Being part of a community and sharing our journey through life with other people is at the core of the human experience. As we grow and develop, we acquire the tools, skills, and abilities that enable us to contribute and be accepted.
Most of us are motivated to engage with and respond to the people around us; driving us to form social groups and bond with one another. Without this our lives would be greatly diminished. Love and belonging sit just above safety and physiological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of need – illustrating how critical belonging is for most of us.
For children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) belonging is as essential to living a full life as for anyone else. Belonging gives children the confidence and reassurance they need to take on new challenges and acquire new capabilities.
In the absence of personalised support many children with SEND are at risk of being excluded from community life and can find themselves isolated and cut off from being active participants in society.
Equipping children with the skills they need to function effectively within their communities is a key function of education and a first step to preventing isolation by enabling young people with SEND and their families to enjoy the experience of belonging in a wider context. A small but significant number of children with SEND have to look beyond their local community, however, in order to access the education and care they need.
Breakdown in the family home or school placement are among the reasons most commonly associated with seeking an out-of-area residential school placement. Serial placement failure is not uncommon among children with severe learning difficulties whose behaviour is described as challenging, introducing further fracturing and discontinuity into their lives.
Out-of-area placements inevitably disrupt important aspects of a child’s life such as the security of relationships with family, friends and wider social networks. Separation from all that is familiar would be emotionally challenging for most children and can be especially so for children whose cognitive and communication disabilities impair their ability to make sense of the world they inhabit.
Although many local authorities in England and Wales are working toward providing comprehensive locally-based education and accommodation that is effective and accessible, there is still some way to go. In the meantime, out-of-area placements remain a key source of support for the small number of children whose needs are significant.
So, when an out-of-area placement is needed what features of provision are likely to maximise benefit and minimise cost in both human and economic terms?
First, the prospective school must be able to provide an effective education following a broad and balanced curriculum, with focused teaching, and robust assessment procedures that are reliable and valid. Prospective placements should be capable of connecting school-based learning with life beyond the school day – in residential accommodation as well as in nearby and home communities. School and residential settings should be happy, safe, and nurturing environments that are filled with empathy and kindness.
Second, a prospective placement should be capable of providing good transitional support for pupils and their families that aids their assimilation into the new living arrangements. Effective transitional support must be informed by in-depth pupil-centred pre-placement assessment. As a general case, out-of-area placements will actively pursue and maintain regular, close, and sustained links between pupil, family and friends, using modern communication technologies where possible. Placement providers would maintain close links with service providers and commissioners from each pupil’s area of origin, sharing information about pupil progress, co-producing pupil plans, and supporting local capacity building to enable the option of a pupil’s timely return to his or her home authority.
Third, is transitional support at the end of an out-of-area placement. Transitional support plans agreed by all stakeholders specify what it would take to support a pupil in his or her area of origin, if that was desired, and provide the technical assistance necessary for that to happen. Transitional support might include a person-centred plan, behavioural support plans, bespoke training and support, and outcome measurement.
A bespoke and fully costed package could be delivered against clear outcomes with support easing over time as the transition is progressed.
Supporting positive family and community relationships is central to helping children remain embedded and connected to their familial support system while developing and learning important skills that will enhance their ability to develop new relationships within their communities over their lifetime.
Creating an effective transitional model that supports families, local support services, and most importantly, the child, is essential to ensuring that out-of-area placements are delivered effectively and benefit both the individual and the wider community.
A greater focus on enhancing transitional support models for children who may be educated out of their local area, could enable a more strategic, joined-up and effective approach to whole-life education and care. This would ultimately help to create stronger, more inclusive communities, lowering the cost of long-term care and helping to ensure that people with SEND are offered education and care pathways that support their ability to belong.
Professor Sandy Toogood is head of clinical and behavioural services at Abbey School for Exceptional Children and honorary professor at Bangor University College of Human Science