4. Parental views on school experiences
Parents and cares were broadly positive about their child's experience of school across all of the SHANARRI indicators.
Parents and carers with children at mainstream primary and secondary schools highlighted that they liked that communication with the school was good; enhanced support which was available; and children were comfortable at the school. Most parents of children at mainstream schools had something they would like to improve about the school - including some concerns about resources, staff and buildings; high staff turnover and lack of continuity. In secondary schools, a few parents highlighted concerns about ensuring information about children's needs is provided to all teachers; schools being big and noisy; a lack of physical space; a lack of specialist support; and concerns about bullying.
Parents with children at special schools liked the small size of the school and classes, the good ratio of children to adults and the access to physical space both indoors and outdoors. A few felt that their child was now achieving more than at mainstream school, while a few had concerns about academic challenge.
Most parents whose children received homework said that they felt well equipped to support their child, and they knew they could ask the school for help if needed. However, a few felt they would like more support.
Almost all parents were very positive about the relationship and level of communication with teachers and support staff at their child's school. However, a few felt that they had to push to improve communication. Many parents had little contact with education managers, officers and educational psychologists - and those who had contact reported a mixed experience.
Overall, most parents felt that their child's school was doing well in terms of meeting the needs of their child. However, for many it had taken a long time to get their child to the right environment. The challenges included a lack of understanding from staff in mainstream schools; experiences of bullying; assessment and diagnosis periods being long and complicated; having to push for extra support or spaces at special schools or ASN units; and being moved between schools with little notice.
A few parents of children with dyslexia in mainstream schools felt their needs were not being met. A few on split placements felt that their child's needs were better met in the special school than the mainstream school.
4.1 Parents and carers were asked their views on their child's experience at school. This chapter explores parental views on:
- successes and challenges relating to school experiences;
- children's feelings about school;
- overall ability of the school to meet needs; and
- other schooling options.
4.2 It is worth noting that this research is qualitative, and is based on the experiences of 39 parents and carers. This includes 23 parents or carers of primary age pupils, and 16 parents or carers of secondary age pupils. Nine had children at mainstream schools, 22 had children at mainstream schools with some form of enhanced support or base, and eight had children at special schools.
4.3 While this chapter gives an in-depth understanding of the experiences, feelings and perspectives of those who were involved in the research, its findings cannot be extrapolated to the wider population.
Successes and challenges
4.4 Parents and carers were asked about what worked well about their child's school experience at the moment, and what did not.
4.5 Parents and carers with children at mainstream primary and secondary schools (both with and without support bases) highlighted the same types of things that they liked about their child's school. The main themes emerging were that:
- Communication with the school was good - This was the most commonly mentioned positive aspect, with parents valuing regular communication, good relationships with school leaders and school approaches which were supportive of the whole family. A few parents also liked that they could be involved in the school when they wanted to be.
- Enhanced support was available - Children were supported by trained and skilled staff who understood the needs of the child. A few were particularly positive about the techniques the children were taught to manage their needs, and the school's willingness to try new approaches.
- Children were comfortable at school - A few parents with children at mainstream schools without ASN bases highlighted the environment was friendly and welcoming, and a few at schools with enhanced support mentioned that their child was comfortable, and that their child was with children with similar needs.
"He gets the support he needs, and he can take his time to learn when he is ready."
Parent, mainstream primary
4.6 Parents of children at special schools highlighted that they liked the school being small, class sizes being small, the good ratio of children to adults and the access to physical space both indoors and outdoors.
"They have the facilities. They can do outdoor learning, smaller classes, and the staff have a massive understanding."
Parent, pupil at special school (primary)
4.7 About three quarters of parents had something that they would like to improve about the school. The others said that there was nothing that didn't work about their child's education at that school. Those who had nothing negative to say were parents of children across all types of school.
4.8 Parents and carers with children at mainstream primary schools (both with and without ASN bases) had some concerns about resources - including availability of pupil support assistants, concerns in class support may be withdrawn and concerns that the buildings were quite run down. Some highlighted high staff turnover and lack of continuity among pupil support assistants. One parent was concerned that enhanced provision was only available for part of the day, and another was concerned that the school was quite far away which impacted on her child's sense of community. One parent said his child felt embarrassed going out of the mainstream class for additional support.
4.9 Parents and carers with children at secondary schools had varied concerns, with one or two parents highlighting each of the following issues:
- challenges filtering information about their child's needs (health and educational) to all teachers;
- lack of physical space;
- schools being too big and noisy;
- lack of specialist support such as dyslexia support; and
- concerns about bullying.
"Not all of the teachers know him and so sometimes they will question why he has a locker or a hall pass. They can be quite rude. And he doesn't understand enough to explain it to them."
Parent, mainstream secondary school
4.10 A few parents and carers of children at special schools had concerns about academic challenge, feeling that their child was not progressing or being challenged as they should.
One parent challenged the special school about the level of academic work her son was being given. She felt they had him on a much lower level than he was capable of. She had her son assessed privately and was told he was particularly gifted at maths. She challenged the school about the level of his work and they listened and apologised.
4.11 A few parents of children at special schools were concerned about the mix of needs within the school, meaning that pupils were often exposed to extreme behavioural needs. For example, this was a particular concern for one carer of a very young primary boy in a SEBN special school, who was in a small school with no peer group.
"Sometimes, I'm wary he sees too much for his age. He is a loveable wee boy, and he is with much older boys."
Carer, special school (primary)
Feelings about the school
4.12 Parents and carers were broadly positive about their child's experience at school across all of the SHANARRI indicators. Some said they were well aware of the indicators, and worked through these at regular review sessions. A few said that as long as their child felt happy about going to school that was all they wanted.
- Safe - While almost all felt their child was safe at school, some parents (at secondary schools) were concerned about bullying. This was raised equally often by parents of young women and young men - although one parent of a young woman raised very serious issues around bullying causing her daughter to become suicidal and have mental health needs, and being unable to return to the school.
- Healthy - Almost all felt their child was healthy at school. A few parents (at mainstream primary and secondary schools) felt that their child was anxious about school, or felt ill while at school.
- Achieving - Almost all parents felt that their child was achieving at school, or was doing their best. A few parents of children at special schools indicated that they now felt that their child was achieving more than at mainstream school - often because their social, emotional or behavioural needs had been well supported, which enabled them to focus on their learning. However, a few had concerns about academic challenge at special schools and within ASN bases.
- Nurtured - Almost all parents felt that their child was nurtured, or a few said that they did not know.
- Active - Almost all parents felt that their child was active at school. However a few said that their child chose not to be active. One parent said their child (who is at secondary school) had been bullied in PE, and now would not take part.
- Respected - Almost all parents felt their child was respected, or a few said that they did not know.
- Responsible - Almost all said that their child was responsible, at least to some degree, at school.
- Included - While most parents felt that their child was included, one said that their child had not been invited on the school trip. A few parents with children with SEBN on split placements said that while their children were included in the special school, they were not included in their mainstream school.
4.13 Parents had different experiences of homework. Some said that their child did not receive homework, because they were too tired, because it was too difficult or stressful or because they preferred to have a clear separation between school and home. A few pupils did their homework in school. However a few said that they would like their child to have homework, to stretch and challenge them or so they were treated the same as others.
One parent said their child was upset because her brother received homework but she didn't. The child talked to the school, and the school supported her to receive homework.
4.14 Most parents whose children received homework said that they felt well equipped to support their child if needed, and that they knew they could ask the school for help if needed. However a few said that they would like more help to know what to initiate at home, and how to support children who may be falling behind in the classroom.
4.15 One parent said that she had felt unsupported until P4, when a teacher recognised she needed more support. Another parent said that they felt homework didn't match their child's level, but the school did not respond well to this. One parent paid for a tutor because she felt the mainstream primary school wasn't doing enough for her child's learning.
One parent with a child at a mainstream primary school said that she received information at the beginning of each term about topics that would be covered in class. However, she would welcome more week to week feedback about what to focus on and how to help her son. She felt she would then be able to provide more support at home.
Communication with the school and authority
4.16 Almost all parents were very positive about the relationship and level of communication with teachers and support staff at their child's school. Parents often described communication as excellent, open and honest, and based on good relationships. Communication took place by phone, email, social media, and apps. Parents particularly valued regular communication and the ability to contact teachers at any time.
"I can pick up the phone any day and they make me feel like I'm not being daft."
Carer, special school, primary
4.17 A few parents mentioned the value of apps which allow schools to provide a daily journal, including pictures of what pupils are doing.
"The 'seesaw' app helps you to feel more connected with the school on a daily basis."
Parent, mainstream primary school
4.18 However, a few parents felt less positive. A few felt that they had to push to improve communication, or that parent's meetings were not particularly useful. A few parents said that there was a strong focus on feedback about problems or negative messages, which could make them feel like they were failing.
"Sometimes I feel that the school only contacts me about the negative things, or things that he's done - not about what other people have done to him."
Parent, mainstream secondary school
4.19 One parent at a mainstream secondary found that school didn't always tell her things - for example that her son was being bullied. Another parent at the same school said that communication was a battle, and said that parents were not allowed to make direct contact with teachers and had to go through pastoral care.
4.20 Almost all parents felt that school leaders and head teachers were very good, approachable and visible, but most did not deal with them on a regular basis.
"If I ask to speak with the head teacher I always get time with her."
Parent, mainstream primary school
4.21 Feedback on relationships and communication with education managers, officers and educational psychologists was very mixed. Some parents felt that support from educational psychology or educational social work was very useful. However, many said that they had little contact, limited communication, their views were not always listened to and decisions about their child's education could be last minute.
"They do come to meetings but I don't have much to do with them. The school deals with them more than me."
Parent, mainstream secondary school
One parent said her son had an assessment when he started his current mainstream secondary school which has an autism base. This was to determine the level of work he should be at. However, the parent has never heard the outcome of this assessment.
Ability of the school to meet needs
4.22 Overall, most parents felt that their child's school was doing well in terms of meeting the needs of their child. Parents largely felt that schools were supportive, flexible and tried very hard to meet individual needs.
"The boys really enjoy the support they get at school."
Parent, mainstream primary school
"I have 100 per cent trust in the school. If there is a problem, I know it can be fixed."
Parent, special school
4.23 However, three parents of children with dyslexia (and associated needs) in mainstream primary and secondary schools felt that their needs were not being met. This was due to lack of resources and lack of dedicated dyslexia support.
4.24 Two parents of children who had split placements felt that their children's needs were well met in the special school but not in the mainstream school. One parent was concerned about planned phased return to previous mainstream school, due to previous negative experiences. One parent felt that there could be a lot of 'crisis management' in meeting needs - but felt that overall needs were well met within the resources available. Finally, one parent felt that needs were very well met but that this was largely dependent on one very good teacher.
Other schooling options
4.25 Almost all parents felt that their children were now at the right school for them. However, one carer was still exploring options and found it very hard to know what the best option would be.
"We are all at a complete loss with [x] and how to manage him in education… I don't know if we are doing the right thing."
Carer, special school
4.26 Two parents felt that their children would be better in smaller units or special schools. In one case this was because the mainstream secondary school was too large and noisy. In another, it was because mainstream primary did not include anyone at a developmentally similar stage, with similar interests. In this case, the pupil had to play outdoors in the nursery playground because the school playground was open, and he was considered (by his parent) to be a flight risk.
4.27 One parent felt that their child spent a lot of time in an ASN base within a mainstream school, and wondered if they would be better served at a special school.
4.28 However, for many it had taken a long time to get to the right environment. Key challenges included:
- lack of understanding from staff in mainstream schools;
- experiences of bullying in mainstream schools;
- assessment and diagnosis periods being long and complicated;
- exclusions from school due to violence and behaviour;
- having to push for funding to support pupils in mainstream schools;
- having to push for spaces at special schools, ASN units or more appropriate mainstream schools;
- being moved between schools with little notice; and
- experiences of physical restraining, which one parent wished to move away from.
"At his previous school, [x] was seen as a naughty child and his behaviour was a real issue."
Parent, mainstream primary
4.29 A few parents highlighted negative experiences at nursery and in early primary, and would have welcomed earlier discussion around options of how to meet their child's needs.
4.30 A few initially had joint placements between mainstream schools and special schools or ASN bases, but found that it could be quite challenging. A few felt their children did not understand the need to go to two different schools, and a few had seen more positive learning and social skills develop within the ASN bases meaning they wished their child to attend there full time.
4.31 Conversely, one parent had moved their child from a special school to a mainstream school with an ASN base, and preferred this mixed environment which challenged her learning.