If a child has Special Educational Needs (SEN) it means they have a condition, disability or specific difficulty (or more than one) which affects their ability to learn.
SEN, like special needs in general, is a huge umbrella term and much of the terminology can be confusing. Special Educational Needs may be the result of, but are not necessarily the same thing as learning disability, which is a lifelong disability involving reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with every day activities. Learning difficulties, as opposed to learning disabilities, refer to a specific problem – for example with reading or writing.
Every child has a right to an appropriate education with a broad and balanced curriculum – whether in early years education or during school years. This can be provided in lots of different ways and parents may have to consider different options, and sometimes fight quite hard, to get the provision which best suits their child.
Schools, pre-schools and nurseries are bound by a document called the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, which sets out how they identify, categorise and provide for a child's needs. All schools, pre-schools and nurseries have a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO), sometimes called an Additional-Needs Co-ordinator who is responsible for this area.
You can download a copy of the Code of Practice here:
You can see an overview of the Department for Education's policies on SEN here:
Provision for children with SEN is subject to change. You can see the new proposals here. (link needed when url is done)
Sometimes a child's difficulties will be already known or become clear during the pre-school years – for instance if they have problems with communication or social skills. If you have concerns, or they are raised by the nursery, you should discuss these with the SENCO in the first instance.
They may suggest having an Educational Psychologist observe your child at nursery, or you could approach your GP or health visitor if assessment by a specialist such as a Speech and Language Therapist (SALT) or Occupational Therapist (OT) might be appropriate.
Your child should then be given an appropriate level of support within the nursery. This may include support from external professionals such as SALT as well as tailored help from the nursery staff where appropriate – such as small group activities or games designed to develop skills. If a mainstream setting is not right for a child, local authorities should be able to advise on specialist nursery provision (though this may be limited).
Children identified as having SEN at pre-school and nursery will be placed into one of three categories of support, depending on how much help they need. These are Early Years Action, Early Years Action Plus and Statement of Special Needs. (These categories correspond with those used in the school system and more information can be found here (link to when special needs have been identified section)
Special needs at school
A child may start school with their additional needs already identified, or they may become apparent when they begin to struggle with learning, making friends or other aspects of school life.
Problems with school work, social skills or well-being may be identified by teachers, or parents may become aware of them first, perhaps if their child shows signs of anxiety or behavioural problems at home.
A meeting between teacher, parents and perhaps the SENCO is the first step to sorting things out. The child may then be seen in school by an Educational Psychologist who will prepare a report and make specific suggestions about how a child's difficulties can be addressed.
There are many simple steps teachers can take to make school life easier for a child. Visual timetables might help a child who struggles with organisation or lack of routine for instance, or changing the seating arrangements might make concentrating easier for a child with attention problems.
If a specific condition is suspected – for instance ADHD or Autistic Spectrum Disorder – a paediatrician's assessment will be required. Asking the GP for a referral is usually the quickest way to get this.
What parents say:
Tanya, mother of Luke, nine, says:
"Luke's school expressed concern that he might have ADHD when he was about six. I'd wondered about some of his behaviour since he was very young so I was quite relieved it wasn't just me. The assessments proved inconclusive but the process made me and the school more aware of his particular strengths and weaknesses."
Helen, mother of Freddie, 10, says:
"As soon as the school recognised Freddie's difficulties they gave him extra support. This meant he wasn't always getting into trouble because he struggled socially and tended to get into fights. It also meant his work was presented in a way he found easier to process. I feel the school understand him well."
What if the school isn't helping?
While teachers should have some knowledge about SEN they are (understandably) not always experts in this vast field. Some will have relevant experience or be better able than others to identify when a child is struggling. Not to put too fine a point on it, some will also work harder than others to ensure they do all they can to help.
Parents often find that getting a school to accept their child needs more support than the average, or ensuring that this is provided appropriately can be hard. This is particularly the case when a child's difficulties do not fit a very obvious pattern or are blamed on a lack of maturity or discipline.
There are several organisations (such as Independent Parent Special Education Advice) which can help parents who feel a school is not providing the right support for their child. Every local authority also has a parent partnership service which is a free and impartial service designed to help parents ensure that a child with SEN has their needs met.
What parents say:
Ali, mother of Sam, eight, says:
" Sam was only just four when he started school and so any difficulties he had were always put down to being very young in the year. As he fell further and further behind, and also started to try and avoid school – lots of Sunday night tummy aches – we became convinced there was more to it.
"We met with the SENCO and insisted he be finally properly assessed. The Educational Psychologist realised he had real problems with his organisation and concentration. When it was taken seriously his experience improved massively."
Alison, mother of Dan, 15, says:
"Dan had two permanent exclusions before he was finally diagnosed with ADHD and given the right support. His teachers said he was just naughty and I think they blamed our parenting. The diagnosis meant they actually had to think about his needs."