The parents’ guide to secondary school: transition for SEN children

Secondary school children
Children with additional needs can find moving on to secondary school extra difficult. We suggest strategies to smooth the way.

Starting secondary school is a big step for every child, and for those with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND), it can be an even greater challenge. As a parent, you’ll want to make sure that the new school knows how to meet your child’s needs.

SEND: choosing a secondary school

Most children with SEND are educated in mainstream schools, but depending on the severity of your child’s needs, you may want to consider a special school. Regardless of the type of school, by law, they have to have a special educational needs policy, which must be available for parents to look at. These policies, which apply to academies and free schools as well as maintained schools, set out the school’s approach to SEND, and reading them through is a good place to start when you’re choosing a school.

When you’re working whether a particular school is the right place for your child, it’s worth considering:

  • Whether it has experience of children with similar needs.
  • How you as a parent, the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO), teaching and support staff will communicate about your child.
  • How your child will be supported in class.
  • How you’ll be involved in their learning and development.

It’s a good idea to talk to parents of children with SEND who already attend the school. Most schools will also be happy to arrange a meeting with the SENCO before you apply for a place, so you can discuss your child’s needs and how the school would meet them.

If your child has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or its precursor, a statement of special educational needs, you can name the school that you would like them to go to, and it has a duty to offer them a place. If not, you’ll need to apply through the usual route.

What the primary school should do

A successful transition from primary to secondary school involves both schools working together. It’s important that your child’s primary school shares as much information as possible with their new school. This will help the secondary school plan how it’ll meet your child’s needs.

It’s helpful if your child’s primary school compiles a profile of your child which can be passed on to the secondary school. This could include details of:

  • Your child’s particular difficulties, such as with mobility, communication, concentration, etc.
  • The special measures that support their learning, like extra time for tasks, one-to-one support, visual timetables, handwriting aids.
  • Strategies that help them cope with school life, such as movement breaks, time out, or a buddy system in the playground. 

‘Our primary school SENCO met with the secondary school SENCO and came up with a “passport” detailing Edward’s difficulties, that was then distributed to his new teachers,’ says Louise Mills, mum to Edward, Year 8, who has Asperger’s. 'High functioning children often fall under the radar, so we did have to nag a little to get heard.'

What the secondary school can do

To help your child settle into secondary school, the school should make sure they are proactive in planning for their admission, rather than waiting to see what their needs are after they start. They should:

  • Consider how they can make the school accessible to your child, for example by timetabling classes on the ground floor if they have mobility problems.
  • Inform themselves about your child’s needs by reading their EHCP or statement, and any materials supplied by you, their current school, or other professionals involved in their care.
  • Meet with you and your child to get to know them better and discuss their needs and how they can be catered for.
  • Prepare all of the staff who will be involved with your child so they understand their needs and can make them feel welcome and included.
  • Observe your child on induction days to see how they cope with the new environment and teaching practices.

There are lots of other ways for secondary schools to help your child. Some, for example, use pupil premium money to fund support staff to work with small groups of students as they transition from primary to secondary. Some offer extra induction days or informal visits for children with SEND to make them more familiar with their new school. Buddy mentoring schemes can also help your child settle in, or they may be able to specify a friend from primary school who they’d like to have in their form.

Preparing your SEN child for the move

A lot of the groundwork in preparing your child to start secondary school can be done at home or with the family. It’s important to take advantage of as many induction or taster days as are offered, to help familiarise your child with the new environment. You might want to ask the school if your child can take photos to help them remember the layout.

Ask for a map of the school early on, and spend time with your child learning where everything is. Colour-coding can be helpful: you might highlight each subject’s classrooms in a different colour, and use clear symbols to mark important facilities like toilets and the cafeteria.

Ask the school for a checklist of all the equipment your child will need. You can laminate this and stick it on your child’s wall, so they can tick off what they need each day. Label all of their uniform and equipment clearly, especially if they’re prone to being forgetful or disorganised.

Writing up a timetable of the books and other equipment they need to take on each day of the week is useful, and make sure they know how to use their homework planner to record what they have to do at home. 

Teach your child the skills they’ll need for secondary school. Many of these, such as tying a tie, reading a timetable and ordering their own food in the cafeteria, may be new to them, so start early so they have time to practise. If your child will be getting to and from school independently, rehearse the route a few times, together at first, and then following them at a safe distance.

Your child is likely to have their own questions about starting secondary school, so encourage them to write them down and ask a member of staff when they go in for meetings or induction days. You could also ask the school for the SENCO’s email address so you can contact them with any queries.

If your child has behavioural issues, it’s a good idea to get hold of a copy of the school rules so they can familiarise themselves with what’s expected of them, and what will happen if they break a rule. However, it’s also important that the school understands that your child has behavioural difficulties, and makes allowances where appropriate.

Sometimes, agencies involved with children with SEND, such as child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), occupational therapy departments and autism services run special secondary transfer workshops during the school holidays to prepare kids for the move to big school. ‘Our local autism charity ran a two-day workshop which was really helpful,’ Louise says. ‘It focused on simple things that might come naturally to neurotypical children but are harder for children with additional needs, such as choosing and paying for lunch, reading a timetable, getting from one class to another, and catching the school bus.’

Once your child has started school, encourage them to join lunchtime or after-school clubs. This will help them settle in and make new friends. ‘I think it’s really important that children do some activities out of school, so if things are going badly at school, there’s somewhere for them to go where they don’t have to think about it,’ says Jacqui Watson, mum to Chloe, Year 9, who has autism.

Above all, make sure you keep communicating – with your child, their teachers, and their SENCO – and be prepared to advocate for them. ‘As a SEN parent, you’ll probably have to be active in making sure that the school and all of the teachers know about your child’s condition, especially in a mainstream school,’ Jacqui advises. ‘I had to be quite firm in making sure Chloe’s special needs were taken seriously and insist that they contact me as soon as there was a problem, rather than waiting till parents’ evening and blindsiding us.’