Skip to main content

Children with moderate learning difficulties, or global learning difficulties, have general developmental delay resulting in attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum. There may be other, associated special needs such as dyspraxia.

Children with MLD will typically have some or all of:

  • Difficulty understanding basic concepts.
  • Problems acquiring basic skills in reading, writing and numeracy with a resultant lack of confidence to use and develop the skills they do have.
  • A lack of logic.
  • Poor problem solving skills.
  • An inability to generalise learning and apply it to new situations.
  • Limited communication skills coupled with immature social and emotional understanding.
  • Poor fine and gross motor skills.
  • Difficulty with personal organisation.
  • Poor auditory/visual memory.
  • Poor long and short term memory; difficulty remembering what has been taught.
  • Speech and language delay.
  • Emotional and behavioural difficulties.
  • Sensory impairment.
  • A lack of social skills.

Are mainstream or special schools better for a child with MLD?

Most children with MLD are educated in mainstream schools, certainly for the primary stage. But often by secondary school age, the gaps between children with MLD and other learners have widened to such an extent that the child may find the demands of secondary education too stressful: different teachers; a wide range of subjects; the need to move around the school; to be organised; to change for PE. At this stage intellectual gaps tend to widen too.

Many local authorities have closed down MLD-specific schools, and parents are now faced with a tough choice between placing their child in a special school, where a good proportion of the children are likely to have more severe needs, and placing them in a mainstream school, where the special needs support available may be lacking, and the child may spend much of his time being taught separately to his classmates.

How do I decide between a mainstream and special school for my child?

There are no hard and fast rules, because it depends on your child’s abilities and limitations, and also on the quality of support in the mainstream school choices available to you, and the type of special school on offer. Some factors to consider are:

In a mainstream school:

  1. How good and experienced is the special needs co-ordinator (SENCo)? She will be key to the support your child gets, and how well briefed teaching staff are about your child’s needs.
  2. How far can the school meet your child’s therapy needs? If your child has speech therapy, OT or physiotherapy requirements listed in his/her EHCP, how will the school meet these?
  3. Will your child have a 1:1 teaching assistant to enable her to focus and access the curriculum?
  4. How much of the timetable will be delivered individually to your child? When children spend much of their day being taught alone by a teaching assistant, this is not most parents’ idea of inclusion.
  5. How will your child be supported outside of lessons? Will he have 1:1 help over lunchtime and breaks if need be? Will he have support to access after school clubs if he wishes?
  6. What is the head like? How welcoming is he or she to children with special needs, and how knowledgeable about your child’s needs?
  7. What is the school’s track record with children with special needs?  Ask them to demonstrate how similar children have made progress in the school.

In a special school:

  1. What are the need types of the other children there?
  2. Are there some children at the same ability level, with similar verbal skills and sociability, to form a suitable peer group for your child?
  3. How will your child’s therapy needs be met? Therapy support is usually much better in special schools, but ensure that this is not concentrated on those with the highest needs
  4. What proportion of children have behavioural challenges, and how is this managed? Is this likely to impact on your child’s learning or sense of security?
  5. Does the school offer any after school clubs? When many children arrive by taxi, there can be a lack of out-of-school life, which can be isolating.
  6. How far will it enable you child to progress? Some schools will, for example, make arrangements for a child to attend lessons at a mainstream school for a particular area of aptitude.

If you need help finding the best school for a child with MLD, our SEN consultants can help.

What helps children with MLD at mainstream schools?

A good school will provide your child with an IEP (individual education plan) which details the child’s needs and targets. Targets set should be closely monitored and regularly reviewed, usually at least every half term. 

If your child needs a lot of individual attention, or support to remain on task, the school will need to provide (and your local authority will have to agree to fund) a learning support assistant (LSA) for him or her. The LSA should be guided and supported by the SENCo.

Good practice in school for children with MLD includes:

  • Routine and structure.
  • Giving the child responsibilities.
  • The potential for success. Encourage, praise, reward - not just for work and achievements but for positive behaviour too.
  • Building on the child’s knowledge and understanding.
  • Ensuring learning objectives are realistic for every lesson, and that success is achievable.
  • Giving clear instructions. Careful questioning to ensure a child knows what is expected of them and of the task.
  • Checking understanding at every stage.
  • Carefully planned and differentiated work, broken down into small manageable tasks.
  • Regular reinforcement of tasks to be mastered and the opportunity to practise and apply skills in everyday situations.
  • Showing how things are done rather than just explaining. Providing plenty of opportunities for multi-sensory, practical learning.
  • Visiting tasks, such as handling money and telling the time in short, frequent bursts.
  • Writing frames to help structure work.
  • Use of ICT, including where applicable, modified hardware.
  • Monitoring, recording and reporting of progress and the strategies that are successful.
  • Ensuring support is a tool, not a crutch.
  • Facilitating friendship groups.
  • Having positive role models.
  • Opportunities to participate and be fully included.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Global learning difficulties

    Children with learning difficulties find it more difficult to learn things than most others of their age. Specific learning difficulties may mean a child of average or above average intelligence has trouble with learning to read, perhaps, or with maths. Global learning difficulties are more generalised and are not caused by a specific neural problem.

  • Choosing a school for special needs

    How do you choose a school for a child with special educational needs? What should you look for in mainstream schools, and how do you get funding for independent specialist schools for children with complex needs?

  • 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?

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