Choosing a school

One of the questions we are most frequently asked is “how do I know that I’m choosing the right school for my child?”  The answer is that you probably won’t know until you have tried it.  This question is usually closely followed by “can you recommend a school?”.

As an impartial service, we are not in a position to recommend specific schools; we don’t know your child or have intimate knowledge of the schools in your area.  However, we can suggest a number of issues you might want to think about and questions you could ask when you are looking at schools, to help you make your decision.


Choosing a school for a child with SEND

Choosing a school is a difficult decision for all parents.  Although we talk about “choosing a school”, in reality, this means stating which school you would prefer your child to attend.  (See the section on Page 4 about the importance of “expressing a preference” for a school for a child with a Statement of SEN or an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)).

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Types of school

  • Mainstream schools: are local, maintained primary and secondary schools or church-aided schools and include academies and free schools.  All children have a right to be educated in mainstream school.
  • Special units and facilities: some mainstream schools have special units attached to cater for children with particular types of need, such as autism or visual impairments. Such units offer children the opportunity to spend some time in a mainstream setting, but also to receive specialist teaching.  Your child will need an EHCP to be considered for a place in one of these units.
  • Maintained special schools: are state-funded schools for children with more complex needs that cannot be met in mainstream.  Your child will need an EHCP to be considered for a place.
  • Non-maintained special schools: are special schools (local or further afield), run privately or by charities, some of which are residential.  A small number of children with an EHCP may go to one of these schools, where it has been established that no local school can meet their needs.  In the case of this type of school, the onus is on the parents to prove that no other school can meet their child’s needs.
  • Section 41 schools: are non-maintained, special schools that have opted to be bound by the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice 2015.  If your child has an EHCP, you can express a preference for him/her to attend a Section 41 school.
  • Non-maintained or Independent School (NMI’s): An independent school is a school which is not dependent upon national or local government for financing its operation and is instead operated by tuition charges, gifts, and perhaps the investment yield of an endowment.

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Types of specialist centres

Our specialist centres cater for the following categories of need. These are:

  • Specialist centres for learning and additional needs (LAN)
  • Specialist centres for communication and interaction needs (COIN)
  • Specialist centres for sensory impairment (SI)

Specialist centres for learning and additional needs (LAN)

These specialist centres are designed to meet the needs of children with general moderate learning difficulties who will benefit from attending mainstream classes and social contact with their peers in mainstream schools. To achieve their educational outcomes they also require regular additional specialist support in small groups in a quiet setting away from mainstream school. They may also have autism, speech and language needs, medical or physical needs.

Specialist centres for communication and interaction needs (COIN)

Specialist COIN centres are based in mainstream schools to meet the needs of children with identified communication and interaction difficulties. This category includes speech, language and communication needs and autism. COIN specialist centres are best suited for children who will benefit from attending mainstream classes and regular interaction with other pupils there, but require additional specialist support at times in a different classroom setting to achieve their educational goals.

Some of the specialist centres are equipped with special soft play and sensory rooms for children with highly complex needs. These provide a separate environment to help children develop their sensory awareness or regulate their emotions so that they are in the right frame of mind for learning activities.

Specialist centres for sensory impairment (SI)

Specialist centres for sensory impairment are located within mainstream schools. They operate as distinct units but also participate in key areas of the life and organisation of the mainstream school. Specialist centres are designed to meet the needs of children and young people who benefit from the breadth of the mainstream curriculum, but because of their sensory impairment would not achieve adequate progress without additional support in a mainstream school. By attending a specialist centre they can get that enhanced support to enable them to make the same progress as their peers.

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Types of special schools

Our special schools cater for the following categories of need. These are:

  • Schools for social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH)
  • Schools for severe learning and development difficulties (SLDD)
  • Schools for learning and additional needs (LAN)
  • Schools for complex social communication needs (CSCN)

Schools for social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH)

Pupils with SEMH needs vary greatly in how their needs present themselves.
Our current SEMH special school offer is designed for those pupils with SEMH whose emotional vulnerability and challenging behaviour mean that only a special school can provide a secure enough environment to support them.

At present these are for boys only. Children with SEMH also have their needs met at a range of other special schools across Surrey. These include mainstream schools, specialist centres, and special schools with complementary specialisms, such as communication and interaction needs (COIN) or learning and additional needs (LAN), plus a small number of non-maintained schools (NMIs). Your case worker will be able to discuss the range of possibilities with you.

Schools for severe learning and development difficulties (SLDD)

These schools support children with severe needs, both physical and cognitive. Although all will have severe learning difficulties, they may vary from those who cannot speak (non-verbal) to those with good communication skills; some will need constant support for their physical needs while others are physically independent. Their overall combination of needs mean that they require more specialist support than that which can ordinarily be met in a mainstream school or specialist centre.

In addition, the children may have:

  • medical issues
  • autism
  • speech, language and communication needs.

Schools for learning and additional needs (LAN)

These schools are designed to meet the needs of pupils working significantly below peers of a similar age. In addition to learning difficulties, they will have additional barriers to learning, such as autism, medical issues or speech, language and communication needs.

Schools for complex social communication needs (CSCN)

These schools are designed to meet the needs of students with autism and related conditions who typically also have general learning difficulties. They are likely to have a wide range of challenging behaviours associated with their condition. The complexity of their needs cannot be fully met in a mainstream school or specialist centre.

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How do I find a school that will suit my child?

  • Visit at least two schools so that you have something to compare.
  • Think about your child’s needs and what matters to you most about a school.
  • Try to keep an open mind until you have looked at all the possibilities and spoken to the professionals involved with your child.

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Before visiting the school

  • Make a checklist of all the things that are important to you and your child.  This will help you to ask the right questions. (See the checklist below as an example).
  • Collect information: ask for the school prospectus or visit the school website.
  • Arrange to meet with the special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCo).  If your child is transferring to secondary school, you may like to meet the head of year or head of Key Stage 3.
  • Ask them to bring to the meeting the school SEN information report, SEN policy, governors’ annual report on SEN, school prospectus, anti-bullying policy and behaviour policy – or download documents from the school website.
  • Look up the school’s most recent OFSTED report on the internet.
  • Decide if you want to take someone with you – perhaps a family member or friend.
  • Take any relevant information about your child, such as their EHCP, any educational psychology advice and copies of individual education plans (IEPs).

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Sample checklist (to be used for ideas)

  • Does the school have experience of children with the same/similar needs as your child and, if so, how do they work with them?
  • What kind of help would your child receive?
  • Depending on your child’s needs, ask about:
    • additional adult support (e.g. learning support assistant)
    • equipment/adaptations/materials
    • the way teaching would be organised e.g. whole class, small groups, 1:1
    • SEN support services available to the school – e.g. therapists, educational psychologist, literacy support, support from other schools.
    • medical/personal hygiene support.
  • What is the school’s behaviour policy and how is it applied to children with SEND?
  • If your child has behavioural difficulties, how would the school respond to them?
  • How does the school deal with bullying?
  • How does the school involve parents in school life?
  • How will the school communicate with you about your child and his/her progress?
  • How does the SENCo communicate information about individual pupils to teachers?  N.B. this is especially important at secondary school where a pupil might be taught by 13-14 different teachers in a week.
  • Are there any after school activities/trips/holidays and, if so, how would your child with SEND access these?
  • If your child will need transport to and from school, ask for further information about this from your local SEN team. (Details of all the area SEN teams can be found at the end of this document).

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Other issues to consider

  • Do you feel welcome?
  • Do the children seem cheerful and engaged?
  • If your child has any particular religious needs, would they be met?
  • Do the classrooms look like places where children can learn?
  • Does the school look under control?
  • Does the school celebrate different cultures/religions?
  • Are the displays current and interesting and do they seem to include pupils of all abilities?
  • Do the members of staff seem interested in you and your child?

Remember, your own experiences of school may affect the way you see the school.  Try to put these feelings aside and look at the school from your child’s perspective.

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After visiting the school

  • Take time to reflect
  • Discuss your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust
  • Think about your ideal choice and have a “fall back” position that you are still happy to accept.

If your child has an EHCP and you are considering mainstream primary or secondary schools, you should be aware that you will be asked to express a preference for a school in the September of the year before your child is due to move.  You might therefore want to attend secondary open evenings in the autumn term of Year 5.

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Why is it important to “express a preference” for a school for a child with a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SSEN) or an EHCP?

You have the right to “express a preference” for the school you wish your child to attend.  This means that you can tell the local authority (LA) which of the maintained mainstream, maintained special and Section 41 schools in your area you would like your child to attend. The LA will then take your views into account when decisions are being made about which school can best meet your child’s needs.

If you are asked by the LA to express a preference for a school, it is important that you do so either in a letter, or an email to your child’s case worker so that the details of your preferred school can be recorded in the relevant paperwork.  That paperwork may be considered by special admissions forums which meet in the autumn term (junior and secondary transfer) and spring term (infants) to look at placing pupils in Surrey special schools and units.  If this is the case for your child, the Year 1 or Year 5 annual review is the critical one.

If your child is educated out of their chronological year group (for example in Year 4 when they should really be in Year 5 because of their date of birth), it is important to talk to your child’s current school and/or your case worker as early as possible.

At your child’s last annual review, there will have been a discussion about which school they should go to next.  However, unless you had put the name of your preferred school in writing when you completed the parental report for the annual review, there may be no written record of the school for the LA to refer to.

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The law relating to children with an EHCP

If your preference is for a mainstream school (not a special school) for your child, the LA has to agree unless the school is: “unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or special educational needs of the child”, or your child’s attendance at the school “would be incompatible with the provision of efficient education for others, or the efficient use of resources”.

If you do not know which school you prefer and are happy to await the outcome of the process, you should let the LA know that too, again by contacting your child’s case worker at your local area special educational needs (SEN) team.

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Where can I find my local area special educational needs (SEN) team?

South West – Guildford, Waverley

  • Address:
    Quadrant Court,
    35 Guildford Road,
    GU22 7QQ
  • Phone: 01483 517890
  • Email:

South East – Mole Valley, Reigate & Banstead, Tandridge

  • Address:
    Consort House,
    5-7 Queensway,
    RH1 1YB
  • Phone: 01737 737990
  • Email:

North West – Runnymede, Surrey Heath Woking

  • Address:
    Quadrant Court,
    35 Guildford Road,
    GU22 7QQ
  • Phone: 01483 518110
  • Email:

North East – Elmbridge, Epsom & Ewell, Spelthorne

  • Address:
    Elmbridge Civic Centre,
    High Street,
    KT10 9DS
  • Phone: 01737 737940
  • Email:

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