Parents are more influenced by the atmosphere and how caring staff are than academic educational standards or the curriculum when choosing a special educational needs school, a study shows (@UniofExeter).

About two-thirds of parents surveyed as part of the research said they did not feel that they had a ‘real choice’ between special schools and other types of education because mainstream or other provision was inappropriate or not an option, or they were ‘pushed’ towards a SEN placement. Not being able to travel or the location of the school was sometimes an “impediment to real choice”.

More than half the participants considered high-quality inclusive education provision to mean a sense of belonging to class and school and social acceptance by peers, and also a more individualised curriculum.

The most popular option – for 37 per cent of parents, was special school provision only for their child.

The research, by David Satherley and Brahm Norwich from the University of Exeter, is published in the European Journal of Special Needs Education.

Researchers surveyed 57 parents whose children had attended special schools in the South West of England for a year or more via an online questionnaire. The children had a mean age of 12.5 years (ranging from 5 to 20 years), around three quarters were male and they represented a range of SEN and disabilities.

The factors which had most influenced the school choice of parents were the atmosphere (59 per cent had said this was important), whether school staff had a caring approach to pupils (important to 58 per cent of parents) and class size (important to 45 per cent).

Dr Satherley said: “Parents told us they see the school itself and its staff as important factors in their decision-making. By contrast, factors about the standards of education and curriculum were not rated as highly. No participants indicated that exam results or siblings currently attending the school influenced their decision.

“Special school only provision for their child was the most popular option among parents for their child. This implies many parents believe belonging, social acceptance and individualised curriculum are only found in special schools.”

Almost half of the parents (49.1 per cent) said did not believe that ‘with the right level of support, a mainstream setting could have been appropriate’. However, slightly more (29 out of 57) indicated to some degree that mainstream education could have been appropriate.

Around a third of parents had not considered alternatives to a special school, while 63 per cent had considered either a mainstream school with or without a resource base, home education, split placement or co-located special school.

A total of 43 per cent of parents said they had had one school to choose from, while 56 per cent had a choice of two or more. Most of those who felt that they had a ‘real choice’ (82 per cent) reported having 2 or more schools to choose from. A small majority of those who felt that they had no ‘real choice’ reported having one school to choose from (55.3 per cent). Around 44.7 per cent of those who felt they had no ‘real choice’ reported having two or more schools to choose between.

Professor Norwich said:

“Parents were roughly split over the appropriateness of mainstream provision with the ‘right level of support’. Just under half did not believe this at all, with reasons which were about the insufficient levels of support and funding required, lack of staff training and previous negative experiences in mainstream schools.”

Most parents did not believe that they had a ‘real choice’ of schools because there was a lack of options relevant to their child’s needs. This included mainstream school provision not being an option and feeling pushed towards special schools with location and travel also being factors.

By contrast, only a large minority of parents (40 per cent) reported experiencing a ‘hard choice’ when choosing an appropriate provision because of having no or a limited choice of settings and fighting to get appropriate provision. Three-quarters of the parents in this study believed that the system of parent choice could be improved by having more school options with greater availability of professional support and advice and information about these options.

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