Choosing a school for a child with SEN

by Catherine Shorrocks. Finding the right educational setting for a child with special needs may mean a difficult choice between mainstream and special school.

Child with colourful shapes


Parents of children with special needs are no different to any other parents when it comes to choosing the right school. You look for an environment where your child is most likely to thrive – where they will feel happy and secure at school and benefit from the kind of teaching that enables them to develop, learn and meet their potential.

For some children it will be clear which type of educational setting is likely to be most suitable, but for others there will be a real choice to be made between mainstream and special school provision.

Nowadays, children with many different special needs are successfully included in mainstream settings - usually with additional support provided on a one-to-one or small group basis. A skilled class teacher knows how to differentiate (modify) the curriculum to meet each child’s level of ability and learning style, allowing them to access the curriculum and learn alongside their peers.

A child with special needs who is properly included in their local mainstream school also benefits from having good role models, is likely to have friends in the neighbourhood and grows up as part of the community.

Special schools provide smaller class sizes and staff ratios as well as specialist teaching and resources. Teachers and teaching assistants are experienced in getting the best out of children with special needs and have training in specific areas, such as alternative methods of communication and strategies for managing difficult behaviour.

Pupils at special schools often have use of some impressive extra facilities, such as soft-play rooms, sensory rooms and hydrotherapy pools. Working alongside others with a similar level of ability can lead to firm friendships and the chance for a child to grow in confidence and self-esteem.

Extra information

The choice between mainstream and special school is an important one and may seem daunting - but you will find it easier to make a decision if you visit as many of the two types of school in your area as possible. It’s a good idea to remember that the quality of provision also varies between individual schools, so go to each with an open mind.

Try to imagine your child in each setting and ask about the support he or she would receive. You will learn a lot about any school by the attitude of the head teacher and other staff you come across. Remember, your child is an individual and you know them best.

How to make a magic moment

Your magic moment will come at the end of the process, when you see your child blossoming at the school you have chosen. Keep this in mind as you make the difficult decision about which school to send them to.

The joy and relief of seeing them making progress and having fun in the right educational environment will make it all worthwhile.

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Top tips

  • Visit
  • all potential schools armed with a list of questions to ask the head teacher or
  • SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator). Consider visiting a second time
  • with your child.Make
  • a list of pros and cons after each visit.Seek
  • the opinions of parents whose children attend each type of school - but bear in
  • mind that their child’s needs may be different from yours.Contact
  • your local Parent Partnership Service (every area has one) for information,
  • advice and support.

Expert opinion

Don’t judge a book by its cover - or a provision by its title. Get to know the school and ask other parents about it. We want our children to be approached as individuals, so perhaps that’s how we should judge a school.

Tori Houghton, Speech therapist and co-editor of Aukids magazine

Parent's tale

In a perfect world I would have wanted my twin boys to be in the same school, but they have very different needs.

Bobby has high-functioning autism and is academically quite gifted. We knew he’d fit into mainstream but we were looking for a small and nurturing place and we needed them to be flexible with Bobby and understand his difficulties.

The school we chose has been brilliant. They prepared a thorough transition plan before he started, made a visual timeline to help him to navigate the day’s routine and have very gradually introduced him to every aspect of school life. His learning support assistant knows what he can and can’t cope with, and has helped to push him to make the most of his academic skills while also working on his social skills.

Bobby’s twin, Alec, has complex learning difficulties as well as autism. I knew he would be perfectly well behaved in a mainstream school, but that it would all go straight over his head. He needed very specific teaching methods to help him focus. Classes at the special school we chose for him are very small (about eight children with one teacher and about four assistants). He started in a class that taught him using sensory techniques and has now moved to an autism class where he has speech therapy every week. Alec has made tremendous progress and is really happy.

You can’t go by what the rest of the world thinks and you can’t go by what you’d hope for if things were different. You have to make a judgement based on your child’s welfare in the here and now. I always did bear in mind that I could change schools if they weren’t suitable, but both have been ideal. 

Debby, from Stockport (mother of seven-year-old twins Bobby and Alec, who have autism)