Questions to ask schools, and responses to look for

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When you are visiting prospective schools, you should feel comfortable to ask as many questions as you want, to get a good sense of whether the school is likely to suit your child.

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If you are at a school tour or open day and have more questions than the principal or staff member has time to answer, ask for an appointment. You have the right to the information you need, to make the best decision for your child. Below are some key areas you might like to focus on, and the kinds of responses to look for.

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Look for a welcoming, positive approach

It’s good to ask specific questions, but also try to get a ‘feel’ for the school – for how comfortable your child will be in the environment, and how they would be included in the life of the school. Visit the school during class hours, and watch the interactions between staff and students. Look at the photographs and student work on display – look for evidence of inclusion of students with disabilities.

Try to get some sense of how responsive the school might be to your child and family from how welcoming the principal and other staff of you and your child, and how they interact with you and your child on school tours or in meetings with you. Trust your own instincts. You need to feel comfortable that the school you choose will be responsive to your child and family.

The experience and approach of staff members will vary, but you can often get a sense of whether the school culture is generally positive and inclusive of students with disabilities. Staff with a positive approach tend to:

  • Focus on abilities and strengths
  • Engage directly with your child, and not just talk to you
  • Talk about supporting learning at an individual level and pace
  • Be happy to make time to meet with you and your child’s therapist or other specialist
  • Be open to suggestions, and to thinking about creative ways to adapt the environment, curriculum or school activities to ensure that your child can participate and learn.

Ask about the school’s experience of supporting other students with a disability, but remember that schools with less experience can be good options, if they are welcoming, enthusiastic and positive. The principal might not have all the answers straight away, but you should get a sense that there is a strong system for in place for planning to meet your child’s needs – listen out for the mention of things like Student Support Groups and learning plans.

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Be upfront about your child’s needs

The aim is to choose a school that will work for your child, hopefully over many years. So it’s important to be open with the principal or other staff about your child’s needs, and what you are seeking in a school for your child.

Be as upfront as you can, and encourage them to give you open, detailed responses that will help you to make the right decision for your child and family. If it seems that the school will be a good match for your child, this discussion will also enable the principal to begin planning supports and applying for any additional funding.

Ask what support services are available within the school, including whether there is a special needs coordinator, student welfare coordinator or school nurse. You can also ask about before and after school care and vacation care, if this is of interest to your family, whether now or in future.

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Your child’s care, access and travel needs

You can ask how the school would meet your child’s medical or personal care needs, or physical access requirements. Especially if your child has complex care needs, you will want to be reassured that your child will be cared for safely and with dignity, privacy and respect – and that the school will plan well to address these needs.

Look around the school when you visit, to get a sense of its size, physical environment, and the layout and accessibility of the classrooms, grounds and facilities. If physical access is a concern for your child, discuss their needs with the principal as early as possible, to allow time for any building modifications that might be required.

Ask the school about school buses and other supports for travel to school. Many schools in regional or outer suburban areas are serviced by school buses run by the Victorian Department of Transport. Most specialist schools have their own school bus that includes supervision of students. Some students are eligible for assistance with travel costs through the DET Conveyance allowance or (if over 16 or in an NDIS trial site) the Centrelink Mobility Allowance; ask the school.

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Your child’s learning needs

Share some of what you know about how your child learns best, and the supports they need in order to learn well. Ask for examples of how the school has worked with some of their students with additional needs. Schools can make many adjustments to their curriculum, teaching approaches and classroom environments to meet the needs of individual students. These can include strategies that involve funding (such as time with education support staff or aide, or special equipment), but many others that do not.

Most importantly, listen for evidence that the school has good systems in place for planning (that include you as parent or carer), and for monitoring and adjusting the learning and supports for each student with a disability. For example, the principal or other staff member should make mention of regular Student Support Group meetings that include you as parent or carer, personalised learning and support planning for each student, and individualised reporting.

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Behaviour support, inclusion and your child’s social needs

Ask about the school’s approach to supporting positive student behaviour, including for students who might need additional support in this area. Ask for examples of how the school might respond to challenging behaviour, particularly from a student with a disability.

Government policy recognises that in order to learn, all students need to feel connected with their school community, including their peers – other students. Social learning – learning to work, play and make friends with others – is an important part of the school experience for every student.

Some students need additional support in this area, for example to help them communicate or learn social rules such as how to join in or take turns at games. For some students, unstructured time in the playground at recess and lunchtime can be stressful or isolating; this can affect their confidence and learning when they return to class.

Feel free to ask how the school facilitates social interactions. This might be especially important at secondary school; many parents and carers feel anxious about how their child will manage socially, in an environment that might have many more students than primary school.

Schools often have lunchtime and after school activities, such as school productions, bands, music, and clubs such as drama or chess. These can provide opportunities for your child to meet other children with similar interests, or to develop new interests, and make new friends. Some primary schools have a supervised room open at lunchtime for students to take part in board games and other activities. In many schools, the library is open at lunchtime, and before and after school. This can be another place to meet other like-minded students or to have some quiet time.

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Additional consideration for secondary schools

If you are visiting a mainstream secondary school, ask how staff would work with your child as they progress through the school. Adjusting the year 7 program for a child’s needs can be quite a different prospect to providing a modified curriculum in a range of subjects in the upper year levels.

Consistency and communication can be a particular challenge at secondary school. Instead of one classroom teacher, your child has a number of subject teachers. Ask how your child’s needs would be communicated to all their teachers, and how teachers would be included in planning processes. The school might not yet have systems in place to address this, but you should feel reassured that they are committed to exploring ways to ensure your child’s needs are met across the curriculum, including with regard to camps, special activities and excursions.

It might seem early to be thinking about career planning, but secondary school is an important pathway towards further education and work. Choosing a school that supports choices and pathways that may be of interest to your child later in life is an important consideration.

You can ask schools if they offer a range of options when it comes to school-leaving qualifications, rather than only VCE. Also ask what support the school can provide for students and families, when planning for transition to various post-school options.

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