Last week we received a familiar call from a family who had just received a dyslexia diagnosis for their daughter, at the age of thirteen. It's never an easy moment for any child and their family but I wonder if it's perhaps even more of a shock at this later age, rather than the earliest possible around 7 years, given that thoughts of a learning difference had been considered and dismissed several times. A complex mix of feelings abound.
With so much to think about and with GCSEs looming, there was no time to lose in thinking - what now? Together with the parents we helped them to come up with a check list of things to look for, or seek out in a frank and speedy conversation with their current Head and pertinent questions for the Heads of a carefully curated short-list of alternative schools by way of comparison.
We thought it might be useful to share our bare minimum check-list:
- Class teachers - we make this our no1 point because for all of the importance of leadership on this and the quality of the SENCo etc, the majority of teaching will be delivered by class teachers - what will be the commitment/ability of each and every class teacher to tailoring a lesson to your child's particular needs? Difficult to assess entirely of course and hard for a Head to make promises on, but look for excellent communication between the SEN team and the classroom, specific training of class teachers as a bare minimum. We would take a tour and put class teachers on the spot by asking how they would support your child.
- Head of Learning Support/SEN team - look for passion, qualifications, and influence within the school. The potentially brilliant, if relegated to a cupboard as far from the Head's office as possible, may indicate this is not the school you are looking for.
- How much SEN support per week? This will sort the sheep from the goats. Some of the most academic senior schools in London have none at all. Then, what type and what duration. Your child may well need more than 'study skills'.
- The Head, as ever, will be instrumental if you are going to make the huge step of switching schools and perhaps area too. Quite simply, how nuanced is the Head's understanding of your child's needs and where does meeting those needs fit within his/her ambitions for the school.
- Flexibility - this might mean flexibility with the curriculum; flexibility with homework demands; individually tailored choice of exam boards for dyslexics. You name it, we like to see as much detailed thought and willingness to adapt as possible.
- Culture - is it as cool, amongst pupils, to go to a Learning Support lesson as football practice, or will they feel uncomfortable if they are the only child in the classroom using a lap-top. We have encountered each culture repeatedly. So, it's a matter of finding out which one exists at each school.
- Class sizes - yes, smaller is often better if you are looking for more individual support and differentiation, but some of the schools who meet everything on this list may teach in tiny classes where there would then be much that was lost from group learning and socialising.
- Technology - supporting SEN within the classroom can often be greatly assisted by the use of new technologies. A progressive attitude to incorporating and using is essential.
We hope that this might give anyone in a similar situation, somewhere to start. If you'd like to engage us in helping you to think through a dilemma with a new diagnosis or help you to draw up a short-list of schools with which to compare your current school, then do get in touch.