied to classes, be supported or supervised in unstructured times, get access to therapies, note-takers, dyslexia support, counselling, interpreters etc.

You can search for details of local FE colleges at http://www.ucasprogress.com although in my experience you should not confine yourself to this but look at you local college’s website or , better, contact their course advisers by phone for the most up-to-date position.

A student with special educational needs can access academic or vocational courses alongside other students or join courses specifically designed for young people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. These offer routes to further study or employment or aim to encourage independence, basic living skills, awareness of the community and its facilities, self-care etc. and usually build upon the courses students have followed at school (including ASDAN etc.). School students often have one day a week link courses to local colleges so that they can become familiar with the environment.

Because the Statement of Special Educational Needs lapses when the student leaves the school system (something that will change with the introduction of personal Education, Health and Care Plans), access to local FE courses does not depend upon a decision by any Local Authority SEN Panel. The Local Authority does have a duty however to provide a Learning Disability Assessment (sometimes called a Section 139a) that informs Further Education Colleges of a student’s support and learning needs and which must recommend a course. This cannot be sent to the FE college without the student’s signed permission and it is good practice for it to be prepared after consultation with the school, parents and supporting professionals to ensure accuracy. The document is usually drawn up by an officer from Connexions or its successor body.

Some courses fill up very quickly and colleges usually like to have applications in by the end of January but it is well worthwhile checking the position later on. Getting the advice of teachers and professionals at the annual review is generally helpful but as there is no need for an amended statement, there is no need to wait for the annual review for visits, assessments and offers of places.

To get a flavour of your local college see their websites and go along to Open Days. Don’t forget to take your lists…

Independent Specialist Providers (ISPs)

Specialist advice is particularly helpful when approaching this sector. Your adviser will often have visited the colleges or have students who have passed through them. It is very important indeed that you listen to the advice and keep them in touch with your progress. The Local Authority has the duty to provide the Learning Difficulty Assessment (LDA) and it is usually the professional adviser from Connexions or it’s successor team that do this work. The LDA requires your signature before it can be shared so it is very important to review it carefully when you have that opportunity. Make sure it covers all areas of your child’s needs that will have to be met if funding decision-makers are to get a realistic picture and a placement is to work.

Your professional adviser should explain the funding process and – very importantly – give you some idea of whether funding will be available as well as the local process and timescale for accessing it. It can be a very complex area with some tough criteria to meet and a strong presumption that local provision should be – or be made – appropriate. Budgets are under very severe pressure; with allocations to local authorities sometimes cut severely and some very harsh decisions being faced as a result. You can waste a good deal of time and money travelling to unsuitable or inappropriate colleges. They can also discuss the involvement of the appropriate social services team, which you will need to have on board if transport and any exceptional care funding is required.

Advisers can vary in their expertise and experience and – as a result of budget and management pressure – perhaps in the degree of their impartiality. It is very unlikely that you will feel the need to employ the services of a private independent consultant but these are available if required.

Independent Specialist Providers (ISPs) are spread across the country. They generally offer a three year, immersive, 24-hour learning and care curriculum on a 38 week termly boarding basis. They usually have very considerable experience and expertise in work with the young people with whom they specialise. They vary a great deal: generally by size and by the focus of their specialism. Some are quite large with quite a broad range of students and a wide variety of courses. Others may be very small indeed, with perhaps 20 students, all having very specific complex needs or disabilities. There is almost certainly a specialist college out there that can meet the needs of any student to one extent or another and provide a safe and positive experience. They often provide an emotional and practical route to enhanced independence and a more adult relationship with parents.

Information about Independent Specialist Providers can be found at http://www.natspec.org.uk , the website of the National Association of Specialist Colleges. This provides a very useful directory and very useful (but not infallible) college finder, which will search for colleges on the basis of their expertise with different conditions or combinations of conditions.
Once again, use your Hygiene List and Wish Lists. They are particularly important when considering residential provision. Sometimes the student experience of teaching or care is different to that which the college managers and marketing staff would wish. In residential placements students spend a great deal more time with care staff (who may not be well-paid) than with any individual teacher. As with any college, all the staff need to be fit and active people: properly trained, engaged with the students and treating their students with respect. Communication with home needs to be good, visits welcomed and complaints procedures more than defence mechanisms.

Sometimes ISPs have link arrangements with local FE colleges in their area and students spend a day or more being supported to access the much broader range of courses there. Be clear about who provides that support and in what circumstances.

If, after consulting your professional adviser you visit an ISP and it meets your criteria you can apply and your child will be invited for an assessment, usually over two days. If the college can meet their needs and provide an appropriate course they will write to make a formal offer of a place subject to funding being agreed. If you are happy with this, write back to accept it.

Forward a copy of your acceptance letter to your Local Authority professional adviser from Connexions or it’s successor team. They will use it as part of the funding process and add it to the ISP’s assessment and funding paperwork when it is received. They will combine this paperwork with the Learning Disability Assessment and take it through the decision making process – usually a funding panel. These meet regularly throughout the year. There are mechanisms for appeal but hopefully, if everyone has done their homework and preparation, you’ll get a positive outcome.

Finally…

My advice, then, is to start planning transition from school at Year 9. Recognise that it is likely to be a long and sometimes stressful process. Give yourself time and seek advice. Draw up and use your “Hygiene” list and your Wish List. Be clear about what is acceptable and what you’d looking for. Keep in touch with your adviser and social worker if you have one (if you haven’t got a social worker, consider getting one. They can be vital in the initial transition and subsequently in seeking appropriate living arrangements and care options). Be prepared for setbacks and dead ends in your search. In amongst all this eat well, keep well and stay resilient and determined. The outcome of the right post-16 placements can be astonishing, with young people more independent and ready for steps into whatever the adult world has to offer them. They can make us very proud.

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