Skip to main content

The process of choosing a school can be fraught with difficulties; throw into the mix a child with special needs and the challenges increase. You want your child to have an unparalleled education, but what are your options, and how do you work out what really is best?

What counts as a special need?

If your child has a difficulty that makes learning harder for them than for most children of the same age – whether the difficulty is social, emotional, intellectual, behavioural, physical, sensory or a mixture – then they may well have a special need. The most complex needs are generally diagnosed at birth or soon after, but other conditions, such as mild autistic spectrum disorders or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, may not be identified until well into their schooling. Indeed, you may well have to work hard to have your child’s need recognised as ‘special’. These needs may be transitory or permanent, but what matters is getting good help and support as soon as possible.

School admissions

All state schools are in theory open to children with special needs – though for grammar schools they will need to pass the entrance exams.

If your child has an EHCP you can, with the help of your LA, name the school you would like them to attend.

Mainstream or special state schools, and independent special schools, must in theory admit your child unless the governing body thinks doing so would be ‘unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or SEN of the child or young person; or the attendance of the child or young person there would be incompatible with the efficient education of others; or the efficient use of resources'. If the school says no, you can appeal to the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) tribunal.

Mainstream independent schools choose the pupils they want to teach – if they don’t want your child there is not a lot you can do about it. Some keep a handful of places especially for children with special needs, others have a healthy, helpful attitude and will look at each child on merit.

The UK does have some very good independent SEN specialist schools (as well as some excellent state SEN schools), but the number and type of places available are limited. They tend to be expensive, too.

Occasionally, an LA may agree to fund a place at an independent school (even if it is not in their own area) but such places and funding are increasingly rare.

If a special or specialist school catches your eye, approach the school and ask them if they think your child might fit. They are likely to ask you to send reports, visit, even pay for an assessment. If they subsequently think they can help, they may offer assistance with the knotty process of securing LA funding, but be prepared for a long, fraught, frustrating fight with no guarantees

Evaluating schools for children with SEN

Before signing on the dotted line, check out inspection reports, school policies, school websites and any independent reviews such as those by The Good Schools Guide – do they reflect a positive approach to SEN?

Once you’ve done the virtual work, arrange to visit schools, request a tour and ask to meet with the head and SENCo (special educational needs co-ordinator). If it's a mainstream school you need to discern whether they have a flexible and positive approach to SEN. Is support an integral part of school life? How is individual progress monitored? Is there a widespread celebration of achievement? Is the school generally geared up for diverse needs?

Try to visit several schools so you can compare them and make the best choice possible. Keep an eye on entry requirements and deadlines; rules and timings can and do change. Finally, remember to look beyond your child’s special needs to ensure their strengths, talents and interests will be well catered for too.


Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Why choose a special school?

    Like their mainstream counterparts, special schools must teach the national curriculum and use its assessment procedures, and they have broadly the same duties and responsibilities to children in their care as mainstream schools. An Educational Health and Care (EHC) plan is invariably required to get a place in a special school.

  • Special educational needs introduction

    Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need. Our SEN consultancy team advises on both special schools, and the mainstream schools with good SEN support, from reception through to the specialist colleges for 19+. Special Educational Needs Index

  • Flexible working - what rights do parents have?

    Parents of children with special needs may need to take more time off work than others. What are your rights to flexible working? What kind of working hours are you entitled to request? How can you challenge an employer's refusal to allow flexible working?

  • Education Health and Care Plans: What should a good one look like?

    There are many tales of local authorities confusing or rushing the EHCP process, and inadequate Plans written as a result. What does a good Plan look like, and why is it important that provision is written under a particular section?

  • Flying with children with special needs

    Travel with a special needs child can be fraught and stressful. And airports can be guaranteed to set your holiday off on the wrong foot. We've asked the UK's airports to tell us how they can help families with SEN and disabled children.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
 Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,000 schools
 Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

The Good Schools Guide manifesto for parents