Choosing a special school

This information applies to England.

You and the local authority might decide a special school or post-16 college is the best way to support your child’s education. These are sometimes called ‘specialist settings’. 

Finding the right school will depend on your child's needs and what you can access.

EHC plans

Your child will need an Education, Health and Care plan, also known as an EHCP or EHC plan, to get into a special school.

The local authority may give you a list of schools in your area or suggest schools they think will meet your child's needs. You can also ask the local authority for a list of suitable schools.

Choosing a school with an EHC plan (IPSEA)

Warning Wales has a different process to England

Wales has Individual Development Plans (IDP), reviewed at least once a year.

Individual Development Plan (SNAP Cymru)

Asking for schools when applying for an EHC plan

In most cases, you give your preferred schools to the local authority when commenting on the draft EHC plan. The local authority must consider your feedback and preferences.

Find your local authority (GOV.UK)

Asking for schools at an annual review

During an annual review meeting, parents and the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO), if they agree, can raise concerns that the school is not meeting your child's needs.

The local authority case officer may talk to you about your preferences. You can also send the local authority a list of your chosen schools with the review report.

After the meeting, the local authority should review your preferences and consult the schools. A local authority panel will then decide whether to agree to the change.

If they do not agree, you can appeal their decision.

Appealing an EHC plan decision

The process can take time

Timescales will vary depending on whether you're applying, reviewing or appealing your child's EHCP.

How long things take can also depend on your local authority. You may need to contact them for updates or to complain, especially if they're not keeping to statutory (legal) timeframes.

Types of special school

There are different types of special schools. They may support a range of special educational needs or they can specialise in:

  • communication and interaction
  • cognition (emotional, intellectual, social understanding) and learning
  • social, emotional and mental health
  • sensory and physical needs

Some schools can specialise in supporting children with autism, visual impairment or speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). The types of schools available vary by area.

Types of schools and other settings (IPSEA)

Going to both special and mainstream schools

There are some special schools attached to or near mainstream schools. These schools may give your child access to some mainstream classes. These are called partnership provisions.

Sometimes children can attend both schools and be ‘dual registered’. Check if your local authority has a dual registration policy.

Some mainstream schools may also offer additional specialist support. Children can be fully enrolled in the school and receive specialist intervention onsite. These are known as resourced provisions.

Choosing a school for your disabled child

Getting a place at a special school

If you are asking for a change of placement, the local authority will consult with several schools, including local schools and ones you have identified.

To get a school named in your child's EHC plan, the following will need to happen:

  • your local authority considers your preference
  • your local authority agrees that the school can provide the support in the plan
  • the named school agrees that they can meet the needs of your child and have a space. They have 15 days to respond to the local authority.
  • your local authority agrees to fund the place

Keep communication open and be clear about why you want a special school. Show how your preferred school or schools can meet your child's needs. Use any assessment reports, emails or letters to support your request.

Talk to professionals involved with your child

Ask the school and professionals if they think that a special school will meet your child's needs. This could be the SENCO, an occupational therapist (OT) or other professionals supporting your child. They may also help you find the right school for your child.

Read through EHCP reports

The local authority should send you reports after they finish a needs assessment or annual review meeting. Contact the school or local authority for copies if you do not have them.

Look at the reports from professionals. Highlight any descriptions or recommendations about your child's needs that would be better met at a special school. You can also use any assessments your child had before applying for an EHCP, like from a Child Development Centre (CDC) or an occupational therapist.

Match your child's needs with the right school

Talk to the SENCO about your child's needs. Try to match these with a school that has the right support or specialism.

Choosing a school or college with an EHC plan (IPSEA)

It can also help to think about the future and if your child will need to change schools. You might want to consider an integrated primary and secondary school depending on your child's needs.


The school must match your child's needs

The local authority can refuse your request if:

  • the school is unsuitable for your child's ability, aptitude or special educational needs
  • accepting your child will affect other pupils' education

If your local authority thinks a mainstream school can provide the support, they may decide a special school is not an "efficient use of resources". Ask your SENCO if they think a mainstream school can support your child or if they would recommend a special school.

Tips for making a complaint (Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman)

You can talk to your local authority's independent parent support service for help with the process. The services are sometimes called:

  • Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Information Advice and Support Service (SENDIASS)
  • Information Advice and Support Service (IASS)
  • Parent Partnership Service

Find your local Information Advice and Support Service (Council for Disabled Children)

Finding schools

Ask your local authority for a list of special schools in your area. Also look at your Local Offer.

The Local Offer has information on education, health and social care services available for children with SEN.

You should be able to find information about:

  • mainstream schools and the level of SEN support provided
  • special units in mainstream schools, usually for specific needs such as autism or moderate learning difficulties
  • special schools
  • independent schools

What's available varies between local authorities.

Contact your local authority to find your Local Offer (GOV.UK)

School directories

Schools directory (GOV.UK) Search by name, location or local authority.

School finder (Special Needs Guide) Filter by region, age, school specialism or school type (residential or day)

Other good resources for finding a SEN placement include:

The Good School Guide

The National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS)

NATSPEC Directory for post-16 placements

Parent View (Ofsted) for parental surveys

Choosing the right school for your child

Whether a school is right for your child can depend on things like:

  • your child's condition
  • school availability and SEN specialism
  • your child's own temperament and what they want
  • school distance and if your child can manage travelling to a school further away

But there are a few things you can do to help you decide.

Learn about the school

Look at the schools available in your area.

Search for schools and colleges to compare (GOV.UK)

Remove any schools with specialisms not suitable for your child. Then look at:

  • the Ofsted rating and report
  • the school's policy on SEND, bullying and behaviour
  • how many staff have specialist qualifications and what those are
  • the curriculum and what facilities are available
  • the school prospectus

Most of these will be available on school websites. You can also ask the school to send you the information.

Children with SEN may be able to get free transport if they cannot walk to school safely.

Apply for school transport for a child with SEND (GOV.UK)

Find out what support is available

Even in a special school, the staff and therapies available may not be enough to support your child. It can help to check:

  • which professionals are available, such as counsellors, physios and other therapists
  • specialist teachers, such as in dyslexia or autism
  • their qualifications. For example, are they a fully qualified speech and language therapist (SALT) or a SALT assistant?
  • how much time they will have with your child
  • if your child will have direct, group or indirect support
  • if the school or an outside agency employs therapists and other professionals
  • if the support is full-time or only available on certain days

Visit schools

Many parents find that the feeling they get from a school during a visit helps them decide if it's right for their child. It can sometimes be difficult to visit a school without an EHCP or the local authority's support. But you can still ask schools if you can visit.

If you can:

  • talk to the staff and some of the students
  • look at the school environment to see if it's accessible for sensory or physical needs, such as noise, movement, lighting or space for equipment
  • visit with your child to see what they think
  • find out about lunchtime and playtime arrangements

Many schools have regular open days for parents to visit. They often take place before February or March.

Compare schools

It can help to keep track of:

  • the schools you're considering
  • what's available at each school
  • how they can meet your child's needs

You could do this in different ways, such as:

  • using a red, amber, green rating next to each school
  • lists or bullet points of how each school meets your child's needs
  • pros and cons list for each school
  • summaries, including how you and your child felt about a school
  • a chart or spreadsheet

Talk to other parents

Find other parents of children with additional needs who go to the school you're interested in. Search for groups connected to the school online. You could try to arrange a play date.

Questions for the school

Make a note of questions you want to ask before visiting or speaking to someone at a school. If visiting, take something to write down the answers or any notes. It can help if someone goes with you and takes notes.

Here are some ideas of what you could ask depending on your child's needs.

  • How big are class sizes? What is the ratio of teachers to students? Is there one-to-one support?
  • How do you meet the specific needs of a child? Can you give any examples?
  • Are any of your teachers trained in Makaton, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) or other communication methods? If so, how many?
  • What facilities do you have? For example, sensory pool, trampoline, quiet rooms, sensory or specialist equipment.
  • Do you run any after school clubs or school trips or outings?

Education and measuring progress

  • What subjects do you offer? Specialist schools might have fewer subjects than a mainstream curriculum.
  • Do you teach or support pupils with life skills and social skills?
  • Can you describe a typical week at school? How much time would pupils spend in the classroom, in specialist sessions or doing group work?
  • How is progress measured? How often? Who tracks it?
  • How do you communicate with parents? How often?
  • How do parents give feedback to the school?
  • Do you support parents? For example, does the school offer workshops for parents? Who runs them?

Last reviewed by Scope on: 02/07/2024

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