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Mainstream or special school placement decisions

Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date. Some links may no longer work. We are reviewing this section.





Policy context

The Government’s 10 year special educational needs (SEN) strategy Removing Barriers to Achievement promotes an inclusive school system where mainstream and special schools cooperate. The strategy sets out that the best way of improving outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities is through sustained action to build the capacity of the system to meet children’s individual needs earlier and more effectively.

Local authorities and schools are expected to work together to build provision in mainstream schools so that over time a mainstream place is a viable option for all parents who wish their children to be taught in such a setting. But at the same time it makes clear that the Government sees a vital and continuing role for special schools as part of an inclusive education system, meeting children’s needs directly and working in much closer partnership with mainstream schools to build expertise throughout the system. The Government has already designated a number of special schools as SEN specialist schools with funding and a specific brief to provide outreach to mainstream schools.

To secure an inclusive education system the Government believes that local authorities should develop a flexible continuum of provision to meet the wide range of children’s SEN and use the flexibilities allowed by the school funding regulations to facilitate dual placements in mainstream and special provision where appropriate to meet the needs of individual children with statements of SEN. The flexible continuum will include special schools and specially resourced or unit provision in or attached to mainstream schools. Each local authority will decide on the precise pattern of local provision to meet the needs of children and parents in their localities.  Children’s interests must be paramount.


Legislative Overview

The present statutory framework provides for children with statements of SEN to be taught in mainstream schools where this is what their parents want and it is compatible with the efficient education of other children. It provides for parents to seek a special school and to have their preference considered according to the same criteria as a preference for a mainstream school. The Government has no plans to change this policy and believes it is the right way forward.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 strengthened parents' rights to seek a mainstream school for their child and preserved their right to ask for a place in a special school. From September 2002, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 was extended to cover education, obliging schools to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils are not disadvantaged in any area of school life. Admissions, exclusions and access to the full and extended curriculum are all governed by this amendment. The law is intended to support pupils with SEN and disabilities in entering a school of their parents’ preference and to promote the fair and equal treatment of those pupils while attending it.

Section 14 of the Education Act 1996 places local authorities under a duty to secure sufficient schools for providing primary and secondary education in their area and to have particular regard to securing special educational provision for pupils who have SEN. In addition local authorities are under a duty to keep under review the arrangements they make for special educational provision (section 315 of the Education Act 1996). The Education and Inspections Act (2006) includes a duty on authorities to consider and respond to parental representations when carrying out their planning duty under section 14.



Ofsted’s report, Inclusion: Does it matter where pupils are taught? (2006) demonstrated that good provision can be found in a range of contexts and settings. There were factors specific to each local authority in the survey that affected the placement of pupils, for example: the number, type and location of special and resourced mainstream schools, the number of places available and other strategic and financial pressures.

This report identified that the most important factor in determining the best outcomes for pupils with SEN and disabilities is not the type but the quality of the provision. Findings showed that key factors for good progress were: the involvement of a specialist teacher; good assessment; work tailored to challenge pupils sufficiently; and commitment from school leaders to ensure good progress for all pupils.

There was little difference in the quality of provision and outcomes for pupils across primary and secondary mainstream schools and special schools. However, mainstream schools with additionally resourced provision were particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally. High quality, specialist teachers and a commitment by leaders to create opportunities to include all pupils were the keys to success. Special schools that shared a site with mainstream schools provided good opportunities for all pupils to socialise with each other.

The report recommended that local authorities should

  • evaluate and take full account of the impact of provision and services on the outcomes for children and young people before any strategic reorganisation of services
  • ensure children and young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties have full access to thorough assessments and the full range of services
  • ensure that all pupils have opportunities to work alongside their peers in mainstream provision.

Resourced and unit provision are among a range of options the Government is encouraging local authorities to consider under the Building Schools for the Future Programme, as well as co-location; the role of outreach and support services; collaborative working with other partners and regional and sub-regional provision.

It is not always possible, for reasons of demand, geography or costs, for local authorities to establish their own schools for children with low incidence very severe and complex SEN, including autism spectrum conditions. Cooperation is needed across local boundaries to meet the needs of these children.

There is scope within existing arrangements for local authorities to plan jointly for services covering more than one local area. Authorities can also collaborate with the non-maintained and independent sectors where they consider it appropriate. The role of the local authority as a commissioner has been strengthened with the Education and Inspections Act (2006).


Range of provision

The distinction between mainstream and special schools is a legal one. A mainstream school is a maintained (funded by the local authority) school (or an academy or city technology college) which is not a special school. Special schools are schools wholly for pupils with SEN, and may be maintained, non-maintained or private. In order to be placed in a special school, a pupil must generally have a statement of SEN.

Educational provision for pupils on the autism spectrum includes:

  • Mainstream schools with or without extra adult support
  • Generic special schools or units for pupils with learning disabilities with or without additional support or outreach support
  • Schools, units and classes which are specific to the autism spectrum
  • Schools or units for pupils with other types of SEN (e.g. emotional and behavioural difficulties; language disorders; sensory or physical difficulties)
  • Home-based programmes
  • Advisory/outreach teams for pupils on the autism spectrum
  • Special individualised programmes for children who do not attend school
  • Independent or non-maintained schools: these schools can be day or residential.  They may be mainstream or cater wholly or mainly for pupils with SEN, but none of them will be maintained by the local authority. Parents can choose to place their child at their own expense or to make representation to their local authority for a placement at an independent or non-maintained school so that the local authority pays for placement.
  • Residential schools these schools can be for children with varying needs or specific needs. Pupils stay overnight and have a 24-hour curriculum - meaning there is support available 24 hours a day. Some have a 52-week placement; others go home at weekends or during the holidays. Parents and local authorities should agree any arrangements for a pupil's contact with their family and for any special help, such as transport.

The vast majority of children with on the autism spectrum attend schools and units within their home authority, but some attend provision in an adjoining authority and a few attend schools in a different part of the country, many miles from home. Most of these schools are run by the local authority, but some have been set up by independent organisations.

The diversity of provision both within and across authorities has strengths and weaknesses. There is strength as different models and interventions allow variations in provision to be explored and evaluated, and assumptions about what is possible can be challenged. A disadvantage is that such variation can lead to confusion, and sometimes distress, for parents who are not able to access services they would like in their area.

  • The local authority's SEN policy should refer to the needs of children on the autism spectrum.  Ideally there should be there a separate policy document on autism, which is widely disseminated, and involves all interested parties.
  • There should be a clear multi-agency mechanism for monitoring the implementation of the policy and reviewing and revising it, that involves all interested parties.
  • There should be clear links with key strategic policies and plans within the authority consistent with the overarching principles of Children's Services and Planning and consistency with the Early Years and Childcare Development Plan, the Education Development Plan and any SEN Development Plan or Inclusion Plan.
  • The policy should be drawn up in the light of current and potential demand therefore regular data should be collected on the numbers of children on the autism spectrum and estimates of future demand should be made on the basis of accepted prevalence rates. Data should be analysed for trends in, for example, the age at identification, gender balance, types of autism and so on.  The information should be used to inform policy. Data should be shared with regional partners and used to promote co-ordinated regional practice.
  • Local authorities should co-ordinate plans across the region and involve independent and voluntary providers so that children and parents have access to a range of provision which an individual local authority might not be able to provide.


Assessments, Statements and Placements: the process

If a child’s special educational needs cannot be met by an ordinary school out of its own resources, the local authority have to make a statutory assessment of those needs.

After the assessment, if the local authority decides the child does need help which is more than or different from what can be provided by an ordinary school out of its own resources, then the authority will generally issue a statement of SEN.  A Statement formally describes all of the child's needs and details all the help required to meet those needs. If they do not issue a statement then they must still provide additional funding or resources to the school to help them meet the child’s needs.

During the ‘proposed statement’ stage of statementing, parents have an enhanced right to choose the maintained school (mainstream or special) they want for their child. If the local authority does not then name that school in the final statement, the onus is on the authority to show why, within reasons limited by law, they have decided against the parent's choice. The legal reasons being that the school would be unsuitable for the child’s age, ability, aptitude and the SEN set out in the statement; and/or that the child’s attendance would be incompatible with the efficient education of the other children with whom the child would be educated, or with the efficient use of resources.

In addition, if a parent wants mainstream as opposed to special school placement, the local authority must place the child in a mainstream school unless they can show that the child’s attendance would cause problems with the education of the other children with whom the child would be educated, and that they have tried to deal with these problems and have failed. A parent may prefer a special school and if so the compulsion on the local authority to place the child in mainstream does not apply.

With the proposed statement, the local authority should provide parents with a comprehensive list of schools in the area. A parent may look further afield to maintained schools in other local authority areas if they cannot find a suitable school among the maintained schools. The same legal obligations to comply with a parent's choice apply to maintained schools outside the area unless the local authority can show a lawful reason not to do so.

A parent is free to ‘make representations’ for a non-maintained or independent school which can make the special provision their child's needs if they cannot find a suitable school among maintained schools.



The National Autistic Society's Make School Make Sense Report (2006) found that:

  • Parents want a range of provision including mainstream schools, special schools, resource bases in mainstream schools and dual placements.
  • Autism expertise is of paramount importance to parents, regardless of whether the school is mainstream or special.
  • Over 50% of children are not in the kind of school their parents believe would best support them. 
  • 66% of parents said their choice of school was limited by a lack of appropriate placements for children with autism in their local area.

The report recommended that local authorities ensure that every child on the autism spectrum has local access to this diverse range of mainstream and specialist educational provision, and that they report publicly on the range of provision available.

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Removing Barriers to Achievement: The government's strategy for SEN

The Government's Response to the Education and Skills Select Committee on SEN

Education and Skills Select Committee Report (2006)

Inclusion: Does it matter where pupils are taught?(2006) Ofsted

The Education and Inspections Act 2006

Make school make sense (2006) The National Autistic Society

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