Secondary Education SEN School Provision

Finding a secondary school place for learners with SEND

Find out why it can be hard to find a secondary school place for learners with SEND and what you can do about it

Why it can be hard to find a secondary school place for your child with SEND and what you can do about it

If you are a parent struggling to find the right secondary school for your child with special educational needs or disabilities, (“SEND”), you are not alone. There are structural reasons why it is hard to find places for your child that affect availability of both mainstream and secondary school places for learners with SEND.

High demand for mainstream places

Approximately half of learners with Education and Health Care Plans (“EHCP”s), and Statements of Special Needs attend mainstream schools according to the Department for Education’s SEN Statistics, 2018.

Demand for mainstream school places has been increasing with London experiencing the highest rate of demand growth for school places over the last decade with over double the rate of increased demand of anywhere in the UK according to the London Councils, “Do the Maths” report from 2018.

There are shortfalls in school places with, for example, London forecast to have a gap of 45,355 school places across primary and secondary schools until 2022/23, with the majority at secondary level. Anecdotal evidence from our clients indicates that the funding pressures on schools and high demand for school places can mean that mainstream schools can be reluctant or unable to provide all of the extra support that learners with SEND may need.

High demand for SEND school places

According to the Department for Education SEN Statistics report in 2018, around half of learners with EHCPs or Statements of Special Needs attend special schools.

The demand for places for pupils with SEND is also increasing and in London this is described as a “dramatic” increase by the London Councils in 2018.

The number of pupils with EHCPs requiring specialist provision to meet their needs, has risen by 29 per cent since 2010 in London (this is double the rate of increase in pupils during this time period), and the complexity of these needs is increasing.

Increasing numbers of families are not finding an appropriate school setting

Home schooling is increasing in large part due to dissatisfaction with school provision. 45,500 children (equivalent to 0.5% of the school population in England) are estimated to be home schooled according to the Association of Directors of Childrens’ Services Report on Elective Home Education, dated October 2017. Over 90% of local authorities reported year on year growth in home schooling. 80% of these children are estimated to be home schooled because the family is unhappy about the available educational provision and up to 10% have special educational needs or disabilities.

What you can do

Despite the challenges, it is important to remember that many parents are ultimately successful in finding a suitable setting even if there may be compromises and even if it takes a great deal of work agree it with the local authority.

Our top tips to be successful in finding and securing a place at the right setting are below:

Start early

We advise visiting all of the schools that the Local Authority may recommend to you (by checking the SEND Local Offer) as well as any other schools that you believe could work. School visits are often at set times in the year and for large schools visits and open days are particularly limited. Year 4 is not too early to start!

Reflect on your and your child’s aspirations for the future

Is a traditional route of 9+ GSCEs, A levels and university the right path for your child or will your child benefit from vocational options and a pathway that is less traditional or with fewer exams or different exams and assessments at 16 and 19? This is important especially if you are considering a specialist school as the pathway options vary in specialist settings with some offering a range of pathways and others having a pathway that most, if not all, students follow. If you are looking at a mainstream setting are there creative subjects that you would like to see offered for your child, do you have any choice about the number of exam subjects, and how supportive is the school in allowing laptop use and supporting young people with readers and scribes, for example, in public examinations?

Review the paperwork

Go over all the information that you have about your child such as the Education and Health Care Plan and professional reports. Think about what support you think your child realistically needs taking into account what professionals working with your child advise and what is working and not working. What is not working may mean that this is an area to review and consider whether there is other support that your child needs. Are you happy with your child’s progress and, if not, what else might they need? Ideally, you have a supportive special needs coordinator and teaching team that can help you with this.

Capture the evidence for what your child needs

You may decide that more, or less, support is needed than is set out in the EHCP in which case you would be well advised to capture evidence for the support that is needed from the current school and professionals working with the child. Try to ensure this is granular so you can specify how many direct individual therapy sessions may be needed per week and so on, whether the child needs a particular type of environment (e.g. one with low arousal levels to match their sensory profile, or where there is a whole school communication approach), or class size, for example. These requirements will be key in justifying, if necessary, your choice of school later on.

Update the EHCP

With these updated reports you can then ask for changes to be made to the EHCP so that, hopefully, you have an EHCP that reflects all of the support your child needs by the time that you need to send this to schools that you wish to consider for secondary education.

Visit and review all relevant schools

Visit and review the schools on your list and keep track of which schools you thought could be appropriate and which are not and the reasons why. This will help you if you need to justify your choice because it is out of borough or an independent or specialist setting. If schools indicate they cannot meet your needs try and obtain as much feedback as you can for your list and note the source of the feedback and date.

Word of mouth and online directories

Our clients have found that relying upon word of mouth recommendations can help identify good settings to visit but can also mean that important schools relevant to your situation can be missed. We advise caution about online directories as we find they can have significant omissions and many do not list mainstream state and resource based provision in detail. When we help clients find appropriate school settings we use our own database of all state and private schools in the UK that includes all mainstream schools, resource bases and units and private and non-maintained schools to identify all of the relevant schools and cross check this with the Local SEND Offer in each borough in our search area.

Develop your shortlist

Once you identify all of the relevant schools (we have picked up hundreds of potential settings on some regional school searches) with your visits and research you will need to narrow down to those that offer the provision that you need with the right peer groups, support and pathways. Naturally, conversations with key staff such as the special needs coordinator will be important to understand whether the school can provide what your child needs and whether you feel that you can work with these professionals over the years that your child or young person would attend the school.

Sometimes you will be restricted about how much access you can have to a school before the school wishes to see a referral from the local authority. Our clients find this hard and sometimes seek to choose other schools where they have had greater contact and are more certain about suitability. This is a stage where connecting with parent networks or others in your area with additional needs can be really helpful.


You can seek to move early before the traditional timing at the end of year 6 and can address this with the local authority between annual reviews or at an annual review meeting. If it is possible we would recommend speaking with an advocate, SEN support charity or legal adviser about this.

In year 6, your local authority will send you a secondary school transition form which can be significantly earlier than the main date for secondary school applications (i.e. September in year 6) so ideally you will have a view on your 3 preferred settings and the correct supporting evidence prior to this. If a school has offered you a place then this would usually come with a letter or report stating why the school believes it can meet your child’s needs.

You may need to ask for help

Hopefully, you have been given the school place that you need but you may need to appeal and, again, we recommend accessing legal support at this point to guide you. The more thoroughly you have evidenced your child’s needs and the more that the EHCP reflects honestly the areas of support your child needs the better this will be in helping you. Some schools advise that it can take parents 12-18 months to agree the setting with their local authority which may mean that you wish to consider moving to a school before secondary age if possible. However, you would likely still have to navigate the secondary transfer documentation in year 6 so keeping up with your recording of needs and being able to identify why other school options are or are not appropriate will be helpful.

Transition planning

Once you have a school place, we like to see the current school provide a strong pupil profile pack with suggestions for the transition process to the new school and some new schools will arrange to visit potentially home and school to build a robust plan for the transition. This process should allow space for parents and carers to provide their views about what would be most helpful and how your child will best settle.

Inevitably the above is only snapshot of the key things to do as it is a summary of a relatively complex process and each school, family, child and local authority is different. Our team at Acorn to Oak Education is highly experienced in supporting families with making the right choices about educational transitions and finding appropriate educational settings. You can find out more about what we do and how we may be able to help at, by calling 020 7193 8407 or emailing for more information.

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