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Mainstream or special school?

Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date.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.


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When parents of children and young people on the autism spectrum must choose a school they may be faced with a variety of local-authority funded settings – mainstream schools, special schools, autism units attached to schools and ‘resourced provision’ in mainstream classes (this is where additional funding is given to a school to enable them to provide more staff or other types of resources to enable a child with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream). 
Some schools may say they have autism-specific provision, or are autism accredited. However, it is still wise to shop around, as everyone on the autism spectrum is different and a school which caters well for some pupils on the autism spectrum may not suit others.

It’s advisable to visit as many different types of school as possible. This will give you a better idea of what is available and which features you think are important. You may find that a type of school you wouldn't have considered may, in fact, be right for your child. For example, one parent was told by her son's educational psychologist that he would not be able to cope in a mainstream school. However, when she visited her local primary school she decided that it was actually suitable because it was quite small and had a very calm and caring ethos.

Choosing a mainstream school may also offer the advantages of the school being nearby, with the possibility of mixing with the same children and families out-of-school, ease of communication between school and parents, and of course less travelling. Children can be offered substantial help in mainstream schools both with and without statements of special educational needs (SEN) (see below).

With the strengthening in 2001 of parents' right to mainstream places for their children and the recognition that there are many more able children on the autism spectrum than was once thought, there are now more children known to be on the autism spectrum attending mainstream schools. In addition, all schools have more duties to make themselves accessible to, and to provide adjustments for, children and young people with disabilities, and children and young people on the autism spectrum will be classed as disabled for the purposes of these duties.

Special schools and units are also developing ways of providing access for children on the autism spectrum to mainstream schools, often by arranging for them to spend a number of sessions in a mainstream school, usually accompanied by their learning support assistant, or by part-time placement. This is known as dual placement. It may not be suitable for pupils who find change and different environments difficult, and may also make transfer of information and strategies more difficult between the staff in the different settings. Parents will need to be clear which school has responsibility for their child.

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.  Some non-maintained or Independent schools cater wholly or mainly for children with SEN and are often referred to as independent special schools.

In order to be placed in a special school, a pupil must usually have a statement of SEN.  If your child’s SEN cannot be met by an ordinary school out of its own resources (see the section on school-based stages and statements of SEN), then the local authority (LA) will have to make a statutory assessment of those needs. After the assessment, if the LA decides that your child does need help which is more than or different from what can be provided by an ordinary school, they will generally issue a statement of SEN (although they could give extra resources to the school to meet your child’s needs without issuing a statement).

A statement of SEN describes all of the child's needs and details all the help required to meet those needs. During the proposed statement stage of statementing, you have an enhanced right to choose the maintained school (mainstream or special) you want for your child. If the LA does not then name that school in the final statement they have to show why they have decided against your choice. The reasons the LA can use are 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 incompatible with the efficient use of resources.

In addition, if you want mainstream education as opposed to special school education the LA 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. You can, however, prefer a special school and if you do the compulsion on the LA to place the child in mainstream does not apply.

With the proposed statement, your LA should provide you with a list of schools in your area. They may provide you with a complete list of mainstream and special schools with guidance on which are the right places to look, or they may give you a select list of schools that they feel are right for your child. You can ask for a more comprehensive list if you feel you don't have enough information.

If you cannot find a suitable school among the maintained schools in your area, you can look further afield to maintained schools in other LAs. The same legal obligations to comply with your choice, unless the LA can show a lawful reason not to do so, apply to maintained schools outside your area.

If you cannot find a suitable school among maintained schools, you are free to make representations for a non-maintained or independent school which can make the special provision your child needs. In this case you have to be prepared to show why no maintained school could make the provision your child needs.

If you don’t feel that your local authority is giving you sufficient information about available provision then sources of information on autism specific provision is available in the ‘get help from’ section below. 

What different types of schools are there?

The following types of schools are available (although not all these types of school will necessarily be available in your local area).

•    Mainstream schools: many children on the autism spectrum are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. If your child has a statement of special educational needs, they must have extra support in school. This can include requirements (depending on what the child needs) that staff are trained or qualified, that speech and/or occupational therapy is provided, that a learning support assistant provides X number of hours per week, that visual communication systems or other specified strategies are used, that time-out and refuges are available, etc.
•    A base or unit within a mainstream school: some mainstream primary and secondary schools have classes for pupils on the autism spectrum within them. The pupils access the mainstream school when appropriate and are educated in the base or unit for the rest of the time. 
•    Special schools: these are schools specifically for children with special educational needs. The pupils they cater for vary: some are just for pupils on the autism spectrum, while others are for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties, pupils with behavioural difficulties, pupils with physical difficulties, or a mixture.
•    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.
•    Independent or non-maintained schools: these schools can be day or residential and cater wholly or partly for pupils for special educational needs, 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 (see the 'Parental Preference' section for more details) so that the local authority pay for placement.

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Get help from...

The National Autistic Society (NAS) publishes Schools, units and classes for children with autism and Asperger syndrome, which lists all the autism-specific provision that they are aware of in the UK. This is available from their online shop

The NAS also produces an Autism Services Directory which contains details of schools that cater for children and young people on the autism spectrum. You can Visit to search for schools in your area.

If you are considering sending your child to an independent school, you can find information on those that take children with autism or Asperger syndrome in the Gabbitas guide to schools for special needs, which will probably be available through big local libraries, or from an information service such as Gabbitas or the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).

Other disability charities such as I-CAN and AFASIC can provide information on schools for children with speech and language impairments. Contact details for all of these information services and charities can be found in the 'Links' section.

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The National Autistic Society provides a wealth of information on autism and education

Teachernet offers considerable information on all aspects of autism and school provision

I-CAN works to support the development of speech, language and communication skills with children who find this hard

Afasic works in the field of speech, language and communication difficulties to help children and young people, their families and the professionals working with them.

School Action, School Action Plus and Statements of Special Educational Need

Gabbitas provides information on independent special needs schools

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