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Parent Perceptions of Decision-making When Selecting an Special Educational Needs Placement for Their Child

do not necessarily reflect the views of

Parents’ Experiences and Perceptions of Decision-making When Selecting an Educational Placement for Their Child with Special Educational Needs.


Selecting a placement for a child with special educational needs (SEN) is “one of the most significant decisions” a parent makes (Department for Education, 2011, p. 51). Yet parents find this process complex and difficult (Bajwa-Patel & Devecchi, 2014). The recent Child and Families Act 2014 and the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (Department for Education and Department of Health, 2015), emphasised parents’ choice, placing families at the centre of decision-making. Yet, despite these changes (Norwich & Eaton, 2015), little is understood about parents’ decision-making processes (Love, Zagona, Kurth, & Miller, 2017) and the literature lacks engagement with decision-making theory (Mann, Moni, & Cuskelly, 2016).

Context of the Research

(Norwich, 2013) identifies dilemmas that remain unsolved or emerge from new legislation. In the context of parental decision-making, information and inclusion emerge as key factors.

The new legislation claims to promote real choice of placement for parents through a local offer which is designed to increase confidence in the SEN system by providing information on local placements (Lamb, 2013). Nevertheless, when decision-making parents report a lack of information and find making informed choices difficult (Bajwa-Patel & Devecchi, 2014). Without independent and reliable information, parents in an Australian study utilised “hot knowledge” (rumour and gossip from peers) finding the experiences of other parents more informative than professional sources (Lilley, 2015, p. 183). However, there may be a cultural difference in the information needs of Australian parents. While poor information resources may hinder the decision-making process, there is little exploration of how this impacts the process for British parents.

Information and parental assessment of the quality of inclusion available at a potential placement is influential to parents’ decision-making processes. Beliefs regarding the school’s capacity, commitment and expertise in SEN and concerns regarding bullying and rejection are key (Atamturk, 2017; Peters & Brooks, 2016). Home-schooling parents report failure to meet need and their child’s negative school experiences for withdrawing them from formal education (Kendall & Taylor, 2016). While committed to inclusion, parents are aware of the discrepancy between the ideology and reality (Mann, 2016). Parents’ dilemmas stem from wanting their children to participate fully and inclusively in mainstream schools (Lightfoot & Bond, 2013) and wanting to protect them from bullying and social isolation (Lilley, 2015). However, how the participation-protection dilemma (Norwich, 2013) is reconciled by parents following recent legal changes is unknown.

Considerable literature on decision-making theory exists within cognitive psychology, but studies regarding parents’ decision-making for their child with SEN rarely engages with it. Exceptions are (Mann, Cuskelly, & Moni, 2015) who use rational-choice theory and (Mann, Moni, & Cuskelly, 2016) who utilise Social Role Valorisation theory. The lack of engagement with decision-making theory may be attributed to its focus on optimal decision-making rather than experiences and perceptions. However, certain frameworks such as the Adaptive Decision-Maker (ADM) framework (Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993) may be useful in understanding the intricacies of parental decision-making experience.

Decision-making for parents is clearly multifactorial but how these different factors interact with considerations of type of placement is not well-defined. Parents also find decision-making stressful and uncertain (Lightfoot & Bond, 2013; McNerney, Hill, & Pellicano, 2015). The ADM framework may be helpful as it considers decisions where choice attributes make no single solution clear and there is a high degree of uncertainty. It also uses heuristics as a simplification mechanism and considers the role of emotion in decision-making. These attributes are aligned with the issues raised in parental decision-making when selecting a placement for children with SEN, yet prior work has not considered this alignment.

Purpose of the Study

There is a practical and theoretical paucity in the literature. While parental voice is increasingly prevalent (Rix & Matthews, 2014; Valle, 2018) more research is required to fully understand their experiences, especially using methodologies that focus on in-depth interpretation e.g. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) which has not been previously utilised in this context. To address this, an in-depth empathic appreciation of parents’ decision-making experiences and processes is required. This will enable professionals and researchers to better support them through the new SEN legislation, providing more informed choices regarding placement and improved outcomes for children with SEN.


The aims of this research are:

  1. To explore and understand parents’ complex experiences of decision making when selecting a placement for their child with SEN.
  2. To examine the efficacy of the ADM framework (Payne, Bettman and Johnson, 1993) in supporting the understanding of these lived experiences.

Research Questions

To achieve the aims there are two research questions:

  1. How do parents make sense of their decision-making when selecting an educational placement for children with Special Educational Needs?
  2. How useful is the ADM framework in supporting interpretations of parents’ sense-making of their decision-making process?


The study will utilise a pragmatic design so the aims and research questions may be answered without the ontological and epistemological constraints of a particular paradigm (Mertens, 2017). This design allows the use of a hybrid analytic strategy.

The study will use Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) methodology. IPA is concerned with how individuals make sense of experiences which are significant to them (Smith & Eatough, 2016). Gaining insight into parents’ decision-making will involve exploring their feelings, perceptions, thoughts and reflections; therefore, IPA was considered an appropriate methodology. This addresses the first research question.

IPA is also suitable because of its flexible epistemological position. This study will use a critical realist position which ontologically and epistemologically supports a pluralist approach (Rick Hood, 2016) which is important in addressing the second question.

Despite IPA’s is epistemological flexibility (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009), it resists use of deductive a priori theories prioritising data for interpretation using inductive reasoning. Therefore, to address the second research question, data will be analysed using a hybrid combination of inductive IPA analysis and deductive a priori codes derived from the ADM framework. Post analysis, the usefulness of the codes in supporting the interpretation process will be appraised.


Underpinned by idiographic philosophical assumptions, IPA is concerned with individual and detailed accounts of experience. As IPA sampling represents a perspective rather than a population, this study will seek to recruit 4 participants using a purposive homogenous sampling strategy (Smith et al, 2009).

The study’s aims, contextualised in recent legal changes, inform the inclusion criteria. The sample universe will include individual parents who have experienced the decision-making process in selecting a placement for their child with SEN. To ensure life-history homogeneity (Robinson, 2014) and the timeliness and relevance of participants’ experience, parents must have finalised a new Education Health Care (EHC) plan[1] for their child within 1 year of the study’s commencement. To maintain geographical homogeneity, all participants will reside within the same London borough.  For recruitment, Smith et al’s (2009) referral method will be employed; gatekeepers e.g. SEN lawyers, SENCos’ and local advocacy groups will be contacted to help recruit participants.


Data will be collected using semi-structured interviews; the exemplary data collection method for IPA (Smith and Eatough, 2016). Semi-structured interviews, allow the adaptation of initial questions in response to participant answers. The researcher can then further explore emergent or unanticipated areas of interest (Smith, 2016). The content of the interview schedule will use open-ended non-directive questions informed by IPA best practice and a pilot study. A progressive focus framework will be employed during the interview phase to allow interesting and relevant findings to be explored further.


The key phases within the proposed study are ethical approval, instrument and analytical tool development, pilot study, recruitment, empirical interviews, data analysis and write-up. Timeframes are detailed in Appendix A. As a key element of IPA and to maintain a high level of rigour, a reflexive journal will be maintained throughout the study (Larkin & Thompson, 2012; Vicary, Young, & Hicks, 2017).

The first phase involves obtaining ethical approval following which work can begin on developing the interview schedule and codebook. An interview schedule will be created to guide data collection and will be informed by literature regarding decision-making and IPA best practice. An a priori set of codes derived from the ADM framework is required for the data analysis phase. A codebook will be developed using techniques outlined by DeCuir-Gunby, Marshall and McCulloch (2011) and demonstrated by Leendertz and Blignaut (2017). Additional recruitment documentation e.g. the participant information sheet and consent forms will also be produced.

The validity and reliability of the recruitment documentation, interview schedule and codebook, will be assessed in a pilot study. These materials may be adapted in a reflective and reflexive response to the pilot study.

The next phase is recruitment; gatekeepers will be approached to identify and refer willing participants that meet the inclusion criteria. Recruited participants will be interviewed at a mutually convenient time and place which will be recorded digitally. Following each interview, a debrief will allow participants to ask additional questions and reflect upon the interview process.  The completed data analysis will be member-checked by participants for validity.

Analytic Strategy

The analytic strategy will use a hybrid approach using IPA inductively to understand parents’ experience of decision-making and the theoretically driven codebook from Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2012) to ascertain the usefulness of the ADM framework in making sense of their experiences. The aim is not to test the framework but to investigate how well it enhances understanding of parents’ experiences. This strategy is informed by Edwards, Jepson, and McInnes (2018) who adapted work by Fereday & Muir-Cochrane (2006)

Figure 1: Proposed Hybrid Analytical Strategy

Figure 1 illustrates the linear and iterative elements of the hybrid analytical strategy. IPA strategies will be used to initially understand each individual participant’s experience (Steps 1-4). The researcher will return to initial notes to explore the relationships between emergent notes, themes and superordinate themes and codes from the codebook (Step 5). Once this process is complete for all users (Step 6), across-participant clustering of themes follows (Step 7). IPA has little distinction between analysis and write-up (Smith et al, 2009: Jeong & Othman, 2016)(Step 8).

This hybrid strategy allows understanding of the sense making of parents whilst keeping the integrity of the phenomenological commitment to IPA. Then a priori codes theoretically position interpretations of sense-making in relation to a formalised body of knowledge. The resultant superordinate themes will be discussed and understood within a critical realist viewpoint.

The study will be evaluated using qualitative guidelines outlined by (Yardley, 2015) Yardley (2015) and evaluation criteria for pluralistic research (Frost, 2011) will be considered.


Ethical Considerations

To respect and protect both researcher and participants ethical issues will be considered at all stages of the research process.

Ethical approval will be sought from the Manchester Institute of Education. A participant information sheet will be distributed to gatekeepers and potential participants. This will clearly describe the intended research, its purpose, what participation will involve, data anonymity, confidentiality, access and storage. This sheet will be used by gatekeepers as part of an invitation to recruit.

Once identified by gatekeepers, interested participants will voluntarily contact the researcher. Participants will be given a consent form to complete before interview; those who cannot give informed consent will be excluded. Participants will be informed they are under no obligation to take part and can withdraw at any point. Although excerpts of interviews will be used in the write-up, all data will be anonymised ensuring participants cannot be identified. Concerns can be addressed in the debrief post-interview.

There is a minimal risk that participants may become distressed when reflecting on past experiences. This will be addressed by ensuring participants are appropriately prepared via the information sheet. Additionally, the pilot study will be used to reframe questions to avoid distress. If a participant does become distressed, data collection will immediately be terminated with the option of withdrawing from the study or reconvening at a later point.


The proposed study has a number of limitations:

  • IPA has been criticised for reliance on participants’ ability to communicate their experiences through language and the researcher’s ability to interpret and theorise (Willig, 2013). While language has limitations as a conduit to experience it remains a useful medium for understanding experience.
  • The researcher has experienced the decision-making process under scrutiny twice. Whilst this may aid interpretation, it also introduces potential bias (Noble & Smith, 2015) which could impact validity and reliability of findings. To mitigate, a reflexive journal will be kept throughout the planning, implementation and write-up of the study, maintaining a sensitivity to context.
  • Use of a pluralist analytical strategy is novel and less documented (Clarke et al., 2015). To ensure rigour, the analytic processes will be described with transparency, coherence and reflexivity.
  • Unexpected issues may arise in any phase, however, careful consideration of risk factors (see Appendix B), and utilising Agile project management strategies will mitigate this (Philbin, 2017; Riol & Thuillier, 2015).


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Bajwa-Patel, M., & Devecchi, C. (2014). ‘Nowhere that fits’: the dilemmas of school choice for parents of children with Statements of special educational needs (SEN) in England. Support for Learning29(2), 117–135.

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DeCuir-Gunby, J. T., Marshall, P. L., & McCulloch, A. (2011). Developing and Using a Codebook for the Analysis of Interview Data: An Example from a Professional Development Research Project. Field Methods23(2), 136–155.

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Department for Education and Department of Health. (2015). Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Retrieved from

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Fereday, J., & Muir-Cochrane, E. (2006). Demonstrating Rigor Using Thematic Analysis: A Hybrid Approach of Inductive and Deductive Coding and Theme Development. International Journal of Qualitative Methods5(1), 80–92.

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Appendix A: Gantt Chart for the proposed study.

Appendix B: Risk Analysis.

Risks were considered against a matrix of severity and likelihood to determine overall project impact and whether mitigation was required.

Risk Likelihood Severity Impact Mitigations and contingencies
Insufficient participants recruited Low to medium High Medium to high Smith et al’s (2009) suggested referral approach will be used; gatekeepers such as SEN lawyers, SENCos and local advocacy groups will be contacted to help recruit relevant participants. 

If recruitment fails in the London Borough selected for sampling, there is potential to widen the geographical sampling to the city of London.

Possibility that discussions during the interviews might cause emotional distress in participants Low Medium Low Participants will receive a detailed participant information pack which will caution them about this risk. They will be encouraged to consider any potential impact to their emotional wellbeing derived from discussing these events and issues with a third party. Participants recruitment to the study will be voluntary (participants self-refer to the researcher) and will be free to withdraw at any point.
Technical issues resulting in data loss and/or non-availability of key computing resources Low Medium to high Low to Medium All data will be encrypted and kept on University of Manchester servers and routinely backed up to a cloud storage provider that is compatible with EU/British Data Protection requirements.
Possibility of dissemination of personal data and/or loss of anonymity of participants Low Low to medium None to Low Only data required for the study will be recorded and will be anonymised where appropriate. Unique IDs or fictional names will be used in reporting to distinguish between participants.
Low Severity 

Little or no effect on project

Medium Severity 

Effects are felt, but not critical to project outcomes.

High Severity 

Serious impact(s) on project outcomes.

Low Likelihood 

Event is unlikely to occur

No Impact Low Impact Medium Impact
Medium Likelihood 

Event is possible

Low Impact Medium Impact High Impact
High Likelihood 

Event is virtually certain

Medium impact High Impact Critical
Impact Rating Mitigation Details
No Impact Mitigation unnecessary
Low Impact Mitigation desirable, but not essential
Medium Impact Mitigation strongly recommended
High Impact Mitigation essential
Critical Mitigation potentially insufficient – re-evaluate factors surrounding risk

[1] Considered a sampling requirement as finalisation of an EHC plan involves naming a placement.

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