Should my son attend a mainstream or special school?

Parents face a real dilemma as experts often disagree regarding the best option

Question: My nine-year-old son had serious medical complications when he was born and was diagnosed with a learning difficulty when he was three. He has now just finished fourth class in a mainstream primary school, with the help of a special needs assistant and a great vice-principal.

However, I am very aware that the gap is widening between him and the other children in the class, both academically and socially. We are now getting advice that it would be best for him to start in a special school and we are lucky enough to have been offered a place in a good one. However, I feel quite mixed about him starting there this September. Though he will have lots of advantages in the special school (small classes, access to professional inputs and a sure place in the secondary wing of the school), I worry that he will not perform to the best of his ability (there will be lots of children with more significant needs there than his). Also, he seems unsure about moving himself and I think he will find it quite an adjustment.

I don’t know how much he is aware of the gap between him and his classmates. What do you advise?

Answer: One of the biggest dilemmas you can face as a parent of a child with special needs is deciding whether your child's educational needs are best served in a mainstream school or whether they would be best served within a special school. The challenge of deciding is made worse by the fact that experts often disagree about which is best. Some see the advantages of integrating children into the mainstream with additional supports whereas others argue that the extra supports children need are best provided in specialist settings.


Ultimately, what is best depends on the individual child and family and, like all parents, you have to weigh up the pros and cons and make the best choice. You are fortunate to have a choice as for many parents the educational placements on offer are often very limited so practically they are making the most of what is available.

In thinking what is best for your son, you are right to take time to pause and to look carefully at the options. If your son was to stay in his current school, how will he progress? What do you imagine will be his options for a secondary school in the future? Is there a suitable mainstream school that could provide the additional supports your son needs?

It strikes me that a strong advantage of the special school place now is that it will provide a transition into a suitable secondary school for your son in the future. The move to secondary school is challenging at the best of times and particularly for children with special needs when academic and social differences become even more striking than they are now as pressures mount. Identifying a suitable secondary school will be key for your son.

Consult closely with teaching staff

I would suggest you spend time talking through your dilemma and the issues with the teaching and professional staff who know your son well. Meet also with the principal and team in the special school and discuss how they might help your son settle and how they can address your concerns regarding your son potentially underperforming etc.

You may also have some choice about the timing of your son moving to the new special school – there may be an option to defer the place until you are sure it is the best option or until a time your son is more ready (though there may be an advantage taking up the place now as it gives him time some more time to settle before secondary school).

These are all different options to consider with the professional team and they should be able to put in place an educational plan centred on your son’s needs and be flexible in arrangements to accommodate his needs.

Meet other parents

It might be also useful to talk to or meet other parents with children with special needs who have faced similar dilemmas to you. There are lots of good large and small parent-led organisations that you can contact for general information as well as details of local support groups such as or  to name but a few. The new school should also be able to put you in touch with the parents association and/or other parents who have children attending the school who would be available to talk to you and to discuss your concerns. If your son does take up a place, making contact with other parents in advance will help with preparing him to start.

Talking to your son

Think carefully how you might talk to your son about the decision around his new school depending on his level of ability and understanding of the issues. Listen to the concerns he might have, bearing in mind the prospect of moving from one school he knows to one is does not is likely to make him anxious (and does not mean the school is unsuitable).  Be careful about over-disclosing your worries about his school as he may pick up on these. Instead try to present things in a positive light to him.

If a move is planned in the future, take time to prepare him for this by arranging physical visits in advance so he can build up a positive picture of the school in his mind. As he might be joining an existing class, it might also be useful to arrange to informally meet some of the other children who are attending over the summer. Making contact with the parents in the school via the parents association as above might be a good way to set this up.

Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He has published 14 books including Positive Parenting: Bringing up responsible, well-behaved and happy children. See