Guest blog: A parent’s journey into the world of special educational needs

Our son was diagnosed with speech and language ‘delay’ when he was around 2 years old. We had hoped that his slow development of speech would be due to the fact that he was a boy, and because his older sister was ‘doing all the talking for him’; we hoped that it could be due to problems with his hearing… but it was none of these things, and finally a developmental paediatrician delivered the quite devastating news that his speech was ‘delayed’. We were shocked – all our hopes for our son appeared to have been dashed – we envisaged a bleak future for him. Speech therapy was prescribed, we sang nursery rhymes and did Makaton signing, hoping that one day he would catch up.  He didn’t.

The years progressed, his small private school – specially chosen for its small class sizes and warm culture – were supportive, and we were lucky to be able to afford to supplement the fleeting sessions of speech therapy provided by our local NHS with private sessions, but our son’s progress was slow. We saw a variety of healthcare professionals, to assess potential causes of his problems and to provide clarity for us on exactly what his needs were.  Although it sounds bizarre, despite all the assessments and professional views, there was no joined-up thinking, no clear list of how his needs could best be met.

Finally, when he was age 5, the school SENCO suggested we should apply for a Statement of Special Education Needs which would hopefully mean that more funds would be available to support his needs within the class room. We were initially reticent, worried that having a Statement would stigmatise him in some way, but we were ultimately convinced that this would be the best step to ensuring our son’s needs were catered for.

The Statement was granted, and the school used the money to provide our son with a teaching assistant who spent 3-4 hours every day one-to-one with him. In our naivety we thought this approach was good, believing a personal approach to teaching a child with our son’s level of speech delay would be the best thing we could do for him.  How wrong could we have been!

At last, at age 7, the school told us that they could no longer cope with our son, and we agreed to explore alternative options.  We felt so alone – it’s always a huge responsibility choosing a mainstream school that’s right for your child, but we knew nothing about special schools, and we didn’t know where to start.  Fortunately, help was at hand in the form a copy of the Good Schools Guide to Special Education Needs, and of course the internet.  We read the guide from cover to cover, picking out schools which we thought might be appropriate to meet our son’s needs.  We visited a few of them and left each one slightly disappointed.  They were either full of children with far more complex and severe learning difficulties.  How would our sport-loving, sociable, friendly and confident little boy progress in such an environment? Would he mimic ‘undesirable’ behaviour?

But there was one school which rang every bell: Meath School near Chertsey, Surrey.  The specialist focus of Meath is children of primary school age with speech, language and communication difficulties as their primary need.  Meath groups its children according to language ability, not age – there is one speech therapist to each class of around 10 children, and they use many specialist approaches to help children develop to their individual potential. Run by the children’s communication charity, I CAN, Meath is a truly unique and special place. It is an oasis!

As soon as we arrived and stepped inside the calm yet homely and caring environment of Meath, we knew we had found the right place.  This gave us a huge sense of relief… it was a very emotional visit! We could picture our son at Meath, wearing the green Meath sweat shirt, playing in the playground, learning how to communicate and support the development of his speech with specialist signing – Paget Gorman.  We wanted him there, immediately!

Before offering us a place, Meath needed to assess our son’s language and cognitive abilities, to see if Meath would be appropriate for him. They offered us the chance to have a special assessment at Meath, held over two days, where an educational psychologist, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and other specially trained staff would assess him in order to work out exactly what his needs were – and crucially, whether the school could meet them. Most importantly, the independent assessment and subsequent report would enable us to have a real sense of his needs, which we would then be able to show to our local authority and to any other school we saw.

Although there was a cost attached to the assessment, we took the view that it would be invaluable and decided to go ahead.  We certainly wished we had known about the assessment a few years earlier! – how different things might have been for our son if he had been assessed by Meath at the age of, say 5 years old.

The Meath team decided that the school would be an appropriate setting for our son, and we were delighted when they offered us a place.

Armed with our independent assessment and a confirmed placement at Meath, we entered the Annual Review of our son’s Statement with our Local Authority. We had submitted our parental statement and a request for funding of a placement at Meath. Whilst there was very little disagreement between the Local Authority’s own educational psychology and speech and language therapy teams about the type of setting and provision our son required, regrettably the LA did not agree to fund a placement at Meath.  We therefore had to decide whether to settle for placement at a LA language unit, or to ‘lock horns’ with the LA and let an independent Tribunal decide our son’s fate……

To be continued.