Help is at hand

If your child has a special need, it can pay to find a school that will provide specialist support, says Blake Evans Pritchard
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The Independent Online

Choosing a school for children with special needs can be a daunting task for parents, especially with the huge range of private and public education institutions now available. And, although state-funded education is available for special needs children, more and more parents are electing to pay for their child's education themselves, in the belief that this will give their offspring the best chance to experience the same range of activities and benefits that others enjoy.

Choosing a school for children with special needs can be a daunting task for parents, especially with the huge range of private and public education institutions now available. And, although state-funded education is available for special needs children, more and more parents are electing to pay for their child's education themselves, in the belief that this will give their offspring the best chance to experience the same range of activities and benefits that others enjoy.

But faced with a myriad of independent schools to choose from, most of which cater for special needs to some degree, the temptation for parents is to select the school down the road, just because it is closest.

Peter Jennings, who heads the schools advisory unit of Gabbitas, a business set up to provide advice for parents on their choice of independent schools, says that the important thing is for parents to be aware of exactly what support their child needs.

Jennings believes that children should be integrated into mainstream classes as much as possible, but says that, occasionally, pupils can benefit from attending specialist schools that are able to adapt their classes to specific needs. For example, Fairley House School, in London, only takes children that suffer from dyslexia or dyspraxia, and can offer more appropriate support than other, non-specialised schools.

Dr Neville Brown, the principal of Maple Hayes School for dyslexic children in Lichfield, Staffordshire, believes that children with learning difficulties who attend mainstream education can be placed at a significant disadvantage. In a process of what he calls "internal exclusion", Dr Brown says that children with special needs often have to learn in an environment that lacks the resources to deal with them. This may mean that they become frustrated and are unable to realise their full potential.

Some schools try to integrate children with special needs into mainstream education by offering additional support to those who need it. The dyslexic department of Hurst Lodge School in Ascot, Berkshire receives glowing reports from the Independent Schools Council (ISCis), which represents independent schools across the country. All staff are specially trained to deal with dyslexic children, and pupils are offered extra tuition as they need it, either individually or in small groups. Despite legislation that came into force last year, however, independent schools are still not required to provide the same level of special needs facilities as government-maintained schools. This is a gap in the law that needs filling, says the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

The problem arises because private schools are not bound to comply with the Special Education Needs (SEN) Framework, which was introduced as part of the 1996 Education Act. This says that, where needed, schools must provide free access to "auxiliary aids or services", such as extra assistance for pupils, or notes and course books in alternative formats such as Braille.

And, although the Special Education and Disability Act 2001, known as Senda, extended the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) of 1995 to cover schools, the DDA does not deal with those areas of education discrimination that are already covered by the SEN Framework. So, while Senda's rules call for schools to take "reasonable steps" to ensure that disabled children enjoy the same advantages as other pupils, including greater access to school premises and the curriculum, issues such as the provision of additional facilities for those who need them fall under the purview of the SEN Framework - which is non-binding to independent schools.

"We consider that all disabled pupils should be able to access the full curriculum irrespective of the school they attend, and this is a legislative gap we would like to see closed," says Beth Coxon, legal officer at the DRC.

But despite this legislative loophole, independent schools are making a real effort to address the challenges of disability discrimination. Robert Boyd, an adviser to independent schools based at the Veale Wasbrough law firm in Bristol, says that he is amazed at the way in which private institutions have taken on board the new rules, despite the difficulties of implementing some of the more technical ones.

For more information on the SEN Framework, log on to the Department for Education and Skills' website on www.dfes.gov.uk/sen/

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