Schoolboy raising hand

SEND school visits

There are a variety of education settings in which SEND children are taught, including Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools, pupil referral units, SEN classes/units within mainstream schools, and wholly within a mainstream school class with a pupil support member of staff. There are a significant number of SENDchildren within the home education community, too.

Where SEND children are taught depends on the needs of the child/young person, the wishes of their parents/carers, the availability of education settings in the area they live in, and, often, the funding arrangements from their Local Authority (LA). Many, but not all, SEND children will have an EHCP (Education and Healthcare Plan), which is a legally binding agreement between the family, school, health and care providers, which is overseen by the LA. Some families fight for years to get an ECHP for their child, and some wait for many years to get the diagnosis they need for their child to access support.

The reason for highlighting this is that simply asking for the number of children with an EHCP in a class when schools are booking may well overlook others who actually are SEND but have fallen outside of the official net. It can be, unfortunately, a bit of a postcode lottery.

When booking a visit, it is better to ask for the number of pupils who have recognised SEND needs and then ask the person making the booking to specify the access and learning needs. This is not the same thing as asking for a person’s diagnosis. So, for instance, learning that a class has a student with Down syndrome or autism, or a wheelchair user, won’t give you the practical information you need to prepare and best deliver your workshop inclusively. Consider the following examples:

  • James is a wheelchair user who can self-propel up to wheelchair height tables and has full manual dexterity of his hands for exploring materials in the workshop.
  • Ella is Visually Impaired and will need a magnifying sheet and large-print text, and she will benefit from a clear verbal explanation of the workshop materials she explores.
  • Nathan is neuro-divergent and uses verbal and physical stimming (repeating the same vocal sounds or physical actions, such as humming, grunting, shrieking, repetitive speech, or tapping on objects or ears) to regulate his sensory input. He is afraid of water so will not enjoy the pond dipping workshop. He communicates using PECS (picture exchange).

In disability language, we talk about the social model and the medical model. The former refers to barriers that an environment poses (or disables) to a person due to their access needs. It’s important to stay focused on person-first language and needs-based questions. It is also important to outline a workshop’s details and ask if anything within it will need adjustments or should be avoided, such as loud noises.

As it’s often the case that the person making the school booking will not be on the trip (visits are often booked by school receptionists or admin staff), they may not know the full learning or support needs of the children visiting. It is essential, however, to have this information, not only so museum staff are prepared and able to adapt a workshop so that everyone gets the most out of it, but also for the health and safety of those on the visit. It may also be the case that the person taking the booking in your museum is not an education specialist or the person who will be leading the workshop. For that reason, you may want to include a checklist of access questions as part of your booking process so that any access and sensory requirements can be noted at this point.

Example school booking template (PDF)  which you can adapt as necessary for your organisation.

In addition to thoroughly asking (and double-checking!) about the needs of the children and young people visiting, don’t take for granted that the school’s physical access needs will have been flagged up with you. Practical things such as where to park a high-top mini-bus with wheelchair access (which may be at the back or the side of the bus); where to find the toilet and clean hands (have you got a Changing Places toilet on-site or nearby?); where to eat lunch under cover or where to Peg (tube) feed or give medication to those children who need it are all considerations. If you have a poor mobile signal, teachers will need to be made aware as they will rely on mobile contact within the group, to school, and possibly to parents in case of an emergency.

Lastly, consider identifying a “chill out” space so if a pupil needs it, they can have a sensory break or time-out. If a separate room cannot be provided, then a pop-up tent or small gazebo will do. This isn’t for the whole class to decamp to, rather it’s a small, sensory bland “safe space” for an individual to retreat to with their carer. If you do offer this facility, make sure you promote it to schools when they are considering booking, but also make it clear that a school staff member should stay with the student when there, not a member of museum staff. Showing that you have considered the need for a “chill out” space reassures SEND teachers that you understand their pupils’ needs and are accommodating to them.

For schools, especially SEND schools, having a greeter on arrival (ideally someone the school has been introduced to prior to the visit) will help alleviate everyone’s anxiety. It will help if the class has had access to this person either via virtual link or by email with a photo of them prior to the visit. Consider building in a “meet the expert” Zoom call before the on-site visit so the class can familiarise themselves with the staff, the site, and the subject. This is a great opportunity for staff and pupils to ask questions or start their own investigations at school or home prior to their visit.

Lastly, consider how the students who have visited you can offer feedback on how they found the workshop or visit. What after-visit contact can you have with the school to not only get feedback but to support them in taking their museum experience further?

For a good overview of planning for SEND school visits and for some case studies that support this work, look at the Special schools and museums toolkit (Word).

Here are some useful resources to download:

What do Special Schools need (PDF)

Leeds Museum Sensory Environments lesson plan (PDF)