How to pick a mainstream school for a disabled child or one with special educational needs

This post is about questions to ask and other things to consider when thinking about a state funded mainstream school for a disabled child or a child who has special educational needs.

It doesn’t cover special schools (whether state funded or independent).

To my mind there are three important things to consider when looking at potential schools:

  1. The physical environment
  2. The attitude of the school / individual senior members of staff
  3. The stability of the senior leadership team within the school.

Looking at them individually

Physical environment

At some level this one is obvious; you want a school with a site that is accessible to your child and also to you.

For some children, this means picking a modern building with level access so it is safe for them to use mobility aids.

For some children it means good contrast and use of lighting and tactiles to make the site somewhere they can navigate independently

For some children it means classrooms and other spaces that are acoustically really good, with very limited background noise.

For other children it means having a playground with spaces designed for quiet play or a school where there is well designed space for 1:1 work with a Speech and Language Therapist or specialist teacher.

For others again, it might mean a school site that is comparatively small, so it is less fatiguing for them to navigate, but for others a large, rural site, with space to run and comparatively little noise is better.

For others it might mean a school site that’s particuarly secure, in the sense of it being physically difficult for a child to leave the site just by running off. Most of the time schools are secure to stop unwanted visitors getting in, rather than to stop anybody leaving.

A visit to the school site should enable you to get a reasonable “feel” for how good the physical environment would be for your child as the school is at present.

This can be trickier where you don’t know the full extent of your child’s difficulties as well as in cases where there is reasonable potential for their presentation to deteriorate.

In some cases arranging for an Occupational Therapist or a Acoustician or a Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired to visit your top choice(s) of schools is a good move, because they are likely to be able to advise on the work that would need to be done to make the school site suitable for your child.

For children who are disabled, but who don’t have special educational needs (they have different definitions and it is possible to fall into one category but not the other), the mechanism to force the school to accommodate your child is via their duties under the Equality Act not to discriminate against disabled pupils, including their duty to make reasonable adjustments.

In nearly all cases where you would want early input from an OT, Acousician or QTVI, it will be for a child who has special educational needs (in addition to any disability) and probably one where your child will have an EHCP or you are in the process of assessment for one and it will be possible for the adaptations to be included within the EHCP that the LA will be required to fund.

The law provides an almost absolute right to a mainstream education for any child, no matter the cost. This does not extend to a right to a particular school – meaning that where a child would need very expensive adjustments to be made to school A, but school B would need substantially less expensive adjustments, the LA can refuse to place the child at school A. For this reason, it’s usually worth visiting all of the schools within a reasonable travelling distance for your child. The totality of the respective costs of the placements would be considered and sometimes a school might have higher “one off” costs and lower ongoing costs – if say, your child would need less TA support in that school compared with the other one.


Attitudes to disability and special educational needs vary considerably. It is not possible for teachers to have a detailed knowledge of rare conditions and it will be necessary for them to learn about how your child’s condition specifically affects them. But it is often possible to get an indication of how the school approaches these issues. Some questions you might like to ask are:

  • Do you reward children for attending school?
  • If so, how do you adjust your awards system so that it is fair for disabled children (who are likely to have medical appointments during school hours and some of whom may be more prone to illness)?
  • How do you support children to carry on learning when they’ve missed a lot of school due to ill health?
  • What’s the school uniform?
  • How do you accommodate children with tactile processing problems, who struggle with the feel of typical school clothing?
  • How do you accommodate children who have been prescribed specific shoes?
  • What’s your bullying policy?
  • How do you deal with bullying that centres around a child being disabled?
  • What’s your behaviour policy?
  • What adjustments have you made to your behaviour policy to accommodate individual disabled pupils?
  • How do you support children who become overwhelmed with anxiety in school?
  • How do you support children who are made anxious by school and are at risk of school refusing?

More generally, think about the tone and content of the responses you’re getting. Teaching staff do sometimes seem to be dismissive of family concerns and questions. The school you want is likely to be one where more than one member of staff is either already knowledgeable or, if not, open to learning and receptive to your input and that from other professionals eg. an Educational Psychologist, Speech and Language Therapist and so on.


Teachers and school support staff move jobs for the same reasons as everyone else. They also take maternity/adoption leave and at times are too unwell to be at work. It is unrealistic to expect your child will be able to go to a school where there are no staff changes.

What it is worth looking for is a reasonable degree of stability within the senior leadership team at the school. My experience of this has been with specialist independent schools, but the same principle applies – where there is rapid change in the senior team or where there is a lot of staff turnover (higher than you’d expect for the location), it is likely that knowledge and experience are being lost. Additionally, it may indicate that the staff are generally unhappy / there is a problem with the school’s management and where this is the case, it is unlikely to be providing the best education it could.

Other factors to consider

Unit provision – some mainstream schools have attached Units specialising in a particular disability eg. Autism, Speech and Language, Moderate Learning Difficulties, where the children spend some of their time in mainstream lessons and some of their time in the Unit being taught in smaller groups. Some Units are very good, others are OK and even some of the ones that are good may not be right for your child. It’s always worth asking enough questions to get an idea of the timetable for the children in the Unit – in some cases they are expected to be in mainstream lessons for everything other than English and Maths and your child’s SEN may mean that model of provision won’t work for them.

Ofsted Reports (or equivalents for independent schools)- these are always worth reading, but bear in mind that at the moment some schools that are graded as “Outstanding” haven’t been inspected for ages and may have changed over time. An Ofsted inspection is in some ways still a snapshot of how a school is on the day(s) it is inspected and some schools will take extensive steps to present their best possible image on the day – ie. arranging school trips for the “naughtiest” children, provoking children into behaving in ways that justify a temporary exclusion for the days of the inspection.

Any published assessment results – eg. GCSE data for secondary schools and progress data for Key Stage 2 for primary schools, is worth looking at.

Wraparound care – does the school offer this? Can you find any local childminders or other providers of childcare who deliver to and collect from that school?

Travelling time / method – is the school walkable from home? Cycleable? Wheelable? Some children will be entitled to LA funded transport due to their SEN, disability or distance from the school, but it’s still worth considering how your child might get to and from the school each day and the potential length of the journey.

For each of the schools you are considering you want to know its status ie. LA maintained or Academy, because this affects your routes for complaint if your child attends the school and you have a problem of a sort that does not lend itself to a claim for disability discrimination. You have more routes for complaint if your child attends an LA maintained school than an Academy.

Usually, the easiest place to start gathering general information about a number of schools is the Get Information About Schools Service

Some schools have a religious character or affiliation. You want to know what this is and to assess through your interaction with the school how compatible the school’s ethos is with your family’s situation. Sometimes schools with a religious affiliation are very good at accommodating children who come from families that don’t share that religious background. Sometimes schools without a formal religious affiliation have a close relationship with a church (nearly always this is a problem with churches rather than synagoges or mosques) that is overly forceful in its presentation of one faith tradition.

Often families end up having to compromise over a school that reflects their faith background vs one that caters well for their child’s disability. You can withdraw a child from participation in collective worship in school and also from RE lessons (though RE lessons should be about understanding religions rather than worship).