There are around 1.5 million children with special educational needs in Britain, making up nearly a fifth of all young people. The range of issues affecting ability to learn includes behavioural problems, difficulties with reading and writing (dyslexia), attention levels (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and autism and Asperger’s as well as physical needs.

Thankfully, such learning issues are no longer brushed under the carpet; there is more understanding socially and among educators. The majority of children with special needs learn alongside their peers in mainstream classes with additional support provided by the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator, known as the SENCO.

“Identifying a pupil’s needs as early on as possible is vital and is something that all schools try very hard to focus on,” says Diana Rabot, Head of Student Support Department at Cobham Hall in Kent. “We screen all of Year 7 upon entry and from that we would look at the pupils that may need support in particular areas like reading or spelling skills.

“Where pupils have a clearly identified need, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD, usually we look closely at the assessment written by the Educational Psychologist. Learning difficulties manifest themselves in different ways in different pupils; what is tricky for one pupil may be relatively easy for another. The skill is in identifying this and teaching to their need rather than any ‘label’.

“At Cobham Hall we have teachers qualified in school to assess difficulties – this leads to a really comprehensive assessment. The teacher doing the assessing has a good idea of how the school works and what support measure to put in place.”

This echoes the approach taken in a school that specialises in support for young people with dyslexia. Frewen College in Northiam, East Sussex, is an independent school for young people affected by the condition and offers specialist support honed over the last 100 years.

Catherine Bellerby, the SENCO for the College, says: “Frewen has everything the independent sector has to offer with very small class sizes for literacy and numeracy (six in each class for prep and in year 7 three or four). There are slightly larger groups (maximum of eight) for other subjects.”

It is now universally accepted that dyslexia is not a standalone condition. Mrs Bellerby says: “You can only diagnose dyslexia if you’re an educational psychologist. Children are screened and given an ‘at risk’ quotient which is pretty accurate – but not before they are seven or eight years old. It’s a spectrum and children have a wide range of needs and we work on where the gaps are. Students often have working memory problem and auditory processing can be an issue, so we have speech and language therapists on site – not as a bolt on.

“If a student has dyslexia they often have ‘co-occurring’ needs like dyspraxia. This is a developmental coordination issue – there are problems with balance, finer and gross motor skills (which can affect their writing); children with verbal dyspraxia have difficulties getting the words out; they can also have issues around self-care; they have problems with planning and cannot get themselves organised. Some children need to be taught strategies about self-care – learning to brush their teeth or girls tying up their hair. These basic, life skills feed into the academic.”

Mrs Rabot adds: “The challenge in assessing a student with these particular needs is in identifying what may be holding them back in the classroom and recognising and celebrating their strengths and potential.

“However, it is important to note that their difficulties change as they move up the curriculum – particularly when pupils move from primary to secondary school and then from secondary school to university.”

Mrs Bellerby at Frewen explains that the needs of the child are understood, even before they join, thanks to the comprehensive admissions process: “We ask for school reports, a statement, educational psychologist and speech and language reports,’ she explains. ‘If we see that we are unable to help the child we will tell the parents. We are not geared up for children with behavioural issues, or those on the autism spectrum, but we do know schools who are.

“If the child ticks our admissions criteria we invite them for an evaluation. As the SENCO, I put together a summary of the needs, ready for an evaluation by the teacher. We offer three nights to try out boarding – should the child be inconsolable we have to think again. If the evaluation goes well we offer them a place.

“So we have a good understanding of the child’s needs when they start and then prepare an individualised provision plan (IPP) that covers all the basics. These are reviewed regularly.”

Today’s teachers are geared up to support individuals – and this is no different in mainstream or specialist schools. Mrs Rabot says: “All teachers are now regarded as being teachers of students with special educational needs and with the new Code of Practice, there is a real drive to change the culture surrounding special educational needs. We are teaching to the students’ strengths and finding strategies to allow them to access the curriculum and minimise their learning difficulties.”

Mrs Bellerby says: “Our kinaesthetic teaching style supports the children’s educational needs. The pupils learn to develop strategies. Multi-sensory delivery works (chalk and talk does not) so we cover visual, auditory and hands-on learning. Immersion in a subject by re-learning and embedding it is important too.

“Teachers plan in teams and have lot of people to call on to support. If a child is not picking up something the teacher can call on a therapist and they will offer a strategy to help.”

The relationship with parents is vital too. Frewen holds an annual review for all their students, involving parents and key people at school, while Cobham Hall includes parents in sharing progress at formal parents’ evenings, and informal chats where necessary.

Extra-curricular activity is hugely important to support all round development. Mrs Bellerby adds: “At Frewen, we also do lots of extra-curricular activities like judo, fencing and archery which are really useful for children to develop their skills in a really interesting way.”

And at Cobham Hall which excels at bringing out the best in their pupils, Mrs Rabot says: “We strongly believe that what goes on outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom. We offer a mainstream academic curriculum but I know that the students that I teach are also likely to have a starring role in this year’s drama production or excel at music.”

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