They have to be special

There are about 11,000 disabled children in residential special
schools. Despite financial pressures to reduce the number of these
placements, they continue to be made when local education and
support services are not able to meet children’s complex

Parents say it is a daunting task trying to find a residential
special school that will suit their child’s needs. Research found
they receive little advice from local education authorities or
social services departments even though these agencies jointly fund
increasing numbers of placements.1

Earlier this year, Amaze – a Brighton-based voluntary organisation
– brought together a group of parents whose children are at
residential special schools to write an information booklet on
choosing a school.2

Having taken the difficult decision that a residential special
school was the only option, these parents – like many in their
situation – were surprised at how little help they received from
social services or education professionals about how to choose a
school. Most of the assistance they received came instead from
other parents. Coming together as a group of parents to write the
booklet, they identified questions to ask when seeking a
residential school – questions which social services and other
professionals may also want answering if they are involved in
making and paying for residential school placements.

Parents prioritised questions concerning children’s feelings: for
example, what do staff do when children are homesick? One of the
issues they felt would ring alarm bells for them was if a school
claimed children were not homesick.

Parents wanted to know how schools maximised children’s educational
potential but they also asked: “Does it feel like a home – or an
institution? Can children express their individuality through the
clothes they wear, their hairstyles, their music?” Important
criteria for judging a school included whether staff asked parents
how their children communicated their wishes and feelings and
whether the school accommodated idiosyncrasies. As one parent said:
“My child won’t go to sleep unless he has his socks on. I needed to
know that the school could accommodate this.”

Parents wanted to know how schools would promote children’s
choices. They were concerned how children would be consulted about
their care and how staff would know if a child was not happy.
Parents wanted to know how flexible schools were, in terms of the
education and the care they provide, and how schools coped with
changing needs.

Parents were aware of the disadvantages of their children being
removed from their local communities and they wanted to know what
schools were doing to promote social inclusion: “Do children at the
school use local leisure facilities, such as swimming pools and
cinemas? Can children join local groups such as guides or

Parents emphasised that social inclusion was about disabled
children having the same human and civil rights as non-disabled
children. They therefore wanted to know how schools enabled
children and young people to have experiences similar to
non-disabled children and young people of the same age; and whether
schools encouraged children to stand up for their rights.

Assessments should establish children’s needs and also their wishes
and feelings. Most importantly, however, these parents want to use
their experiences to assist other parents facing the difficult task
of finding a suitable residential special school.

Jenny Morris is an independent


1 D Abbott et al, The
Best Place to Be? Policy, Practice and the Experiences of
Residential Schools Placements for Disabled Children
, Joseph
Rowntree Foundation/York Publishing Services, 2001

The Right Place? A
Parents’ Guide to Choosing a Residential Special School
published by York Publishing Services and is available free
(maximum of two copies per order) from: YPS, 64 Hallfield Road,
Layerthorpe, York YO31 7ZQ. Tel: 01904 430033, e-mail:   

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