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Is online school a genuine choice for neurodiverse children?

The half term is over and we’re right back into the thorny issue of what elective schooling really means in the context of families whose children have SEND.

Department for Education figures released earlier this year show that nearly 4,500 of the 517,000 children and young people with Education Health and Care plans (EHCPs) are listed as being home educated.

Of course, some families may be perfectly content with the home-schooling arrangement. But all of us working in special education have heard from parents who've felt pressured into home educating because school says it ‘cannot meet need’ and/or the home/school relationship has broken down beyond repair.

We also know that families ‘elect’ for home education when the alternative is for their child to be suspended or excluded.

In the most extreme cases, families whose children have SEND choose home education to avoid prosecution for their child’s non-attendance.

New and growing area of ‘elective' education

And there’s another growing area of so-called ‘elective’ schooling for neurodiverse pupils, and that’s ‘online’. As the CEO of TCES National Online School (as well as three other schools and services) I’m an advocate of online therapeutic education for those pupils who cannot attend in-person lessons.

However, my support comes with two important caveats; online school should be exactly that, properly regulated and with opportunities to be part of a virtual community, to make friends and participate in group activities online for those children who can. The second is that parents must be able to elect for state-funded online education based on need, rather than their ability to pay. Every place at TCES National Online School is funded by a Local Authority.

Online school as a community

Across TCES we work with pupils with complex levels of special need and social, emotional and mental health challenges.

In all cases our planned trajectory for them is the same. Stabilise pupils within a 1:1 setting if needed, progress to small groups and then into small classes if they can.

That’s because we believe that school – however it is accessed – should offer opportunities to build relationships and be a place for every child to thrive within a community of peers.

We limit what our children can become if we go so far down the path of ‘elective’, individualised education, tailored to paying customers (parents), that it leaves children cut off from a community of learners and without opportunities to build their strengths as leaders.  

I’m also concerned about the current lack of any regulatory framework for online provision. Our TCES bricks and mortar schools are inspected by Ofsted, and are rated Good with Outstanding features. That’s why at the first opportunity I registered TCES National Online School to be part of the Department for Education’s Online Education Accreditation Scheme (OEAS).

The Scheme won’t be compulsory, but only those providers who satisfy both DfE and Ofsted requirements around safeguarding and quality of education will be able to advertise themselves as a ‘DfE-accredited provider’.

Access to online education based on need not income

It may be easier for schools to persuade individual families to home-educate rather than question deeply why some children cannot thrive in their school.

In the same way, it may seem to some desperate parents that the best route to getting their child’s needs met is to take them out of school and pay for their own online provision, rather than stay and fight a system that seems unable to support them.

But what of those families of neurodiverse children who cannot afford to pay?

Children with SEND are more likely to experience higher levels of poverty and disadvantage than the general population and are amongst the most likely to be suspended or excluded from school. Now, for the first time, according to analysis from the Who's Losing Learning Coalition, children in poverty are the most likely to be suspended, and then also excluded. A double whammy for some SEND families.

In his thoughtful article Attendance is everyone's business, John Pearce President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, calls for a system-wide response rather than any part of the system absolving its responsibility. There are many more things the system needs to do to keep children in education he opined. I wholeheartedly agree.

Whether it’s home education that parents feel forced to accept, or online education that parents feel compelled to pay for themselves, both are symptomatic of a system absolving itself of responsibility.

In the context of neurodiverse children, I fear they are more ‘Hobson’s choice’ than genuine parental choice.

Every child has the right to an education. We must hold this, and any future government’s feet to the fire to ensure that they provide it.

Where online education is deemed the best option for a child, we should demand that it is:


  • Properly regulated (providing quality education in a safe environment).
  • State-funded.
  • Based on therapeutic principles so that children get both the academic, and social, emotional and mental health, support they need to facilitate a return to school where possible.