Gemma Bryan and family on their school journey

For parents of children with additional needs, there may come a time when you have to decide between mainstream or a specialist school, or indeed, home schooling. Here, Gemma Bryan, shares her story about making this choice, how it’s benefitted her daughter, and offers advice for those in a similar situation.

Choosing a school for your child is never easy, add additional needs and disabilities into the mix and the choice can feel overwhelming. And that’s because quite frankly it is.

Since I started my blog there is one subject that people ask me about time and time again and that is school.

  • Should their child attend a mainstream school or a special school?
  • How do you know which school is right for your child?
  • What do you do if you get it wrong?

I spend a lot of time reassuring parents that the decisions they have made about their childs education were the right ones at the time they made them, that everything will be ok and that is because it will be.

Our situation

Our daughter, Isla is autistic, hypermobile and has learning disabilities. She was completely non-verbal until she was almost 6, she was years behind her peers, she struggled with routines, had a complete lack of understanding and was very much in her own frustrated, little world.

For us the choice over which school to send Isla to was simple. Why? Well because Isla unfortunately was in the position where statements were moving over to EHCP’s, as a consequence she did not receive an EHCP in time for starting school and so we had no choice but to send her to mainstream.

Mainstream did have its advantages at the time.

Firstly it was nice for Isla to attend a school that was in her local community so they could get to know her. Her brother attended the same school and so it was nice for the two of them to be in the same setting and it was literally just down the road from us which was handy. We were also very lucky in that Isla had the most amazing one to one in that school. Isla’s TA formed the most incredible bond with her and made sure she was happy, included and learning. Without that relationship Isla would have definitely not lasted in mainstream beyond a few months.

I always knew deep down that Isla wouldn’t stay in mainstream for the whole of her education. Eventually her place within the school just broke down and moving her was the right and logical thing to do. And yet I was plagued with the dreaded Mum guilt and spent the next I don’t even know how many weeks sobbing and questioning our decision.

You see special schools have a stigma around them. I still to this day don’t know why and yet they do. I naively believed back then that special school was the polar opposite of what it actually is. I would go as far as to say I was scared of Isla going to a special school. I thought I was about to ruin everything for my daughter by moving her from all she was familiar with and felt completely torn.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The right decision

For Isla and for us special school has been the best decision we have probably ever made. Let me tell you why:

It has been the making of her. Absolutely, a hundred million percent she is completely different child to the one she was. She is confident, she is happy and she is thriving. She is not frustrated and no longer lashes out.

Isla is embraced and loved for exactly who she is. The whole school are one big family. They all know one another and are cheering each other on. The atmosphere when you are there is like nothing I can describe. You walk in and float out. The happiness envelops you.

Isla does not have to spend her time being a square peg being rammed in to a round hole. Because so much time isn’t being spent trying to make Isla conform she can focus on other things such as learning and her social skills.

Isla is thriving. I mean really thriving, with her speech, with her learning, with her social skills, with her life skills and within herself. She loves herself and she loves life like nobody else I know.

Isla has formed some very strong friendships with her peers. She is no longer the ‘weird kid’ that others avoid.

She is super happy in school and so is super happy at home.

She is taught alongside her peers and not separately or away from them.

The change has allowed her to thrive

Isla is included in everything just like every other child is. Sports day, every child is out there taking part, concerts, every child is there doing their bit and there’s something magical about those levels of inclusivity. It boosts a child’s self-esteem to always be included in ways I cannot put in to words.

Isla’s education is tailored to how she learns. Her curriculum is different and because of that she can actually learn in a way that suits her and meet targets specifically set for her and the level that she is at.

She is praised a lot. The focus is not on what she cannot do or should not be doing but what she can do and what she is doing.

Her school help her with her life skills. These have included using a toilet, washing her hands, walking holding hands and tidying away.

Class sizes are smaller, I mean way smaller and there are more teachers and TA’s in each class. Therefore Isla gets a lot more support and help than she could ever receive in a mainstream setting.

The staffs in Isla’s school have had all of the relevant training when it comes to children with additional needs and therefore are specialists in this area. For example they can all communicate with children whether they are verbal or not using makaton, pecs, symbols and visuals.

Specialists attend Isla’s school so I no longer have a gazillion appointments to take her to. She can literally see most professionals in the school. She even has her feet measured at school and her teachers do her physiotherapy with her.

If I have an issue I can turn to her school and they will try and help me resolve it. I am in expert in Isla and they are experts in teaching children with additional needs and so we always manage to find a solution.

Most importantly Isla is happy, I mean very happy.

Some tips for choosing the right school

Special school has changed Isla’s life for the better but I know it isn’t for everybody and so whenever anyone asks me about education I give them the following advice:

  • Visit the schools alone or with your other half. Get a feel for the place, see what you think about it when you are not with your children and can focus.
  • When you have visited arrange a second visit and take your child along to see what they think. Take their siblings along so they too feel included.
  • When you visit observe the children within the class setting, do they look happy? Are they enjoying themselves?
  • Talk to the head teacher. Discuss any concerns or worries you may have. Most of the time you will  have just built up huge scenarios in your mind and the head teacher will be able to alleviate some of those worries.
  • You can not apply to a special school without an EHCP so if you would prefer a special school make sure one has been applied for.
  • Talk to other parents. Which school does their child attend? What do they like about it and what would they change?
  • Check out the school website and have a good look at what their aims are and how they are achieving them.
  • If you are looking at a mainstream setting ask if you can meet the SENCO for an informal chat.

Remember nothing is set in stone. If you try a setting and it just does not work you can change it. Whatever decision you make remember you have made it for all of the right reasons, with your child at the forefront of your mind. Keep in mind that there is no right and wrong choice here. Both have pros and cons and you know your child better than anyone else in the world

Have faith in the decision that you make.

Trust your parenting instinct.

Breathe, you and your child have got this


Gemma Bryan blogs over at Isla’s Voice, a blog about her family life and living with autism. Gemma is also a BAPS Award winner. In addition to raising her family, working, blogging and raising awareness of autism, Gemma runs support groups for others, as well as being a governor in a special educational school.