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Special educational needs introduction

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

Over the years, diagnosis of and provision for SEN have improved, but both can still be a minefield.

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: 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.

Signs of special educational needs in school-age children

Look out for the child who:

  • Is easily distracted. 
  • Engages in disruptive or aggressive behaviour.
  • Gets angry with themselves, often over seemingly trivial issues.
  • May be a perfectionist and/or have demonstrably low self-esteem.
  • Does not enjoy school.
  • Becomes stressed when starting tasks or when asked to work on their own.
  • Is reluctant to do homework, especially unaided.
  • Makes little or no progress at school (some children may even regress).
  • Avoids reading, or takes no pleasure from it, or can read but very slowly.
  • Has good eyesight but is monosyllabic when reading aloud (or may refuse to read out loud). May struggle to scan text.
  • Declares a hatred for maths but in fact just can’t fathom it.
  • Is disorganised — late settling to work, last to finish packing up and leaving the classroom. ‘Forgets’ to do homework or revise for tests.
  • Forgets what the task is; has trouble remembering more than two or three instructions at once.
  • Has spider hand-writing; presentation of work is messy and paintings indecipherable.
  • Is articulate but can’t or won’t put pen to paper.
  • Has an awkward pencil grip. May have difficulty remembering where to start writing and/or struggle to copy accurately from the board.
  • Bumps into things, is clumsy and has poor spatial awareness. May have difficulty hopping, jumping or catching a ball and will literally trip over own feet.
  • Hears but frequently mis-hears what is said.
  • May be able to repeat sentences verbatim but not comprehend meaning or grasp nuance.
  • Finds making and sustaining friendships problematic, even avoiding social contact altogether.
  • May be shy and withdrawn and/or avoid eye-contact altogether.
  • Has difficulty with change: can find even pleasant surprises upsetting.

Many children will experience some of the symptoms listed to a lesser or greater extent, but if you can count off more than three or four and have concerns, it may be time to consider enlisting extra help. 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 — worries about future litigation abound), 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. Depending on the type of need and your circumstances, help may be available before your child starts school.

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


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, core stability, sensory integration and strength.
  • Occupational therapists - help children with motor skills, coordination 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 - play is not something all children engage in automatically; therapists can assist those who find play problematic.

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

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.

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 or for further assessments. The government proposes that all children should be assessed for special needs during these early formative years, though trained health visitors are thin on the ground.

School age children (4+)

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 – this might be extra help in school, or referral to a therapist 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 give an education, health and social care (EHC) plan.  

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, if you can afford it, seek out independent advice from an educational psychologist. 

Private ed psych reports usually cost between £300 and £500 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 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. Existing SEN Statements are being phased out.

Assessment and education, health and social care (EHC) plans

In theory, EHC plans have several advantages over SEN Statements. They should join up education, social and health services and give each family more individual choice – families should be consulted when writing up policies, and may have their own individual budget to spend on care. EHCs now cover those still in education or training until they are 25 – though inexplicably not students at university.

Unfortunately, the outcomes so far appear to be chaotic. The legislation was rushed through before pilot schemes had reported. It appears that misinformation abounds at every level – local authorities, schools and parents. Many children are apparently being cut out of the system arbitrarily, and some local authorities seem to be using the changes to reduce educational provision, with little liaison with social and health providers. There are stories of long waits for assessments, with little clarity on what rights are and are not legally enforceable. It appears to be a postcode lottery whether or not your authority will agree to assessment or not – and most are far more likely to turn down parental requests than those made by schools.

Less pronounced special needs, once catered for by School Action and School Action Plus programmes, should now be met by a system called SEN Support. Schools are still expected to provide special support for these children, but without extra funding. Huge cuts to external support services and budget cuts within schools mean that many have reduced the amount of support they give to struggling pupils.

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

Local authorities must publish details of what they can provide in a ‘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.

School admissions

If your child has an EHC plan you, or your child can, with the help of your LA, name your chosen state mainstream or special school, or independent special school if it is on the government’s approved list. The LA must name the school you choose in the EHC plan unless it 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. You can also make representations to your LA to name an independent special school not on the government list.

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.

If your child does not have an EHC plan, you will be applying alongside everyone else and subject to the same admissions criteria: generally proximity and sibling preference for non-selective state schools; for independent schools, anything from first-come-first-served to entrance exams.

The SEN debate - which school type?

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 private 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 or profound and multiple learning difficulties. Sometimes the ideal provision really does not exist and compromises have to be made.

Don’t assume your child will do better in either a mainstream or a special school. At a special school with low expectations, your child may fail to develop as they could. On the other hand, some children spend years struggling and failing at a mainstream school, only to flourish at a special school that recognises their needs, caters for them individually and – just as importantly – provides a group of friends with similar interests and experiences. However, bear in mind that special schools are much more costly than mainstream schools – and many parents have to fight for years to get their local authority to agree to the funding.

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’).

Bright but undiagnosed severe dyslexics have even made it to Oxbridge. The list of talented people with a special educational need is a long one but includes such well-known personalities as Richard Branson, Cher, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Keira Knightley, Michael Phelps, Steve Redgrave, Stephen Spielberg and Virginia Woolf.

Choosing a school

Choose your school with care: don’t assume any mainstream school with a good special needs department will be perfect. A sympathetic special needs coordinator (SENCo) is a great starting point, but the head’s attitude to special needs will have a pervasive influence on the school; if the head is cautious you should be wary. Timely (and possibly individual) intervention is great, but will only be really effective if set against a backdrop of understanding across all teaching and support staff. A child doesn’t abandon their difficulties when they leave the learning support department.

A dyslexic child may well have a very high verbal and/or non-verbal IQ yet struggle to read, scan, write or spell. If a child has poor memory or processing difficulties these will, if left unattended, impact on their overall progress and subsequent self-esteem. Dyslexia may be mainly associated with reading and writing, but it affects more than just English lessons: the writing and sequencing demands of history can be a problem; similarly, the multi-tasking of many sports can create difficulties for the dyslexic and/or the dyspraxic child if the coaching style is not empathetic. A child with Asperger’s may be desperate to join in activities and to mix with others but require support and reassurance to do so — not just in the classroom but on the sports pitch, in the playground and beyond.

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 – you may be surprised by the response. 

If you’re choosing a mainstream school for a child with a relatively mild/moderate SEN, 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.
  • Probably have other pupils in the school with special needs supported by qualified specialist teachers.
  • Ensure special needs support is an integral part of the school, with a two-way flow of information between specialists and subject teachers.
  • Give careful consideration to what a pupil will miss out on to receive extra help.
  • Have a supportive head. If the head is not enthusiastic about helping SEN children, staff may not be as supportive or understanding as they should be.
  • Seek to build self-esteem - to find something your child is good at and encourage their areas of strength.
  • Use multi-sensory learning and teaching methods with lessons in relatively short sections.
  • 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 educational psychologist’s report. For some children with SENs, pastoral care can be as important as specialist understanding of a particular disability.

Schools where SEN support is an ‘add on’, are really only suitable for very mild cases.

When you visit, talk to some pupils with the same diagnosis as your child — are they bubbling with pride and confidence?

What can I expect?

Teachers and others working with children are becoming notably more alert to SEN, and supportive of formal assessment. Many schools now routinely screen for specific learning difficulties and a good classroom teacher will be alert to special needs. However, formal assessment for SEN is not something a classroom teacher can do; they have neither the time nor the training. It is carried out by educational psychologists (EP). Don’t be put off by the title: the good ones are friendly, helpful and accommodating. If you have any reason to suspect your child has special or additional needs, consider getting a formal assessment.

A good EP will administer a battery of well-proven tests in a way that your child will find interesting, even fun, rather than frightening. They will produce a detailed written report that describes your child’s educational characteristics and the reasons for them and clearly explains any terminology used as well as the impact of their findings. Generally, that’s it - no further analysis or treatment, though you may want a progress report after a few years. An EP’s report (especially one from an EP known to the school) can be a most marvellous lever in your dealings with a school: ‘He did this, because you did that - as you should have expected, because it says so here’. Closest thing in this world to the Elder Wand.

Helping the child who is struggling at school

The type of school and provision that you should look for will depend very much on your child’s abilities and on the extent to which their disability affects their learning. You want a school that happily talks of successes with pupils who face similar challenges and is at least as interested in your child’s ability, talents and interests as they are in their difficulties or differences.

Typically SEN children will need additional or special assistance or consideration to put them on a level playing field with their peers. For some, equality can be achieved by relatively simple measures: having a scribe or being given extra time in exams; for others, even specialist equipment and many-to-one teaching will not make life equable.

A good school is likely to:

  • Teach a child one thing 20 ways (if required), not 20 things one way.
  • Understand the learning processes and work diagnostically, closely monitoring, recording and reviewing progress and using that as a catalyst for further learning.
  • Use multi-sensory learning and teaching styles.
  • Understand that when a child’s needs are not being met and seek to address those shortcomings.
  • Work with parents/carers to agree suitable strategies for the child.
  • Have some specialist help on hand.
  • Listen to parents and act on their concerns.

Timely, appropriate help advice and guidance can be critical to a child's progress and success. If you have concerns about your child, do seek help and advice.

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