As your child approaches school age and you start thinking about choosing a school, you’ll find there are lots of different options, from state primary schools or private primary schools to academies and Free Schools.


If your child has a learning difficulty or a learning disability, picking a school may sound harder, but doesn’t have to be if you know exactly what to look out for.

We know it can be tricky - even to get a diagnosis, as mum lynz_81 on our forum tells us:

"My son is 3, and we're just starting down the road of hospitals finally deciding to help us….the doctors I have seen have told me that he's almost certainly autistic but they wont give an official diagnosis until he is 6, which is making things very hard for me re getting him in to a school, and getting him the one-to-one help he will need."

But there is help out there - and hopefully the information below will offer some guidance on getting your child with a learning disability or difficulty into a school that's right for them.

What support is there for your schoolchild with a learning difficulty or a learning disability?

If your child has a learning difficulty or a learning disability, they will have a statement of special educational needs, also called a statement of SEN. This is provided by the local authority and is looked at annually. Head to Direct Gov to find out more on getting a statement of SEN. This will ensure your child receives a broad, well-balanced and relevant education, as according to Direct Gov.

Your local authority will be able to place your child in an appropriate school, but your child’s statement of special educational needs means you have a right to say which state school you want your child to go to, whether it’s a mainstream school or a special school. Of course there are some rules:

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  • The school you’ve chosen must be suitable for the needs of your child, including age, ability, skills and special educational needs
  • Your child must meet any academic selection criteria the school has (although Direct Gov states that most state schools don’t select pupils by academic ability)
  • Your child’s presence will not have a negative impact on the education of other children already at the school

However, if there are no suitable state schools for your child within your area, your local authority has no legal duty to send your child to an independent school – it’s down to you.


If your child has a learning difficulty, what schools are available?

Dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia are the most common types of learning difficulties in children and most schools will be able to accommodate their regular teaching to provide support for children with these difficulties.

Make a list of possible school choices in your area and call them to discuss the school’s policy on special educational needs. The policy may include a special educational needs coordinator (abbreviated to SENCO) who may be on hand during term time to help and support your child.

For more help, The British Dyslexia Association has put together a checklist for choosing a school for your child with a learning difficulty.

If your child has a learning disability, what schools are available?

If your child has a learning disability, such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Down’s syndrome or Spina Bifida, then there are a few different types of schools available:

  • Mainstream schools While a mainstream school is defined as a school that isn’t a special school, if your child has a learning disability he or she can still apply for a place. The school may offer your child extra support from an outside specialist if they don’t have anyone qualified within their staff.
  • Base or unit within a mainstream school Some mainstream schools have separate classes especially for pupils with learning disabilities. Your child will be taught both in a mixed class and a special needs class to receive as best an education as possible.
  • Special schools Special schools offer places only to children with special educational needs so you can choose a school dependant on the learning disability your child has. The classes may be smaller, the pupil to teacher ratio lower and the staff will understand and help your child as much as possible.
  • Residential schools Residential schools are a bit like boarding schools for children with varying or specific needs to receive 24-hour care as well as an education.
  • Independent schools Independent, or private, schools can be mainstream, special or residential but you pay for your child’s education as they aren’t maintained by the local authority.

To see what schools are available in your local area, see the National Autistic Society’s Services Directory or your local authority and enter your postcode.

Should you visit a potential school before making your decision?

Yes. Once you’ve made a list of the possible schools in your local area that sound good on paper for the needs of your child, go and visit!

“It’s always a good idea to visit a school two or three times when deciding whether it is the right place to send your child. The first time may be on an organised open day, but it’s best to go back and meet the Headteacher during school time so you can see how the school runs on a normal day,” says Paula Burgess, Headteacher of Bramley School.

If one of your chosen schools has an open day, take your child along and see how well he or she reacts to the new environment. We have put together a list of the top 10 questions to ask teachers when looking around a potential school, but you may have some more specific questions relating to your individual child’s special educational needs. Make sure you ask!

Paula advises that when you return to the school on a normal school day, listen out for the interaction between the teachers and the pupils. Not only should you look out for signs of excellence, through wall charts and displays for example, but if your child has a learning difficulty or a learning disability the most important things to look out for are signs of support.

Take along your child’s statement of educational needs and talk it through with the school’s Headteacher to find out exactly what the school can offer your child.


Remember, what works for one child may not work for another. Only you know your child and his or her individual educational needs. Make sure all your questions are answered correctly for you before choosing to send your child to a specific school. For more information, visit Direct Gov’s parent pages.