What is a special school?

Child and teacher in the classroom
If your child has special educational needs, a mainstream education may not be right for them. We take a look at how special schools could help.
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Choosing a school for your child is always a big responsibility, and if you’re the parent of one of the 1.2 million children in England with a recognised special educational need or disability (SEND), it can be an even greater challenge.

About 50 per cent of children with an SEN statement or EHC plan are educated in mainstream primary or secondary schools. Of the remaining 50 per cent, the majority attend a government maintained special school. So how do you work out where your child would receive the best and most supportive education for their needs?

What is a special school?

Special schools are those that provide an education for children with a special educational need or disability. ‘There are many different types of special school, but essentially, they all educate children whose needs cannot be met within a mainstream setting, and whose parents or carers have agreed to or requested a special school placement,’ explains Alex Grady, Education Development Officer at nasen, the National Association of Special Educational Needs.

Currently, about two per cent of school-age children attend a special school, and the vast majority have a statement or EHC plan. Children who are educated in special schools have been identified as having a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for them.

Types of special school

The type of special school available varies from area to area. Some are maintained state schools; some are academies; some are independent. Some schools admit children from three to 19 years of age (or even up to 25), while others are primary or secondary. ‘Some areas have “assessment nurseries” which children attend while their needs are being assessed, while others have Early Years classes within a special school setting,’ Alex adds.

The government lists four broad types of special school, according to their specialism:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health
  • Sensory and physical needs

‘Some special schools are generic, catering for a wide range of needs, including some or all of these four broad areas,’ explains Alex. ‘Others specialise in a particular area.’ Further, some schools specialise even within the above categories, such as autism or speech and language schools.

You may not have to make a straight choice between a special or mainstream school for your child. ‘Some mainstream schools have special “units” or “resource bases” on site so children with SEND can receive specialist teaching but also access mainstream resources and mix more widely with their peer group,’ says Alex.

What can special schools offer that mainstream schools can’t?

One of the biggest differences between special and mainstream schools is that special schools have a higher staff ratio, due to the additional needs of the pupils. ‘Most teachers within a special school are specialists in their area, and there tends to be a high number of teaching assistants or care assistants, who support teachers in meeting children’s learning, health and care needs,’ Alex explains. This doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that children receive one-to-one support.

Special schools provide a range of interventions to meet pupils’ needs. ‘These might include speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, school nurses, specialist swimming teachers, and staff who’ve been trained to use interventions like Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Makaton and Rebound Therapy,’ says Alex. ‘Many schools also have specialist resources and equipment that are rarely available in mainstream schools, such as therapy pools, sensory rooms, and adapted outdoor play equipment.’

Classes in special schools are usually smaller, and teaching is geared to the pupils’ individual needs and abilities. Children’s progress is closely monitored in all areas, not just educational attainment, and staff generally have an excellent understanding – gained through qualifications or experience – of pupils’ needs.

The National Curriculum in special schools

All maintained schools – that is, those controlled by the local authority – have to follow the National Curriculum, and that includes special schools. ‘However, they have the freedom to teach the National Curriculum in line with pupils’ specific needs, making reasonable adjustments where necessary,’ Alex explains. ‘Timetables can also be adjusted to allow children with disabilities to be included.’

Non-maintained schools such as academies, free schools and independent schools, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum, and can devise their own curriculum.

Is a special school right for your child?

Choosing a school is always a difficult process, and deciding whether your child should attend a special school is particularly emotive, especially if you’re considering moving them from their current mainstream school.

Deciding whether to apply for a special school place will depend on many factors, including your child’s social and educational needs, their age and stage of education, the schools that are available, distance and transport arrangements, and so on. Potential benefits of sending your child to a special school include:

  • Smaller class sizes and higher staff to pupil ratio.
  • Experienced and specialist teachers who can tailor work to your child’s needs.
  • The chance for your child to mix with peers with similar needs, reducing the likelihood of bullying and improving self-esteem.
  • Facilities and resources tailored to your child’s SEN or disability.
  • Good communication between staff and parents.

However, there may be disadvantages, such as:

  • A more limited curriculum, and fewer opportunities to gain recognised qualifications like GCSEs.
  • Distance from home, possibly requiring private transport.
  • A lack of opportunities to socialise more widely with pupils of the same age and with different abilities.
  • Stigmatisation as a result of the ‘special school’ label.

‘The best strategy is to arrange a visit to the schools you’re considering, to feel the atmosphere, speak to the staff, see the other children who are there and look at the resources and equipment on offer,’ Alex advises. ‘Many parents are surprised when visiting special schools as they’re so different from their pre-conceptions.’

Although ultimately, the decision about whether to send your child to a special school is down to you, it’s important to listen to the views of everyone involved in their care and education, such as their current teacher, the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO), their health and development professionals, and so on.

‘If you’ve reached the point of considering a special school, there’s likely to be a number of professionals involved with your child, and their assessments and advice can help inform your decision,’ says Alex. ‘But remember that you know your child best, and if you keep their needs, both short-term and long-term, at the front of your mind, you should be able to make a positive decision.’

Bear in mind, too, that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. An increasing number of pupils are ‘dual registered,’ splitting their week between a mainstream and a special school, or attend a mainstream school with a unit that caters for their special needs.

Violet Fenn chose a school with a specialist autism hub for her son, Oscar, 12. ‘All of the mainstream schools I visited told me they didn’t think they could cope with his needs, but here, he has a dedicated TA at all times, and the patience and care the staff show is second to none,’ she says. ‘They tailor the curriculum to each child, and deliver lessons one-to-one if they can’t cope with the classroom. The downside is that Oscar has a 20-mile journey to school in a local-authority-funded taxi, so his social life suffers, but I honestly think he’d have dropped out of education entirely by this point if he hadn’t got his place here.’

Applying for a special school place

The vast majority of pupils attending maintained special schools have an EHC plan (or its precursor, a statement). If your child has one of these, you can name the school you’d like them to attend – mainstream or special – and it has to offer them a place, unless there’s a good reason not to, for example, that it’s unsuitable for your child’s age, ability or aptitude.

If your school application for a child with an EHC plan or statement is turned down, you can appeal to the SEND tribunal.

You can apply for a place at a special school at any time: at the same time as mainstream primary or secondary school admissions, at the start of any other academic year, or during the school year (in-year admission).

Independent special schools have different admissions policies. ‘Some have very specific admissions requirements, for example, they may take children who are on the autistic spectrum but only those who are “high functioning,”’ Alex explains. ‘These schools may only accept children following an interview with the child and their parents, and possibly an additional assessment.’

The exception is independent schools on the government’s approved list of independent special schools (‘section 41 schools’). If one of these schools is named on a child’s EHC plan, they have a duty to admit them.

For more advice on applying for special school places, or any other issue resulting from your child’s SEND, you can book a free 30-minute telephone appointment with IPSEA’s Advice Line.

School applications: advice for the parents of children with special educational needs

Find more advice, information and support if you're looking for the right school for your SEN child in the BBC Bitesize Starting Primary School guide, How to decide on the right school for a child with SEND. You can also consult a useful checklist, Things to consider on a school visit for your child with SEND.