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Secondary schools - things to consider

If your child is in Year 6, you are now probably looking at their secondary school options.

With the looming deadline of 31st October for state school applications and October / November deadlines for independent schools, now is the time to finalise your research.

Choosing a senior school can be a challenging process for any parent. However, it can be truly overwhelming for parents of children with special needs.

If your child has an EHCP, the school they will attend, whether special or mainstream, and the specific support they require will be already named in their EHCP.

However, with the vast majority of children with SEND not having EHCP and being part of the mainstream system, there are a significant number of things to consider before making your final selection. The reality of SEN schooling outside the EHCP framework is filled with subjectivity, vagueness, the fluidity of relationships with SENCOs, headteachers and form tutors. Nothing is ever set in stone and it’s a constant reiteration of needs and careful rebalancing.

SEN parents make a lot of decisions about schooling on gut instinct and we believe that it remains the most powerful tool at our disposal. If something feels right, it’s a good sign, if something doesn’t feel right - there is usually a strong reason behind it, even though it may not be immediately obvious. So always trust your instincts but, as you consider various schools for your child, we’ve put together a few points you may want to bear in mind as you go through your selection process:

  • If you are applying for state schools, remember that all state schools can be considered for children with special needs. A space will be allocated on the basis of the school’s catchment area, siblings policy, affinity with a particular religion for some but not all religious schools, entrance exams’ results for selective schools or the eligibility for the pupil premium service.

  • A school cannot refuse to admit a child with SEN because they do not feel able to meet their needs. A place can never be denied on the basis that “mainstream is unsuitable” or that the child’s needs are too great or complex. Inclusive education in one of the principles that underpins the legally binding SEN and Disability Code of Practice, as quoted below:

“The School Admissions Code of Practice requires children and young people with SEN to be treated fairly. Admissions authorities:

  • must consider applications from parents of children who have SEN but do not have an EHC plan on the basis of the school’s published admissions criteria as part of normal admissions procedures

  • must not refuse to admit a child who has SEN but does not have an EHC plan because they do not feel able to cater for those needs

  • must not refuse to admit a child on the grounds that they do not have an EHC plan.”

  • If you are applying for independent schools, the admission criteria are much more vague and subjective. We often speak to parents whose children are either very good at masking their challenges at school or parents who are worried that the child will be rejected because of their neurodiversity. In these cases, there is often a temptation to hide the information about the child’s needs and decide to deal with any challenges only once the child is at the school. This is never a good idea. Problems will inevitably surface, often greatly compounded in teenage years, the schools will never appreciate the lack of transparency at the application stage and the pressure this would put on their allocated SEN resources. Some will not be prepared to meet these challenges. Having an open conversation with the school at the time of the application will ensure a healthy relationship with their SENCO and prompt intervention whenever the child may need it. Having to look for another school down the line is much harder and unsettling. So you want to make sure that you choose the school that can and, most importantly, wants to nurture your child.

  • Check out the school’s most recent inspection reports as well as their SEN Policy and Information Reports which all mainstream schools must publish by law on their school websites. Some schools may also choose to publish their SEN mission statements explaining in more detail their approach and commitment to SEN.

  • All mainstream schools are also required to publish the names and contact details of their SENCO. In the current situation, school visits and tours may be impossible but try to arrange a meeting or a call with the SENCO before selecting the school to make sure you see eye to eye and they fully understand and are committed to meeting your child’s needs. Ask about their previous experience of supporting the specific needs your child has, the number of children with these particular challenges currently enrolled at school, how they pass information about children to relevant teaching staff, how they report on children’s progress and how they communicate with parents. Read our What To Ask a SENCO post for more detailed advice.

  • When you search for potential schools on our Find Schools database, you will be able to find details about the school capacity, its SEN profile, including numbers of children with and without EHCP currently enrolled at the school, as well as any SEN provision the school is able to offer (submitted by the schools to the government as part of the annual school census). For selected schools, where this data is available, you will also be able to find data from the Ofsted Parent View survey focusing on SEN related parent feedback.

  • If possible, arrange to meet or speak to the Headteacher to make sure they fully support the school’s SEN mission and SEN is an important part of their focus. Are they proactive or passive? Even if a school publishes a passionate SEN mission statement, you want to hear that passion from the school’s leadership. Even the best SENCO may end up powerless or restricted by an unsupportive headteacher.

  • Size matters. A lot of senior schools are significantly larger than many primary schools. Big schools may feel overwhelming for SEN children, both in terms of sensory overload and space but also the number of people they would have to interact with every day. In the case of large schools, make sure that the number of SENCO personnel appears adequate for the size of the school and the number of children with SEN currently enrolled at the school.

  • Check what the school’s “mixing classes” policy is. While mixing classes may be a healthy practice for neurotypical children or can benefit some neurodiverse children who end up stuck in a toxic class environment, for many this lack of continuity and the need to build new relationships and find their place within new group dynamics every year may be too much.

  • Ask if the school offers extra induction days for children with SEND to ease their transition and if it has a mentoring / buddy system to help them settle in during the initial weeks

  • Seek to speak to other parents of children with SEND who already attend the school. On occasions the school may be able to put you in touch with some parents or you can find them through local support groups.

Whatever you do and whatever you hear, remember that there is no single school that is simply the best, only a school that is the best for a particular child and their individual needs. While it’s true for all children, it’s even more true for children with SEND whose needs are as diverse and unique as their individual personalities.

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