Where your child goes to school will undoubtedly have a long term impact on their lives. Parents of disabled children, in particular, can worry about the decision to enrol their children in mainstream or specialist education.
Here’s a brief set of ideas to get you thinking about the potential benefits of either choice…
Your child has rights…
Your child has a right to a proper education and you (parent) have a legal obligation to organise it. Both mainstream and special schools must teach the National Curriculum and use its assessment procedures.
Your child has a right to be happy.
So perhaps the real starting point is to think carefully about how you can achieve this. Where does your child feel happiest and why? How do they like to learn? In what kind of environment are they most likely to flourish?
Your child and you have a right to choice. Collect the views and opinions of other parents, teachers, special educational needs coordinators (SENCO), occupational therapists and others such as child psychologists, etc about your child’s options and visit the schools they recommend to see for yourself.
Trust your instincts and keep in mind that your child is an individual and that you know what’s good for them too. Try to strike a balance between ‘head’ and ‘heart’.
Ready to learn
Basic stuff still applies. Think about the school as part (rather than the whole) of your child’s life. Do they have friends that go to a specific school? (School friends can be important to a sense of community.)
There may well be issues if you have to travel far to school in the morning. An early start to the day and a late finish could start to take a toll.
Most children want to conform. In a mainstream setting, your child might be one of just a few disabled children. It’s important that your child has the opportunity to feel comfortable being themselves (although the same might be said of other children of ethnicity or who don’t speak English as a first language, for example).
The nearest special school to you might, or might not, suit you. It may have a focus on a particular sensory disability such as hearing or visual impairments, for example. Indeed, even with a school with a broader outlook you may worry that the syllabus won’t be challenging enough for your child, even though the techniques used in the teaching may well suit your child better.
Somewhere in the middle of all this you need to remember that the school is there to educate your child as themselves and isn’t supposed to be ‘fixing’ them – and the school (especially from a mainstream perspective) need to realise this too. You’ll need to be aware of and move away from bias and prejudices, including your own.
There are some classic reasons why some parents are drawn to the idea of special schools – and these can be real advantages. To summarise, your child will likely receive much more personalised teaching in a smaller class and possibly even on a one-to-one basis and closely aligned with the child’s learning styles and strengths, based on the generally higher degree of understanding that special school teachers have.
Special schools are renowned for working well in partnership with parents towards specific outcomes and your child will be surrounded by peers with similar needs, meaning that they’re likely to feel comfortable and secure in the learning environment.
Access and facilities
Clearly a specialist school is likely to have comparatively outstanding access and facilities. That said, mainstream schools are required to be inclusive and reasonably adapted in terms not only of the premises but also regarding access to equipment, the curriculum, social opportunities, et al. A good starting point for looking at how well your local mainstream school performs in these areas is to read their latest Ofsted report.
EHC plans and SENCO
Educational health and care (EHC) plans are relatively common in mainstream schools. They are used to highlight any additional measures the school needs to provide in order to meet your child’s needs. This is normally executed in cooperation between the class teacher and the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO). (Every school has a SENCO.)
An educational health and care (EHC) plan is invariably required to get a place in a special school, although it does not guarantee a place in a special school – or in any particular special school. Neither does it mean that a child must go to a special school.
Some mainstream schools include ‘additionally resourced provision’ (ARP), a specialised unit for children who might, for example, have speech, language and communication difficulties or are on the autistic spectrum.
Think about what your child is good at. What are their aspirations and yours as their parent? These questions can lead to a solution framework. For instance, your child might be very bright but not like to be in a noisy environment for too long. Discuss solutions with the school, rather than challenging them to design them from scratch with little to go on.
This is exactly as it sounds: the best of both worlds. Children can be dual registered and can spend part of a week in a specialist environment and the other in a mainstream setting. As your child grows, these arrangements can be tweaked to suit their needs to cover any gaps or to give that extra bit of encouragement and support where it’s needed.
Training for a life beyond school
While it’s true that the world (happily) does not separate disabled people from others and that school should perhaps, ideally reflect that, it’s worth remembering that there’s plenty of time to come to terms with that and if needs be, prioritise other aspects of your child’s progress to adulthood.
Be kind to yourself about your decision and accept that there may be things you don’t like about the school(s) you select.
In the end the decision isn’t really based on a narrow ‘specialist versus mainstream’ school question but rather the broader debate of which is the best school in your area, for your child.
In Your Area
You may already know about special education provision in your local area but if you’d like to find out more, there’s a handy search tool at:
You can find more information about all sorts of schools at: