Many parents of autistic children have difficulties finding the right school.

Here we talk about finding local schools, your child’s rights, the different types of school, and how to get the most out of school visits.  

We also look at procedures for children and young people with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, including the arrangements for moving from primary to secondary school.

Potential difficulties

Making decisions about your child’s education can be difficult. Firstly, you may not be sure if they would be better placed in a mainstream or special school.

You may find that:

  • your local authority (LA) may not provide the type of provision you would like
  • you disagree with your LA about which is the best school for your child
  • your child may not have the required Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan to access a specialist placement. 

Your LA only has a duty to provide an 'adequate' education for your child. However, they’re obliged to give you information about schools that are available and to explain their decision about where they have decided to place your child.

Your LA must publish a local offer of provision available in their area for children and young people from 0 to 25 who have special educational needs.

Local schools

If you have a pre-school child who has an EHC plan or is undergoing an education, health and care needs assessment in preparation for school, your LA should provide you with a list of suitable local schools. 

They may provide you with a complete list of schools and guidance on which they feel are appropriate or they may just give a list of selected schools. You can always ask for a more comprehensive list if necessary.

Parents of children that don’t have an EHC plan, either because they don’t need one or haven’t be able to access an EHC plan assessment, can try looking for information about schools using the following resources:  

Some schools have Autism Accreditation, a quality assurance programme that they are a part of. However, a school which suits one autistic child may not suit another, so don't discount schools which aren't accredited

Your child’s rights

The Equality Act 2010 applies to all maintained and independent schools and maintained and non-maintained special schools. The Act makes it unlawful for schools to discriminate against, harass or victimise a disabled pupil or potential pupil in relation to:

  • admissions
  • exclusions
  • the way it provides education for pupils the way it provides pupils access to any benefit, facility or service.

A school can’t refuse or omit an application for admission from a prospective pupil due to their disability, unless it would be detrimental to the education of the pupil or the other pupils in the school.

Read the Schools Admissions Code and further information on Disability Discrimination in schools (Great Britain).

Different types of school

The following types of schools are available, although not all will necessarily be available in your area.

Mainstream schools: some autistic children are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. Those with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, may have extra support in school for a set number of hours a week, others will be part of a base or unit within the school.

Specialist schools: these are schools specifically for children with special educational needs. Some will be just for autistic pupils, while others are for pupils with moderate or severe learning difficulties, physical difficulties or a combination of both.

Residential schools: these schools can be for children with varying or specific needs. Pupils stay overnight and have a 24-hour curriculum, this means that support is always available. Some have a 52-week placement, others go home at weekends or holidays.

A multi-agency plan that establishes joint or three-way funding should be put in place, but the LA is legally responsible for ensuring education. Parents and the LA should agree any  special help, such as transport.

Non-maintained schools: these schools can be mainstream, special or residential, but none of them will be maintained by the LA. They can charge fees on a non-profit-making basis. Most non-maintained special schools are run by major charities or charitable trusts.

Independent schools: these are schools that aren’t maintained by the LA.  Some are approved by the Secretary of State for Education to cater for children and young people with EHC plans.  These approved independent schools are known as ‘section 41’ schools.  Parents can choose to place their child at their own expense or to make representation to their LA for a placement at an independent school which is not a ‘section 41’ school.

Read more about different types of school.

School visits

Before the visit

Prepare for a school visit by deciding which features are crucial to you.

This could be:

  • approachable staff, preferably with an understanding of autism
  • knowledge of strategies that can be used and the understanding that they should be used flexibly and vary, depending on what is best for an individual autistic pupil
  • a clear bullying policy
  • good communication among staff and with parents
  • willingness to teach autism awareness and acceptance.

On the day of the visit

Here are some suggested tips when visiting a school. 

  • Try to speak to the class teachers and assistants as well as the person showing you round (usually the head teacher).
  • Observe pupils in the playground as well as during lessons. This way you can find out how involved the staff are in the children's play, what activities are available and whether there are any potential bullying spots. 
  • Ask to see some paperwork such as an example individual education plan.
  • Take your child with you to visit at least one school. Pre-schoolers won't have been to a school before and it may be the first opportunity you get to see how they will cope. We realise that taking your child may be stressful and make evaluating the school difficult, but most schools will want to meet prospective pupils.
  • Take someone with you, your partner or friend.  
  • If you can, talk to other parents. Ask questions about their experience of talking with teachers and other staff and having their concerns addressed.

Make a shortlist

Try and narrow your choice down to just two or three schools. They don't all have to be perfect, so long as you can see your child being happy and you feel that you can communicate effectively with the school.

It's better to have more than one chosen school, in case your child is unable to get a place at their first choice.  You should also try to be open-minded about the future, if the school doesn't suit your child you have the option of moving them at a later date. Although change can be difficult for autistic children, this does not necessarily mean that it should always be avoided as learning to handle change is a part of growing up.

After the visit

Once you have visited schools, you need to make an application for their primary or secondary school.

After a school place has been agreed, it would be useful to talk through a transition plan with your child’s existing school.

Read more about starting or changing school.

Choosing a school for a child with an EHC plan

Some autistic children have an EHC plan before they start school, others will go through the EHC needs assessment process once in school. For those with an EHC plan, parents have the right to request a particular school or college of the following type to be named in the plan:

  • Maintained nursery school
  • Maintained school, academy or free school (mainstream or special)
  • Non-maintained special school
  • Further education or sixth form college.

If you make a request for a placement of the type described above, your LA must comply with your preference and name the school or college in your child’s EHC plan unless it would: 

  • Be unsuitable for your child’s age, ability, aptitude or SEN; or
  • Be incompatible with the efficient education of others, or the efficient use of resources.

If you make representation for a place at an independent school or Independent Specialist Provider (ISP) that is not on the Secretary of State’s approved list, your LA must still consider your request.

The LA is not under the same conditional duty to name it as described above, but they must have regard to the general principle as set out in Section 9 of the Education Act 1996 set out above.  You will need to prove that there is a strong case for your child attending that particular school, or type of school.

The LA should also make sure that the independent school would admit your child before naming it in the plan, as an independent school not on the Secretary of State’s approved list does not have a duty to admit your child.

If the LA refuses to name the school of your choice, you are entitled to know why and to ask for a review of the decision. If you are having problems in any of these areas then you can contact your local Information, Advice and Support Service.

Moving from primary to secondary school

Pupils with an EHC plan who are moving from primary to secondary school don’t follow the usual admissions route. Their LA must amend their statement to name their new school by 15 February in the year of transfer. This is detailed in the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice section 9.179.

The code of practice also suggests that an EHC plan must be reviewed and amended in sufficient time before the child moves between key phases of education. This is to allow for planning and commissioning of support.

It would be beneficial for you and your child to have visited the secondary schools you are considering before the Year five annual review, so that you can make your wishes known.

Read more about annual reviews of Education, Health and Care plans.

Further help from our charity

Our Education Rights Service offers advice to parents on how to get the most appropriate education for their child, and support for parents who are appealing to Tribunal.
Choosing a school in Scotland
Choosing a school in Wales
Choosing a school in Northern Ireland
Leaving school

Useful contacts

The Equality Advisory Support Service
Information, advice and support services network

Last reviewed: 3 October 2017.