Choosing a Special Educational Needs (SEN) school: An Expert Guide

16th April 2021

This guide will aim to walk you through some of the myriad considerations that you will have to think about when choosing an SEN school. Ultimately, finding the perfect SEN, special, or specialist school for your child will depend on the specific needs of your child, the provision detailed in their EHC Plan, availability of places and the local authority’s view, which may differ from yours.

The first requirement: An EHC Plan

To get into an SEN school, your child will require an Education, Health, and Care Plan (more info about EHCPs here). The starting point is an EHC Plan that accurately describes your child’s needs and appropriate, adequate provision for those needs. Without a specific, detailed and lawful EHC Plan, it can be trickier to obtain the school of your preference.

The local authority should assist you by providing a list of schools, including those within the independent sector. You also have a right to express a preference for a school that is not within your local authority.

When choosing a school, you should be looking for a placement that can meet your child’s needs and can offer appropriate provision. Unfortunately, the decision on school placement is not based on the ‘best’ provision that can be offered. This is why it is key to ensure that your EHC Plan has all the necessary provision that your child will need; it should be detailed in your EHC Plan because the school will need to be able to deliver it.

The local authority should work with parents to secure a school placement for their child but there is often disagreement about the school, where the local authority does not agree with the parental preference. The decision about the school to be named in the EHC Plan must comply with the relevant legislation and if the local authority is not in agreement with your preference or is not forthcoming, consider contacting Education Advocacy. To improve the effectiveness of your efforts, be clear about why your preferred schools can meet your child’s needs by using any documents, reports, or communications that you can collect.

To get the right SEN school named in the EHCP, if you have a particular school in mind, the following set of steps will take place:

  1. The local authority (LA) issues a draft EHC Plan and asks parents to let them know which school they would like their child to attend
  2. Parents confirm the school preference to the LA
  3. The LA consults with the school
  4. The SEN school confirms that they have space and can meet the child’s needs (within 15 days of contact)
  5. The LA agree to fund the placement if the school confirm the above
  6. If the LA do not agree to name, the school preference then parents have a right of appeal

Read our EHCP Timeline article for extra information.

How hard is it to change SEN schools once an ECHP is in effect?

Changing schools once your child is already in attendance is usually done through the annual review of the EHCP. During this review process, parents can explain that they want to change the name of the school on the EHC Plan. It is helpful to explain why you want the change and then this must be reported in the annual review report that is sent to the LA after the annual review meeting.

The LA will then consider this request, along with any other changes that have been recommended and then issue their decision. If the LA does not agree with the request to change the name of the school, then parents have a right to appeal against this decision.

If you want to request the change before the annual review meeting is due to take place, you can request an early annual review meeting or make a request directly to the LA to change the name of the school. It is important to choose which way to do this based on your circumstances and if this is something you are thinking about then consider contacting Education Advocacy.

What types of SEN schools are available to my child?

There are a range of SEN schools that cover a wide spectrum of needs, and include schools maintained by the LA as well as independent SEN schools. There are day schools and residential SEN schools. Some of the types of SEN schools available provide for these specific needs:

  • Sensory and physical needs
  • Social, emotional, and mental health
  • Cognition and learning, such as schools for those with dyslexia
  • Communication and interaction
  • Autism
  • Visual impairment
  • Deaf and hearing impaired
  • Speech, language, and communication needs

Why might your preferred SEN school be rejected by the local authority?

These are the typical responses that we’ve seen over the years:

  • The SEN school is full and has no spaces available. The Local Authority will often say in these cases that including one more child in the school when at capacity, would negatively affect the education of the other pupils.
  • Placement at the SEN school is deemed to be an inefficient use of resources, which essentially means the LA believes another school could meet the needs and at a lower cost.
  • The LA or the SEN school believe the needs of the child cannot be met at that school and so they propose another school, which could be an SEN school or in some cases they may believe a mainstream school should be offered.

Remember that you have the right to appeal against any decision not to name your preferred school and if the LA refuses your preference, then it must give its reasons when they issue their decision and inform you about your right of appeal. 

What do you need to know about Special Educational Needs schools?

First of all, you need to know where to find them.

Of course, the LA should be in contact with you about SEN schools when you are making this decision and they should be helpful; providing you with a list of SEN schools. However, this is not always the case, and you may be able to secure a larger and more supportive bank of information from your Local Offer (LO), which should be published on your LA website. This is a document where all information about services, agencies and support relating to education, disabilities, health and social care, and special educational needs can be found.

To supplement the information provided by the LA, especially if you need to look further afield and consider the independent SEN sector then further lists can be found here.

Using the information from the LA and the LO, compile a list of suitable schools and then assess them based on their Ofsted reports, prospectus, their school policies on SEN, information about staff and their specialist expertise, the facilities available, and any access concerns you may have.

Some SEN schools offer provision for a wide range of needs, which may not always be suitable if your child needs a specific provision. It is important to know what exactly would be available for your child. You can contact schools directly to ask about:

  • What specialist support your child could receive and from whom? 
  • Are there physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists on-site at the school – the specialists will depend on the needs of your child. 
  • Would your child receive individual support, or would it be group based? What size groups and classes would your child join? What is the staff to pupil ratio in the classroom and across the school?
  • What specific accreditations does the school have and what training and experience do the staff have?
  • Are there considerations made for physical or sensory needs, such as sensitive lighting, soft spaces, and noise reduction? Again, this will depend on the individual needs of your child, but you know what your child will need, so ask how they would meet those needs.
  • What does a typical day or week look like – ask for a timetable.
  • How are unstructured times managed and supported – break and lunch period?
  • What subjects are on offer; what qualifications are available and how have past pupils achieved – ask for exam data if appropriate.
  • Are there vocational opportunities and how does the school prepare a child for adult life, independence, employment, life skills?
  • What extra-curricular activities are on offer?
  • Is there support for parents and how are parents involved in their child’s education? How does the school communicate with parents?
  • What support does the school from any outside agencies or services?
  • Could you visit the school to look around and ask more questions? Could you sit in during a lesson or at least part of it? If you visit a school, you need to see the teaching ‘in action’.

Please contact us directly for any further advice or legal support.