Finding the right school

9 mins read

This advice applies in England only. Read information for families in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

On this page we explain how to find out information about schools and suggest some questions to ask when visiting. For information about the admissions system, see our school admissions webpage.

In this article

Getting information about schools

Finding the right school place involves weighing up the pros and cons of different schools and the chances of getting a place.

Even if you have been through school admission with other children, you may have a completely different set of questions for your child with additional needs.

The best thing you can do is get as much information about different schools as you can.

From the local authority

The local authority must publish details of all local state-funded schools on the admissions section of its website. There is usually a separate section for each phase of education, for example primary and secondary. The local authority must updated this information every year in time for the new admissions round.

There should also be links to the admission sections of neighbouring local authority websites.

In your local authority’s local offer

Your local authority’s ‘local offer’ site should have information on schools in the area. As well as the local authority’s own schools, it may also have links to independent schools or schools in other local authorities where local children have been placed. What’s on offer varies between local authorities.

You should be able to find information about:

If you want a place in a special school or unit, your child will need to have an Education, Health and Care plan.

Online and in other directories

Get information about schools is the new government schools database. This lists all schools, both state-funded and independent. You can search by local authority or by town or postcode and view the results on a map to find schools near where you live. The site also enables you to filter by type of school or phase of education.

Details of independent special schools and specialist colleges are available to download separately.

In addition, there are a number of commercially-available directories of special schools. These tend to focus more on independent schools. You should be able to find copies in larger public libraries.

From schools

Schools must publish the following information.

SEN information report

All state-maintained schools and academies must publish an SEN information report on their website. This is a good place to start to find out about the help that is available from the school’s own resources.

The SEN information report must include information about:

The accessibility plan must include information about the steps the school is taking to make both the environment and the curriculum more accessible for disabled pupils. The SEN information report maybe include this.

Medical needs policy

All state-funded schools now have a duty to make arrangements to support children with medical needs. They must produce a policy saying how they will do this.

Behaviour policy

All state-maintained schools must draw up a behaviour policy and publish it on their website. The policy will set out how the school encourages good behaviour and the sanctions for breaking the school rules, as well as the measures it takes to prevent bullying.

Academies and independent schools must also have a behaviour and anti-bullying policy. There is no legal duty to publish it on the school’s website, though it is good practice to do so.

From Ofsted

You can find Ofsted inspection reports either through a link from the school’s website or from the Ofsted website. Be aware that reports may be several years old and that schools can change from one year to another.

Visiting schools

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, you may not be able to visit the school you are considering. However the school may have a virtual tour or online open events which you can attend, in which case the information below may help.

It is essential to visit the schools you are considering, as this can give you a feel for how your child would fit in.

All mainstream schools have open events as part of the normal admission round, but it can also be helpful to visit during the normal school day. If it is a mainstream school, ask for an appointment to talk to the SENCO (special educational needs coordinator). You can then ask specific questions about how the school will support your child.

It’s a good idea to take with you a consistent list of questions, particularly if you are visiting a lot of schools. You may also like to take a brief summary of your child’s strengths and difficulties, such as a one-page profile. This will help give the school a sense of your child as a person.

Questions to ask the school

What you ask will be personal to your child and their particular needs. The following questions may help you put together your own list.

Questions to ask all schools

The environment

  • How big is the school site – how do pupils move around, is it safe and secure?
  • Will the environment be too overwhelming for a child with sensory sensitivities?
  • Are there quiet spaces for children to work 1:1 or as a ‘chill out’ space?
  • How accessible is the school for children with mobility difficulties/wheelchair users?
  • Is the school on several levels? If my child needs to use a lift, do they need an adult with them?
  • What are the toilets like? Are there facilities for children who need changing?
  • Are the outside space and playground facilities? Are there quiet areas for children who don’t want to run around or play football?

Learning and the curriculum

  • How are classes arranged? Is it strictly by age?
  • For younger children – is there a particular pattern to the school day/week?
  • For older children – ask for a sample timetable. How does the school manage changes between classes?
  • How does the school use teaching assistants? How does it involve class teachers if a child has one-to-one support?
  • Is support given within the classroom or by taking children out for one-to-one or small group work?
  • What training do support staff receive?
  • How is work differentiated where necessary?
  • What is the homework policy? Are there homework clubs in school?
  • How does the school set targets and measure progress?
  • What experience does the school have of children with similar needs to my child?
  • Can the school draw on outside specialists or support services?
  • Curriculum and qualifications – are there alternatives to GCSE?

 Social support and communication

  • How does the school help new children settle in?
  • How is pastoral support organised? Does the school use mentors or have a counselling service?
  • Ask to see the anti-bullying policy. How would the school handle disablist bullying?
  • How does the school manage behaviour linked to a child’s disability? Are sanctions adapted to a child’s SEN or is there a blanket policy?
  • How does the school communicate with parents? Could my child have a home-school book if needed? Are parents able to have a regular catch up, for example with a child’s teaching assistant?
  • What happens at break and lunch times – is there any structure and who is responsible for supervision?
  • Are there lunchtime or after school clubs? Are disabled children fully included in these?

Questions to ask special schools

In addition to the above, you may want to ask:

  • What areas of need does the school cater for – is there a suitable peer group for my child?
  • Can older children gain qualifications? What about work experience?
  • Do staff have qualifications in teaching children with my child’s particular needs?
  • Therapies – are there therapists on site? Are therapies delivered on an individual or group basis? Is this by therapists or therapy assistants? How is the therapy integrated into the curriculum?
  • Is there medical support on site?
  • What alternative communication methods are used, for example Makaton/PECS? Are staff trained in these? Is assistive technology available for children who need it?
  • Does the school have specialist facilities, such as a hydrotherapy pool or sensory room?
  • How does the school manage behaviour? If they use physical restraint, what is the policy for this?
  • Are there links with mainstream schools? If looking at a special unit, how much time would my child spend in mainstream classes?

Questions to ask residential schools

  • How do children maintain contact with home – phone / skype?
  • Can parents and other family members visit?
  • If my child stays at weekends are there specific activities? Is there a choice?
  • Is the accommodation on the main school site or in separate houses?
  • How are children grouped in the residential units? How is the transition made between the school day and leisure time?
  • Is there a handover between education and care staff?
  • Are meals taken in the school or residential houses?
  • Sleeping accommodation – will my child have to share?
  • How is privacy ensured in bathrooms etc, particularly if your child needs help with personal care?
  • What happens if a child is ill?
  • Can children have personal possessions?
  • What happens with pocket money?
  • How does the school integrate day and boarding pupils?

Expressing your preference

Once you have gathered information about different schools and drawn up a short list, you will be able formally to express a preference for the school you think would be right for your child.

There is a different process for children with and without Education, Health and Care plans. We cover this in full on our page on applying for a school place.

For more information about this topic, you can speak to the education team on our freephone helpline.

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