Many parents assume that if their child has learning needs, then the independent sector, with its small classes and high staff-to-pupil ratio, is the place to be.

And in some cases that’s absolutely true, even in high-pressure inner London, as long as you know where to look. Take Sinclair House, in Fulham and on the fringes of zone 1. It’s completely mainstream, yet fast establishing a reputation as a first-class nurturer of academic high achievers and SEN pupils alike (and some children, of course, are both).

Over the years it’s taken everything from dyslexia to communication difficulties in its stride, supporting children with sometimes extensive needs – but without compromising on the highly focused attention it devotes to all its pupils.

We could name other schools that do similarly wonderful things with exceptionally quirky children. But here’s the rub. Being good with SEN may be a strength – but it’s one some head teachers actively play down.

Surprising? On the surface, very. Schools aren’t exactly known for being shy and retiring when it comes to broadcasting even the most modest of successes, particularly when it comes to turning that old prospectus chestnut, ‘recognising each and every child as an individual’ into glorious technicolour reality. Being able to point to the progress made by pupils with learning needs should be a particularly rainbow-hued example.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that, particularly when there are other pupils – and parents – to consider. As a society we all welcome diversity. Inclusion is a wonderful thing. Until, that is, it happens to wash up in your own child’s class when it becomes personal – and then it’s a very different story.

Like it or not, parents can see children with learning needs not as a demonstration of a school’s inclusivity but as a barrier to success in the super competitive senior school place race.

A school can have any number of dazzling features, from award-winning lunches to their own polo team. But even offering Quidditch, with working broomsticks, wouldn’t be enough without that heart-warming, expenditure-justifying list of top senior schools in the annual leavers’ destinations list, complete with a fat spread of scholarships. And if children with learning needs are felt to be sucking up more than their fair share of resources, parents can get twitchy. It’s not fair. But in some results-centric schools, it can, unfortunately, be a fact of life.

And there’s more to schools’ concerns than worries about over-reaching ambition alone. Officially, the numbers of children with learning needs have actually gone down, according to the government. ‘I wonder where they’ve put them,’ says the Good Schools Guide’s SEN director Bernadette John, drily. In her experience, mainstream schools are seeing record numbers of applications from families whose children have learning needs – and they simply
can’t cope.

“Being good with SEN is a strength but some heads actively play it down”

Several well-known preps, previously known for being open to most, if not all, comers are starting to impose an unofficial quota on the numbers, and severity, of children with learning needs further up the school.

Danes Hill, a large, successful prep on the fringes of London, is one of the schools to rethink its admissions policy. While it will remain broadly non-selective in nursery and reception years, the school is placing a greater emphasis on academic ability from Year Two onwards, though reluctantly so, says head of admissions, Carolyn Ward. “With success in 13+ exams one of our primary goals, and an important parental expectation, it simply wouldn’t be fair on everyone as some pupils are not best equipped to deal with sustained academic pressure.”

It’s hard not to have sympathy for schools. Of course there are heads whose attitudes to special needs are (unofficially) negative, whatever the policy document says. But even in the most sympathetic of environments, catering properly for children who need extra support demands thought, resources and, almost invariably, expenditure. Parents will usually be asked to sub at least some of the costs – one-to-one lessons with a specialist teacher, for example. But some children will need extra help at lunchtime, break or even just with moving between classrooms. Training potentially every staff member to be effortlessly versatile in adapting teaching techniques to a range of needs, though perfectly possible, is a big, time-consuming and pricey ask.

“I think it’s more a case of being under-resourced,” agrees Gemma Doyle, head of marketing at Cavendish Education. “Schools may have to have somebody on the staff who has responsibility for the SENCo role but if you’ve got 30 children in a school of 600 that have got SEN, one member of staff just isn’t enough.”

It’s one of the reasons that more specialist independent schools groups like Cavendish Education are flourishing. Each of its four schools has a particular SEN specialisation, underpinned by small classes and a focus on the individual.

The group’s newest venture is the Independent School in West London, which caters for dyslexic pupils who need more heavy-duty support and what amounts effectively to a bespoke education. Currently, its pupils are aged from 11 to 16, but they may consider a broader age range in the future.

Cavendish also owns Bredon School in Gloucestershire. Though brilliant with dyslexia, its education (boarding and day) is all through (3-18) and designed to ensure that every child, with or without learning needs, can flourish. “Families walk up the drive and fall in love,” says Doyle. “We tailor pupils’ education to find the thing that lights them up. And once they’ve found the area in which they’ll shine, they’re flying.”

Instead of forcing everyone into team games, for example  – something that Gemma Doyle describes with commendable understatement as “often not a great fit for children with SEN,” there’s a vast range of individual sports to choose from instead – all of them with equal kudos ratings.

Sinclair House, too, seamlessly integrates children with learning needs – and manages it brilliantly. How’s it done? A lot of hard graft, coupled with huge amounts of sensitivity, for starters.

“We maintain high teacher-pupil ratios, so that we are able to nurture pupils’ self-confidence, and support personal academic goals and objectives,” says the principal, Carlotta O’Sullivan. Small class sizes and flexible teaching also mean that lessons can be tailored and differentiated across a range of abilities, learning styles and interests.

As a result, the gifted and talented can also blossom. “We have one child in Year 6 who is working towards an art scholarship and already doing GCSE portfolio level work,” says O’Sullivan.

And with leavers in recent years heading to senior schools including Latymer Upper and King’s College School, Wimbledon, the school’s approach is clearly not interfering with the trajectories of high fliers. Indeed, being exposed to so many different characters, interests and abilities than might be the case elsewhere is a positive advantage for pupils’ future development.

Inclusivity isn’t taught but is implicit in the way the school works, helping to foster respect and tolerance in and outside the classroom. It builds what Sinclair House describes as ‘emotional dexterity’ – a critical life skill and one that, ultimately, could benefit society as a whole.

“Is Sinclair House at the vanguard of a brave new approach to education?”

It sounds wonderful. So could Sinclair House be the vanguard of a brave, new approach to education, where pupils with learning needs are welcomed and made as much of as the top achievers? Or, together with Cavendish, will they remain niche operators, bravely sticking to their ideals and keeping their cool while white hot ambition dominates the mood elsewhere?

It’s not easy, concedes Bernadette John at the Good Schools Guide. “When the demands on children ramp up with the introduction of specialist teaching and with external exams looming, [independent schools] are very unwilling to consider new entrants with SEN.”

But with perseverance, she says, it is possible to find schools that will take a chance on children at four when they either don’t have a diagnosis or might still catch up. Some may take children with unresolved difficulties into Key Stage Two.

Above all, they should be schools that look past SEN labels and relish the unique contribution that every pupil brings to the community. And as Sinclair House and  Cavendish Education demonstrate, they’re rare beasts, no question – but they are still out there.