Special Needs Introduction

Sandra Hutchinson, Editor of The Good Schools Guide - Special Educational Needs provides a practical introduction.

SEN provision

Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced considerable difficulties, frustrations or social and emotional problems. 

In the years since the first edition of our special needs guide diagnosis of, and provision for SEN have improved but both can still be a minefield. We have a lot of help and advice on this site but if you are unsure where to start, make this article your first port of call. 



Identifying different kinds of special educational needs


Few children fit a condition perfectly – if they do, we tend to say they are a ‘classic’ case. Most will not be straightforward, some will be comorbid, perhaps a dyslexic with dyspraxia and a touch of ADD, or a child with ASD who also has Down’s syndrome.

Just as special needs are hard to define so the perfect provision can be difficult to uncover; having a wheelchair-accessible school does not make it a haven for the wheelchair user.

Please do not take lists of characteristics to mean your child has an SEN; how many medical students thought they were riddled with cancer because they happened to have some of the symptoms outlined in the oncology module?

Whatever your thoughts, we cannot stress enough the importance of getting expert, professional opinion, sooner rather than later.


Who's who?

Helping children with SEN


In addition to teaching staff there are a number of professionals whose role involves helping children with special educational needs: 

  • Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCo's) - coordinate SEN provision within schools.
  • Speech and Language Therapists (SALT)  - deal with a range of issues including how children speak and how they communicate and interact with others
  • Physiotherapists (PT) - work to overcome physical difficulties including: posture, core stability, sensory integration and strength.
  • Occupational therapists (OT) - help children with motor skills, coordination and daily functioning.
  • Educational psychologists (Ed Psychs or EPs) - uncover  a child's underlying difficulties and problems through a range of tests, sub tests and assessments. 
  • Music therapists use music to encourage communication and facilitate positive change. 
  • Play therapists - play is not something all children engage in automatically, therapists can assist those who find play problematic.

All have invaluable roles to play in helping children with SEN; what they do they do and how can they help your child is explained in the SEN Professional Help section.


Action to take if you think your child has a special educational need

Special educational needs - first steps

Children progress at different rates and have different ways in which they learn best but, if you have concerns, there are a number of things you can do...

Much will depend on the age and severity of the need, as we outline below.

Pre-schooler (0-5)

 Talk to your child's health visitor, nursery or pre-school teacher or  headteacher. They will advise you on action you can take at this stage. For some conditions, medical, behavioural, motor issues (such as dyspraxia) or speech difficulties for example, your GP can be a good first contact. They can refer you to therapists or for further assessments. The government green paper on special needs proposes that all children should be assessed for special needs during these early formative years. It is likely the onus will be on specially trained health visitors but the paper does not say how they will be trained or when.


School age children (5+)

Talk to your child's class-teacher, the school's SENCo, or head teacher. Voice your concerns; it may be they haven't spotted things you have, or that they have some concerns which, when coupled with yours, suggest some form of intervention may be appropriate. 

Be prepared: consider whether your child is making the progress expected for their age and if there is anything you can do to help at home. If you make an appointment to speak to an education or health professional be prepared before you meet; write down all the points you want to make, better still keep a diary or record of incidents and experiences that support your case. Remember you know your child best.

If the school (or health professionals) share your concerns, they will decide on the appropriate type and level of support or intervention - usually school action or school action plus in school, or referral to a therapists if you have sought medical help.

Exceptionally, medical and/or health professionals may decide your child needs to undergo a statutory assessment, with a view to your child being statemented.  

If the school doesn't share your concerns and you are still not happy with the explanations given, pursue the matter, seeking independent advice or information if necessary. Your GP or health visitor may be able to help. Alternatively seek out independent advice from an Educational Psychologist

Private EP reports usually cost between £300 and £400 but may be more. Their findings are not binding, a school does not have to act on them but it may be enough to set the ball rolling or to give you peace of mind.


SEN state of flux

The Children and Families Bill 2014 is changing the face of special needs and placing a new focus on special educational needs and disability (SEND). The act and code cover children and young people who have a disability if they also have SEN. Educational needs are the key reason for a plan being issued. Young people with a disability, with health and/or care needs but no SEN are not covered by the act and code but they are covered via other acts including The Equality Act 2010 and the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Existing Statements will be phased out by 2018 and LDAs by 2016.

From September 2014 any new assessment, for the two percent or so of young people with greatest needs, whose special educational needs the local authority feel cannot be met within mainstream resources, will be via an EHC plan. The plan will potentially cover a young person from ages 0-25. There is no automatic right to education to age 25 but an EHC plan may be maintained beyond age 19 if the young person remains in education and or training because educational and or training outcomes have not been achieved and remaining in education/training will enable those outcomes to be achieved and:

  • special educational provision is still needed
  • the young person wants to remain in education or training to complete or consolidate their learning (includes provision designed to help them prepare for adulthood).

Young people who enter employment or higher education, including university will not be eligible for an EHC plan but they should be given support to help them transition. Those with complex learning difficulties or disabilities, who move to supported internships to help them prepare for employment, will likely be covered.

An EHC plan should be timely with planning and assessment completed within 20 weeks. Much of the finer details of EHC plans have yet to be worked out but they are intended to provide greater flexibility and choice via a focus on personalisation, giving young people a voice and role in the decisions about them, joined up services and personal budgets. Individualised outcomes for the young person take centre stage - their needs, where they will be placed and the provision they receive to meet those needs must be personal to them; the onus is on why that provision will make a difference to the individual child, rather than to children as a whole. The emphasis is on partnership and on having a voice that is heard and acted on.

The picture is less clear for the twenty percent of young people with SEND who do not have a statement/EHC plan but the expectation is that any provision will largely be met from within existing school budgets. At the time of writing a new code of practice was being drafted; this will guide schools and education providers, the NHS and clinical providers and SEND tribunals as to their obligations under the act.


How do I find out what is available in my local authority?

The local SEN offer


For all children with SEND, local authorities, health agencies and those involved with social care must work with parents and young people to understand how to meet needs and to do so with minimum disruption to the young person and their family.

To assist families LAs must set out in one place and publish, (likely web based), their ‘Local Offer’. The local offer should be comprehensive, collaborative, accessible and contain transparent information that shows what is available in their own LA and in neighbouring LAs - extending nationally to very specialist provision, if there is a reasonable assumption that parents, carers and/or young people would access those services. Simply listing services won’t suffice, LAs have to ensure provision is responsive to needs. As well as what is available in the education arena there is a requirement to include information about: travel, transition, training (including apprenticeships), how to access SEN support such as parent groups and forums, childcare and leisure activities including sports and the arts and where/ how to complain and how to act on that complaint.

The draft code says the local offer should be collaborative and stipulates parents as part of that, if you don’t like your LAs local offer you have the opportunity to have input. Those LAs generally ahead of the curve are the ones that were part of thePathfinder Programme, trialling the reforms, these include Bromley and Bexley, Greenwich, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lewisham and Medway. More information can be found at www.sendpathfinder.co.uk.


State school admissions

Regardless of your child's ability you are not ‘free to choose’ a school but you can ‘express a preference' then keep everything tightly crossed. You do not have to live in a school’s ‘catchment area’ to apply for a place but often proximity to the school is key. Oversubscribed schools must follow their own admissions rules, with places allocated to those who best fulfil them. Grammar schools and sixth forms do not have to take those who don't come up to scratch academically but otherwise undersubscribed schools must take all-comers (unless the child has a Statement - see below).

If your child has an EHC plan you or your child can, with the help of your LA, name the maintained mainstream or special school you would like your child to attend, you can also name an academy or free school, a non-maintained special or independent special school (ie one that caters wholly for children with SEN) or a further education or sixth form college where applicable. The school has to admit your child unless the governing body thinks doing so would be ‘unsuitable for the age, ability, aptitude or SEN of the child or young person; or the attendance of the child or young person there would be incompatible with the efficient education of others; or the efficient use of resources’. The ‘incompatible’ part is not defined but case law has set the barrier high - eg simply impacting the education of other children is not sufficient.

If your child has an EHC plan and you don’t get the school you named you can appeal to the SEND tribunal. The parent or young person must first ‘consider mediation’ but mediation is not compulsory.


The SEN debate - which school type?


Helping children with special educational needs


Choosing a school is not only about the cut of the cloth, it’s about getting the perfect fit, everything from the first tack to the last stitch.

Of course, there’s a difference between bespoke and Burton’s, but that doesn’t mean the former is the only, or even the right option; the suit may fit, the colour may not flatter. Some schools cater extremely well for the very bright, mildly dyslexic child, but would be hopeless for other SEN. Having good dyslexia provision alone does not necessarily make it the right school for your child with dyslexia, just as having a wheelchair-accessible school does not make it a haven for the wheelchair user.

You need to examine a school from all perspectives to ensure the fit is a good one. At one extreme, some schools do not deal with nor recognise any SEN. At the other extreme, some schools are very specialised, suitable perhaps for children with severe communication difficulties. Sometimes provision really does not exist and compromises have to be made.

Visit a selection of schools and visit shortlisted schools more than once. 

Don’t choose a school just because it says it offers provision for dyslexia or whatever; choose a school because it suits your child. If a school doesn’t advertise that it caters for SEN, but you like it and think it suits your child – ask. You’d be surprised how many schools that do well by children with SEN don’t advertise the fact (‘we don’t want to be seen as a special school’).


Further reading

Types of SEN - A comprehensive overview of key conditions that give rise to SEN.

Classroom Help For Children With SEN

Getting an Educational Psychology Assessment 

Getting Reading Right - A Case Study


Seeking a school:

SEN And Schools

Unit And Resourced Provision For SEN

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