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Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced personal difficulties or academic problems.

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

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

Look out for the child who:

  • Has a big gap between their potential and their performance.
  • Does not enjoy school.
  • Makes little or no progress.
  • Gets frustrated over reading, handwriting, organisation or particular subjects.

Sometimes these are all characteristics of normal childhood too, which is why some SENs are difficult to spot. Importantly, don’t wait for teachers to flag up difficulties; parents, with their holistic knowledge of their child, are often the first to spot difficulties. Unless a school tests every child (and some now screen all children on entry), some children will be missed.

When should I ask for my child to be helped?

You don’t have to have a formal diagnosis to request help for your child. If you suspect your child has a ‘learning difference’ or difficulty, or you’re just worried about them, seek advice; your child’s class teacher, the school SENCo, GP or health visitor are good starting points.


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

  • Special educational needs coordinators (SENCos) - coordinate SEN provision within schools.
  • Speech and language therapists  - deal with a range of issues including how children speak and how they communicate and interact with others.
  • Physiotherapists - work to overcome physical difficulties including posture, and strength.
  • Occupational therapists - help children with motor skills, coordination, sensory integration and core stability, and daily functioning.
  • Educational psychologists - 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 - Particularly for the Early Years.

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

  • Pre-schooler (0-4): 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 for further assessments. The government proposes that all children should be assessed for special needs during these early formative years, though some diagnoses, eg Dyslexia or ADHD, will not be suggested until the child is older.
  • School age children (4+): talk to your child's class-teacher, the school's SENCo or head teacher. Voice your concerns. If the school (or health professionals) share your concerns, they will decide on the appropriate type and level of support or intervention – this might be extra help in school, or referral to a therapist or other clinician.

School and health professionals may decide your child needs are significant enough to undergo a statutory needs assessment, with a view to your child being give an education, health and care plan (EHCP).

If the school doesn't share your concerns and you can afford it, seek out independent advice from an educational psychologist.

Private ed psych reports usually cost around £500 but may be more. The report will make comprehensive recommendations based on your child’s assessment results.


The Children and Families Bill 2014 changed the face of special needs and placed 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.

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

Local authorities (LAs) must publish details of what they can provide in their ‘local offer’. This includes local educational, health and social services – including those provided by charities and community groups – and the criteria for getting support. Schools must also publish details of their arrangements for identifying, assessing and providing for SENs and wider support arrangements, eg travel to school.

School admissions

If your child has an EHCP you and your child can, with the help of your LA, name your chosen state mainstream or special school, or in some cases independent special school on the plan. 

If your child has an EHCP and you don’t get the school you named you can appeal to the SEND tribunal.

If your child does not have an EHCP, you will be applying for a school place alongside everyone else and subject to the same admissions criteria for non-selective state schools. Independent schools may require your child to sit entrance exams.

The SEN debate - which school type

Independent or maintained?

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.

You need to examine a school from all perspectives to ensure the fit is a good one. At one extreme, some private schools do not deal with very much SEN, while a state school will have a raft of support but the class sizes or facilities make the school a less attractive option. Sometimes the ideal provision really does not exist and compromises have to be made.

Mainstream or Special?

Don’t assume your child will do better in a mainstream school. Some children will find the pace of learning too fast at a mainstream school and be miserable there, whereas a special school might recognise their needs and strengths. Conversely, at a special school with low expectations, your child may fail to reach their potential.

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 a specialism such as dyslexia; 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.

Which school?

Schools offer a range of provision from fairly minimal intervention to tailor-made curricula. If a school appears perfect, get in touch and find out how they would be prepared to help – the SENCo is a good starting point.

Request a copy of the school’s special educational needs policy and (if the school is independent) ask how much extra you will have to pay for the support that you want.

A good school will:

  • Test/screen all children for SEN on entry or at the first sign of any difficulties.
  • Employ, train, and re-train specialist teachers. 
  • Integrate SEN with mainstream classes.
  • Have a supportive head who is a good role model for staff.
  • Seek to build self-esteem by encouraging your child's areas of strength.
  • Use multi-sensory learning and teaching methods with lessons and appropriate breaks. 
  • Have full regard to the SEN code of practice and make use of concessions for exams, such as providing a laptop, or an amanuensis and train children in the use of these. For public examination concessions you will need an up-to-date education psychologist's report. For some children with SENs, pastoral care can be as important as specialist understanding of a particular disability.

What can I do?

If you child continues to fall behind, ask your SENCo to commission an EP report. If they don’t want to do it, consider getting an EP’s formal assessment yourself.

A good EP will produce a detailed written report that describes your child’s educational characteristics and the reasons for them as well as the impact of their findings and recommendations to support them. They will talk to the school and family as well as carrying out a range of formal and informal tests with your child. Generally, that’s it - no further analysis or treatment, though you may want a progress report after a few years.

Helping the child who is struggling at school

Typically SEN children will need additional or special assistance to put them on a level playing field with their peers. For some, support can be achieved by relatively simple, short-term measures: having a scribe or being given extra time in exams; for others, more complex support is needed which may last a lifetime. No two special needs children are the same, that’s what makes them special.

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