Choosing a School for your Special Needs Child

May 25, 2015 School Choice


By Sharon Grocott and Karen Hickmott, NSW Parents’ Council’s SWD Project Team

Dhis information sheet is for information purposes only. Please consult with your doctor or other professionals to make sure this information is right for your child.

What to do first!

It is important to plan as early as possible. It is best to start to look at school options at least 12 months before your child is due to start school. Children have a right to attend their local public school. However the school might not be able to effectively meet your child’s needs.

If your child attends a pre-school or child care setting you may wish to discuss your child’s options with the Childcare Director.

It is important to work with school staff members to decide which school is going to best meet your child’s particular needs. An alternative may be for your child to attend an out of area school. An out of area enrolment is dependent upon a number of factors such as the school enrolment policy, the number of special needs children already in the school, etc. This document provides a handy checklist which can be used to take notes and guide you in making a decision.

Types of Schools and Classes

Below are some definitions of the types of support classes available;

Support classes provide individual programs within a regular school setting. If appropriate, the student is integrated in to other classes within the regular school.

IM Support Class: Mild Intellectual Disablity (from age 8yrs): A class consisting of 18 children who have a mild intellectual disability. Classes are available from Years 3 onwards.

IO Support Class: Moderate Intellecutal Disability: A class consisting of 9 children with a moderate intellectual disability.

IO/IS Support Class: Moderate/Severe intellectual disability): A class consisting of 6 children with a moderate to severe intellectual disability.

IO/IS Class – Support Class Language: A class consisting of 6 to 8 children from Kindergarten to Year 2. Students receive an intensive educational and communication program. A child needs to be within the average range of cognitive ability and have a moderate to severe language disorder to be eligible for this class.

Support Class – Physical Disability (P): To be eligible for a Physical Disability Support Class students must have a significant physical disability and/or significant health impairment that requires regular support from allied health personnel. Physical Disability Support Classes are located in regular primary and secondary schools. There is a maximum of 10 students in each class.

Support Class: Emotional Disturbance (ED/BD): Emotional Disturbance Support Classes provide individualised educational and behaviour management programs with a regular school or special setting school setting. A thorough assessment will be required from a specialist medical practitioner or a registered psychologist with appropriate expertise that describes the behavioural difficulties. A class consisting of 6 for children with emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Special Schools – SSPs (School for Specific Purpose): Special Schools provide students with individualised programs similar to those offered in support classes in regular schools. However students enrolled at SSP Schools will have more than one disability and require an intensive level of support. Students can be enrolled from 4 years of age. Special schools should have smaller class sizes, support staff, and access to a range of external support services, such as therapist, as needed. Support Class Autism: A class consisting of 6 children with an autism spectrum disorder. These classes care specifically for children with an ASD and have a focus on visual learning. Please be aware that these classes are not available in every school district. Guide and Checklist for choosing a school

STEP 1: EXPLORE OPTIONS Children with special needs can be enrolled in a main stream class with additional supports, in a support class (IM or IO class), satellite class or in a special school. Parents need to explore each option and decide on what they feel is most appropriate. See what school options are available in your local area. Ask for a list of schools from the different sectors including NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), Catholic Education Office (CEO), and the Association of Independent schools (AIS). Visit schools in which you are interested.
Handy Hints

  • Attend open days for the schools you are interested in.
  • Look at the school’s website.
  • Ring the school and request a prospectus.
  • Importantly, talk to other parents who have been through the process.
  • Remember you are the expert about your child.
When looking at different schools you could consider the following questions:

  • What are your expectations for your child with special needs?
  • What are the needs of other children in the family?
  • Do you prefer co-educational or girls/boys only?
  • What are the transport needs? Can your child learn to travel to school independently or will you need to transport him/her? (You can apply for special transport assistance if needed).
  • What are the financial considerations?
  • Is full inclusion in a mainstream school your preference?
  • Do you want access to a specialist setting and /or special education trained teachers?
Handy Hints

  • The best way to know if a school is right for your child/ren is for you to get to know the culture of a school.
  • Spend time in the school at recess and lunch time and during transition times (if applicable with individual schools). This will allow you to get a feel for the school and how it works. Learn its culture and your family will know if this is the right school.
  • Do you feel that the school staff will understand your child’s needs?
  • Are there signs of inclusion?
  • Are there structured activities at lunch time to encourage inclusion?
  • What programs are in place to effectively deal with bullying?
  • Does the school have a written policy in relation to students with Disabilities?
  • How many children with disabilities (or receiving additional funding) does the school currently have?
Rating of School Culture
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor
Rating of Inclusion
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor
Effective Bullying Policy/Strategy
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor

  • Are the school grounds safe and secure?
  • Are there quiet areas such as a library for your child to go to if feeling sensory overload?
Rating of the School Environment
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor

  • What are your child’s capabilities, strengths and challenges?
  • Is there additional funding support available and to what extent?
  • Is the parent community supportive and involved?
  • Is there one staff member who has overall responsibility for children with special needs (e.g. Learning Support Teacher)?
  • Does the school have access to therapists (e.g. occupational therapist, speech therapist etc)?
  • Do staff members undertake professional development in disability?
  • What is the student to teacher ratio for all classes?
  • Is before and afterschool care available?
Rating of Funding
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor
Rating of Support
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor

  • Does the school have an introductory program to assist children transitioning into the school or an organised transition program for children moving from primary to secondary?
  • How structured (prescriptive or open-ended) is the curriculum? Is there enough flexibility? How does the school support those students needing additional support?
  • What does the curriculum offer beyond the statutory subjects? Co-curricular activities?
  • Does the school offer clubs, interest groups, etc?
  • Do all students have access to specialist facilities (eg library, art rooms, science and technology laboratories, etc)?
  • How and where is ICT (information and computer technology) incorporated into the program?
  • What access do children have to the computers (class time and recess time)?
Rating of Curriculum Support
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor

  • How does the school see the role of home and family in the education process?
  • What input would the school expect from the family?
  • How will you be able to stay in touch with progress?
  • How often do you get to speak to your child’s teachers?
  • Is it possible to speak informally to the teachers at the end of the day, or keep in regular email contact?
  • How does the reporting and assessment system work? Parent-teacher interviews?
  • What parental involvement in school activities is welcomed?
Rating of Communication
.. Excellent
.. Very Good
.. Good
.. Average
.. Poor
STEP 3: AFTER THE DECISION IS MADE Once you have made a decision and chosen a school – What can you do to help?
Handy Hints
  • Attend all transition planning meetings prior to the start of the school year.
  • Provide the school with a one page profile of your child covering:
  • Information on the strengths of and challenges for the child (a balance between the two)
  • Things that may trigger a behavioural difficulty
  • The best way to manage a stressful situation, what works best (and what doesn’t work well)
  • Permission to pass on all relevant information to members of the teaching staff (including relief teachers)
  • Information regarding whether your child knows about their diagnosis
  • Preferred management strategies for siblings (they are not the parents, and should be allowed to carve out their place at school)
  • Let the school know that you are eager to be involved.
  • Be part of your child’s individual education planning process.
  • Supply the school with relevant documentation such as assessments, reports, etc.
  • Share any particularly useful resources with school staff.

Secondary School Choices When choosing a secondary school, there are some additional significant considerations. Give serious consideration to what your expectations are in regard to your child’s secondary education outcomes – what learning do you want your child to be offered in secondary school? To which career paths and choices do you expect this secondary education might lead? With this in mind, consider which secondary education path will best support your son or daughter to achieve their potential and their dreams. Also question the school carefully regarding their expectations for your child’s secondary education. Some mainstream secondary schools may enthusiastically enrol a student with special needs at Year 7, but as the gap in skills widens in comparison with age peers, find the curriculum modification more challenging.

  • How flexible is the school’s curriculum? To what extent will they try to fit the curriculum to the student rather than the student to the curriculum?
  • Where do young people leaving the school progress to?
  • What proportion of school leavers do so at Year 10 and Year 12?
  • Which school leaving qualification courses does the school offer?
  • What information does the school have regarding VET, TAFE courses, SBA (school-based apprenticeships) and FFYA (Futures for Young Adults program)?
  • What work experience opportunities does the school offer, and when?
  • How does the school assist in transition planning to further education or employment?

Your Rights as a Parent All Australian students diagnosed with a disability are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Disability Standards for Education 2005. The intention of the legislation is that students with a disability have the same right to education and training opportunities as all other students. You have a right to the following:

  • To confidentiality between yourself and the school as well as service providers and the school
  • To be consulted about the range of options and educational services available
  • To have a say and be involved in consultation and participation in the IEP.
  • To have an advocate/support person if needed (e.g. family member, friend etc).
  • To an accredited interpreter as well as support from other professionals

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992

The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) provides protection for everyone in Australia against discrimination based on disability. In August, 2009, The Disability Discrimination and Other Human Rights Legislation Amendment Act 2009 (the Act) came into effect. This Act amends the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and provides for a more consistent and coherent application of definitions.

The Disability Standards for Education 2005 (the Standards) is subordinate legislation which clarifies the obligations of education and training service providers and the rights of people with disabilities under the DDA.

The Standards give students and prospective students with disabilities the right to education and training opportunities on the same basis as students without a disability. This includes the right to comparable access, services and facilities, and the right to participate in education and training without discrimination. Education providers have an obligation to make changes to reasonably accommodate the needs of students with disabilities.

The Standards also require education providers to put in place strategies and programs to prevent harassment and victimisation. They must ensure that staff and students know it is not lawful to harass or victimise students with disabilities, or students who have associates with disabilities, or their carer, assistant, assistance animal and/or disability aid. An education provider must take reasonable steps to ensure that staff and students know what to do if harassment or victimisation occurs.

If you believe your child is being discriminated against:

  • Discuss your concerns with the school principal
  • Discuss your concerns with personnel at your local regional office
  • Contact the Anti-Discrimination Board NSW to discuss your concerns. The Anti-Discrimination Board was set up under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to administer that Act. It is our role to promote anti-discrimination and equal opportunity principles and policies throughout NSW.

Anti-Discrimination Board NSW
Sydney Office

Postal address PO Box A2122, Sydney South 1235

Street address: Level 4, 175 Castlereagh Street Sydney NSW 2000

Telephone General office number – (02) 9268 5555 General Enquiry Service & Employers Advisory Service – (02) 9268 5544

Fax (02) 9268 5500

Email General email, enquiries etc:


Website Click here

  • Discuss your concerns with the Australian Human Rights Commission on telephone (02) 9284 9600 (general enquiries) or 1300 656 419 (complaints information line);

Useful Phone Numbers NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) Regional Disability Programs, Consultants, Student Services Co-ordinators and student support officers. For support phone 131 536 (connects to the nearest office) or visit

The Association of Independent Schools can provide geographical lists of independent schools and advice on Australian Government funding available to support children with special needs in independent schools.

Phone 02 9299 2845 or visit

Independent Schools Contact Assistant Director Professional Services Learning and Behaviour Support.

Cate Pinnington Phone: 9299 2845

Catholic Education

Contact State Co-ordinator Special Learning Needs.

Gerry Gray Phone 9287 1543

School Student Special Transport Scheme (DET) transports children to school where the parent or care giver is unable to because of other commitments.

Contact the DET Special Transport Unit on 131 071.

Autism Spectrum Australia (ASPECT) Provide specialised, evidence-based programs for children aged 4-16 who require an autism specific program. Aspect has 6 schools located at-Central Coast, Hunter, South Coast, South East Sydney, Western Sydney and the Northern Beaches. In addition each school operates satellite classes in mainstream school settings. Regional groups of satellite classes are also located in the Riverina (Wagga Wagga and Albury) and on the Far North Coast at Alstonville.

In addition, each school operates classes in mainstream school settings. Aspect classes cover over 70 locations and cater to over 600 students, employing more than 350 teachers and teachers’ aides. Contact the Autism Information Line 1800 069 978 for information packs regarding school options.

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