How to Choose a school for your autistic child

Choosing a school
Choosing a school

Finding the right school for my kids is something I agonised over for both of my boys.  There are so many decisions to make that will have a big impact on your child’s education.  I can’t tell you what the right choice is for you but I can give you a bit of information to help you with choosing a school. 

If your child is likely to need support in school you may need to consider getting an Education Health and Care Plan. This can take some time so is worth starting as early as possible. Before choosing a school it is helpful to understand what schools are available.

There are so many terms relating to schools, my husband is a teacher and even he didn’t know what they all meant.  I have done a little research and can now explain the different types of school / education available in England.

Choosing a school

School in England

Before school, babies and toddlers can attend Nursery and then Pre-School, which is generally for 3-5 year old’s.  All children are eligible for 15 hours free funding at Pre-School starting in the term after they turn 3. Additional funding is available for working parents or those on benefits.

The two main types of school are:

  • Primary for children aged 5-11
  • Secondary from age 11-16.

If a school has a sixth form then it is for children aged 16-18. There are also standalone sixth forms. Colleges generally are for 16+ and offer a different curriculum to the traditional A Level one.  In some cases there is three tier education where children go from primary to a middle school before secondary- this depends on the area you live in.

All children in England aged 5-16 are entitled to a free place at a state school. There is also an expectation that the majority of 16-18 year old’s will be in education or training/apprenticeship.  The majority of schools in England follow the national curriculum.

National Curriculum

The National Curriculum is what the government says that children should learn at school.  All state schools (paid for by the government) follow the National Curriculum. Academies and free schools have some flexibility.

Specialist schools paid for by the government are also expected to follow the National Curriculum. However there is the freedom to teach the curriculum in line with the needs of student, making reasonable adjustments where necessary.

Non-government funded schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

Choosing a school

What is the difference between maintained and non maintained schools?

The majority of schools in England are:

  • state schools that are maintained by the local authority.  They follow national teacher pay and conditions and the national curriculum. or
  • academies that are maintained directly by the Department for Education (DfE).  These schools have more autonomy on pay, conditions and curriculum.

These types of schools are paid for by the government (maintained).

Non maintained schools are not controlled or funded by local authorities or the Department of Education (DfE).  They can charge for attendance with school fees.  They are often known as independent or private schools. The majority of non-maintained specialist schools are run by major charities or charitable trusts.

Types of school in England

The main differences in the types of school are who they are controlled by, how they are funded and who can attend.

Maintained Schools

  • Comprehensive / community schools: anyone of any ability or background can attend a comprehensive school. They are maintained by the local authority and not influenced by business or religious groups.
  • Maintained Specialist schools: children with special educational needs are able to attend a specialist setting.
  • Resource bases or specialist units: some mainstream schools have specialist units or resource bases attached so that pupils can access some mainstream provision as well as specialist.
  • State Boarding schools: education is provided free but there is a charge for boarding. Priority is given to children who have a particular need for boarding.
  • Foundation schools: run by a governing body, who have control over admissions and school land and assets. They also employ staff directly rather than through the local authority.
    • Trust school: a type of foundation school that forms a charitable trust with an outside partner
  • Faith Schools: These are schools that follow the national curriculum but have some freedom about what is taught about religion.
    • Voluntary Aided: Usually Faith schools that are maintained by the local authority with additional funding from supporting body (i.e. church).
    • Voluntary Controlled: Similar to voluntary aided but funded solely by the local authority.
  • Grammar schools: students must sit and pass an entrance exam- the ’11-plus’- to attend this type of selective school.
Choosing a school

Academies and Free Schools:

These types of schools are usually of the same type as above e.g. comprehensive, grammar, but the difference is in the way they are governed and funded.

  • Academies:  independent from the local authority, they are paid by the government (DfE) directly.  The academy is run by an academy trust. Some have sponsors such as businesses or universities.  Some schools are in their own academy trust but many are part of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) which will have several schools in. They have the freedom to follow their own curriculum however it must teach certain subjects (including maths, English and Science) and be ‘broad and balanced’ in curriculum. They also are allowed to follow different pay and conditions for staff.
  • Free Schools: A school set up by an organisation or a group of individuals.  Funded by the government but not controlled by the local authority. Free schools have more control over how they are run but are ‘all ability’ schools.
  • Faith academies: they do not have to teach the national curriculum and have their own admissions criteria and staffing policies.
  • Studio schools: sponsored by an academy school. They will have a smaller number of pupils and more of a focus on links to industry. Because the school has fewer pupils pastoral care can be more individual.
Choosing a school

Other Types of School

  • Independent School: also called private schools some have boarding or residential options.  They have more control over how they run themselves and are not paid for by the government.  They receive funding through their own means for example charging school fees.  Pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum.
  • Independent Specialist schools: children with special educational needs are able to attend a specialist setting. As Independent schools above.

Alternative Provision

  • Elective Home Education (EHE): when parents choose to teach children from home. Home Education can be full or part time. Each local authority provides assistance for home education.
  • Hospital Education. The local authority has a duty to provide education to those children for whom it is responsible but who are unable to be educated in school. This may include children who are sick, unable to attend school (i.e. anxiety) and excluded pupils.
  • Alternative Learning provision (ALP) or pupil referral units: are educational settings outside of school that has been arranged by the local authority or school.  ALP is for students who are unable to attend mainstream school for a variety of reasons including – school exclusion, behaviour issues, school refusal or short and or long term illness.
  • Flexi-schooling may be an option where you have a mixture of home education and schooling.
  • Education Otherwise Than At School (EOTAS) is the provision for children with an Education Health and Care Plan for whom education in a school setting is not appropriate.

Choosing a school for your autistic child

When I had my kids I just assumed they would go the local primary school and for many that is a great option.  My eldest is at a specialist school half an hour away from home.  For my youngest I am still unsure what type of school will be right for him but I see the importance of choosing a school that will fit his needs.

Choosing a school

What are specialist schools?

Essentially specialist schools are to provide education for children who have different educational needs than most of their peers.  Those needs can be learning difficulties, physical difficulties or both.

According to the government website specialist schools in England focus on the following:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health
  • Sensory and physical needs.

Most specialist schools have a higher ratio of staff to pupils. The majority of teachers are specialists in their areas and there are high numbers of teaching or care assistants to support the pupil’s additional needs.  Some specialist schools are specifically for children with autism.

In order to attend a specialist primary or secondary school students need to have an Education Health and Care Plan in place.

To find specialist schools near you contact your own and neighbouring local authorities.  If you are local to the West of England (Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath & North East Somerset) you may be interested in my list of local specialist schools.

Choosing a school

Choosing a School – Specialist or Mainstream?

My eldest was diagnosed with autism at aged 2 and it soon became apparent that he would struggle in a mainstream setting.  At 5 he is still non-verbal and I felt he needed a specialist setting.  It is a hard decision to come to, even just visiting a specialist school was strange at first as I didn’t really know what to expect.  Turns out they are very similar to any school but with different approaches and specialist teachers.

Every child is different and has different needs some children with autism are best placed in their local school others need to travel to get the right specialist support and some are better off in home education.

It can be hard to know what the right route is for your child. I think if specialist might be required it is worth investigating as the admissions process can take a long time.

I was really torn about schools until I visited a fantastic autism specialist resource base attached to a comprehensive primary. After visiting I knew it was the right school for my son. Looking at different options is a good way to get a feel for what may be right for your child.

Looking at schools

If your child will need additional help over and above their peers they may need to get an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).  You will need an EHCP to attend a specialist school.

The best advice I can give you is to look at all the options available and visit the different schools.  When you visit a mainstream school you may want to talk to the school Specialist Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO).  A SENCO is responsible for ensuring children with special educational needs have those needs met.

I think in most cases once you look at schools you either like them or don’t and its only exploring your options that will allow you to find the right placement.  If you can’t find the right option look further afield.  Remember to consider all your options.  Private / independent schools may have funds to support students that cannot afford the fees.  Don’t make assumptions about a type of provision look and speak to them.

It is possible for your school choice to be changed if you find the school is not meeting your child’s needs.

Further information:

Your child may be eligible for Transition Support Funding.

The National Autistic Society has lot’s of helpful information relating to autism and education.  Some schools are registered with the National Autistic Society as they are autism accredited.

Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) have lots of really helpful information, check out their post on choosing a school or college with an EHCP.

I hope that you have found this useful.  If you have any tips to help others out when looking at schools please let us know in the comments.

choosing a school
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1 Comment

  1. 3rd December 2018 / 3:11 am

    Choosing a school for an autistic child sounds very overwhelming for a parent. This is such an important decision for a parent. I like how you broken down the different types of schools. Looking at the schools is the best place to start.

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