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The University of Southampton
Southampton Education School

Research project: Parents' choice of special and inclusive early years settings (Nind) - Dormant - Dormant

Currently Active: 

February 2005 - December 2007

The context for the study was government commitment to parental choice, to inclusive education, and to maintaining a continuum of provision for children with special educational needs. The project focused on young children with learning difficulties who, as a result of parental choice, experience a combination of special and mainstream provision.

Research Aims

The aims of the study were to:

  • identify parents who have opted for a combination of special and mainstream services for their child in the early years; 
  • gain a better understanding of how parents conceptualise the choices available to them of the processes involved in making decisions; 
  • explore parents' expectations of combined provision and how they feel about how these have been met in practice.

Design & Scope

The sample comprised parents of children attending both special and inclusive preschool settings. The project was conducted across three local education authorities in the South of England, providing local access to a range of urban and rural settings. Methods for identifying children in combined placements were piloted. Questionnaires were sent to providers (special schools, nurseries, early excellence centres, Sure Start centres etc), to support organisations (local Mencap groups, contact-a-family etc), and to parents identified though existing links and using snowballing techniques. These explored the nature of parental choices, such as how many respondents have chosen to combine special and inclusive settings, how their child's time is divided between settings, and their reasons for choosing combined provision. A sample of parents were interviewed to further enrich the understanding of parents' perspectives and experiences.


The most successful route found for identifying parents of children with learning difficulties who combined special and mainstream early years services was by targeting settings known by the LEA to have children with split early years funding. Only one authority had administrative systems that permitted such access. Other less successful approaches included: sending questionnaires to all known early years settings in an LEA; contacting voluntary groups; asking parents to pass our details to other parents. Approximately 47% of respondents from early years settings (providers) reported they had children with special educational needs in combined placements. Over time, many of these children increased their attendance in one kind of provision and decreased attendance in the other, reflecting parents’ plans for their child’s future primary education. Some parents and providers reported that there were no real choices or very limited choices available. Reasons for this related to geographical location, approach of the LEA towards the funding and allocation of places for children with SEN, and perceived limitations in either the special or mainstream setting.

Parent responses indicated that visiting preschool providers and talking with family, friends and other parents were an influence on their decision-making, as was the support of education and health professionals, with Portage workers being seen by many as playing a key role. Some parents had received conflicting advice from professionals; for some parents professionals had been most supportive and for others, although professionals had been supportive, they had had to fight, sometimes in vain, for funding to fulfil professionals’ recommendations.

Twice as many provider respondents cited positive experiences of children combining special and mainstream/inclusive settings as cited negative or mixed experiences. Providers, parents and voluntary groups volunteered advantages and disadvantages of combining settings for children with special educational needs themselves, for providers and for parents. Advantages for children included: developing social skills with local children combined with accessing special resources; academic/developmental gains; more comprehensive assessment; variety of experience, atmosphere and activities; belonging to different communities; and opportunity to participate in large/small groups, structured/less structured play. Perceived disadvantages included: coping with different structures/routines/expectations/relationships/curricula/pedagogies; confusion; difficulty settling in; the tiring nature of too much input; the time in transit; and children’s preference for one of the settings.

Various factors were cited as key to determining the success of combined placements. These included characteristics of the child (individual qualities, age, disability) and characteristics of the provision (liaison between settings; number of placements; quality of support; experience/ training of staff ethos/curriculum; relationships with staff; number, balance and timing of sessions; staffing ratio; proximity of settings; and how settings complement each other). Respondents also identified process issues as important including: funding of placements; lack of choice; shortage of places; changes in local arrangements; the statementing process; and conflicting advice.

Thematic analysis of the parent interview data led to the identification of the following themes: seeking/getting the best of both worlds; having insurance (each setting making up for what the other lacked); trial and error (see how each type of placement works); belonging to diverse communities; doing the right thing; making hard choices and learning to live with disappointment; struggles and feeling safe. Parent respondents who had opted for combining mainstream/inclusive and special settings did not perceive inclusive education as offering the best of both worlds in itself. The social and 'normal' environment of the mainstream was wanted but there was a lack of faith that the 'special' input needed could be provided there.

Funding body: Mencap City Foundation.

Related research groups

Centre for Research in Inclusion



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