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Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Primary Education (England)

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Primary Education (England)
by Janice Wearmouth

Janice Wearmouth is Professor of Education at the University of Bedfordshire, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781350995949.0012

  • Editor(s):
    Janice Wearmouth (Regional Editor), Maria Teresa Tatto (Editor in Chief) and Ian Menter (Editor in Chief)
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    Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
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Research on special education, needs, and disabilities

The most recent statistical data from the Department for Education related to pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) in state-funded primary schools (mainstream and special) comes from the January 2018 schools’ census, summarized in the report National Statistics. Special Educational Needs in England: January 2018 (Department for Education [DfE] 2018). Overall, approximately 13.8 percent of the total child population was identified as experiencing a special educational need of some kind in mainstream schools: 9.1 percent of pupils in the Reception year, with the proportion almost doubling by Year 6, to 16.7 percent. An additional 0.4 percent in the Reception year and 1.4 percent in Year 6 of the total primary population were in special schools.

The most commonly identified needs were: speech, language, and communication difficulties; moderate learning difficulties; and social, emotional, and mental health difficulties (29.9 percent, 22.2 percent, and 15.9 percent respectively of those identified as experiencing SEN(D)).

The statistics indicate a strong association between identification of SEN(D) and particular factors, for example poverty, gender, and ethnic heritage:

  • Poverty: 25.6 percent identified in mainstream were eligible for free school meals.

  • Gender: aged 4, boys were twice as likely to be identified than girls: 11 percent of the total male population, and 4.9 percent of the female population. Aged 11, proportions of overall pupil numbers were markedly higher: 25.9 percent of boys, 15.6 percent of girls. Males were similarly disproportionately represented in special schools of various types: aged 4, 0.8 percent of all boys and 0.037 percent of all girls; aged 11, 2.7 percent and 1 percent respectively.

  • Ethnic heritage: the lowest proportion of pupils (8 percent) were those of Chinese heritage, the highest were black (15.4 percent) of whom Black Caribbean were more likely to be identified than Black African (18.9 percent and 14.5 percent respectively of the total number). The proportions with mixed heritage were 13.4 percent, and 11.9 percent were Asian students. In some cases, overall proportions masked wide differences. For example, in the white ethnic category (total 14.1 percent), the proportion with Irish heritage was 14.4 percent but 29.7 percent were Travellers of Irish heritage.

Programs and policies

The definition of “special educational needs” (SEN) has remained largely constant since the influential Warnock report of special educational provision in Great Britain (Department of Education and Science [DES] 1978) introduced the concept to replace the previous categorization by “disabilities of body or mind.” Under the most recent legislation, the Children and Families Act 2014 (Part 3, §20 [1]), a child has SEN if he/she has a learning difficulty that calls for special educational provision to be made for him/her. Such a difficulty is defined as

  • a) significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of same-age peers, or

  • b) […] a disability which prevents him (or her) from making use of (educational) facilities “of a kind generally provided for” same-age peers in mainstream educational institutions.

  • (Children and Families Act 2014: Part 3, §20 [2])

This definition of learning difficulty raises major questions (Wearmouth 2017), for example how to measure “significantly greater difficulty in learning” and what is meant by a “general level” of provision.

The second part of the definition refers to a “disability” as causing learning difficulties if it prevents a child from accessing the same facilities as their peers.

Disability is also a focus of the Equality Act 2010; hence disabled pupils are protected by two laws. The 2010 Act imposes duties on schools to eliminate discrimination on the basis of “protected characteristics,” of which disability is one, and to improve access to education, including physical facilities. Schools must be proactive in anticipating and responding to disabled children’s needs.

Following the introduction of the concept of SEN, a “Code of Practice” was introduced, originally in 1994, to provide statutory guidance to schools about procedures for assessing needs, and specifying resources in “statements of SEN.” Independent tribunals, chaired by lawyers, were introduced, following the model of industrial tribunals, to hear parental appeals against decisions taken about assessment and statementing of their children. The Code gave the tribunals a shared text to guide their practice in hearing appeals. The most recent SEN and Disability Code of Practice 0 to 25 years (DfE and Department of Health [DoH] 2015), developed to offer statutory guidance about putting the 2014 Act into practice, recommends that assessment and provision should focus on four broad “areas of need”: “communication and interaction,” “cognition and learning,” “social, emotional and mental health,” and “sensory and/or physical.” Clearly there is much overlap between these areas.


When the term “SEN” was formally introduced into English law in the 1981 Act, this legislation affirmed the principle of integration. All children should be educated in mainstream schools but with certain provisos: that their needs could be met there, and that it was compatible with the education of other children and with the “efficient use of resources.” Since that time the law has been modified to increase children’s rights to be educated in mainstream schools. Disability equality legislation has made it unlawful for schools and local authorities (LAs) to discriminate against disabled students, particularly in relation to admission arrangements and the educational provision in school. Under the terms of the 2010 Equality Act, schools and colleges have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled children: to change what they do or were proposing to do to ensure a child is not disadvantaged. This includes the provision of additional or special aids and services. Under the terms of the most recent education law, the Children and Families (2014) Act, it is no longer sufficient to ensure that children with SEN(D) have access to an “appropriate” education, as previously. Instead, Section 19(d) of Part 3 of the 2014 Children and Families’ Act specifies access that enables young people to “achieve the best possible” educational and other outcomes, thus reflecting a new and higher level of outcome required by law.


All children have a statutory right to have their special learning needs and disabilities assessed and met. Schools are required to “assess each pupil’s current skills and levels of attainment on entry, building on information from previous settings and key stages where appropriate” (DfE and DoH 2015: §6.16). Subsequently, class and subject teachers should make regular assessments of progress for all students. To identify, assess, and address needs, the Code of Practice (2015) recommends an assess→plan→do→review cycle (DfE and DoH 2015: §6.45–6.56). Where individuals are falling behind or making inadequate progress, they should be given extra “SEN support,” a level of support that can be met from within the school’s own existing resources. Those who have longer term or more severe disabilities or needs may be the subject of statutory assessment.


The budget for SEN(D) provision in a school is notional, not ring-fenced. The school should provide additional support from its own budget, up to a nationally prescribed threshold, currently £6,000, with the LA providing top-up funding above this level. Where a higher level of resourcing is needed, LAs are required to carry out an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan needs assessment, issue an EHC plan, and ensure the special educational provision that is specified is maintained.

The child’s parent/carer may request a Personal Budget (DfE and DoH 2015: §48) to procure provision specified on an EHC Plan. Where this is to be used for provision on school premises, the LA must seek the written agreement of the school for this arrangement.

Despite the rhetoric around formal legal entitlements to special resources, the financing of special provision remains contentious (Wearmouth 2017), with considerable variablility of allocation across the country. The professional, resource judgments involved in the decision-making process leave room for inequality.

Teachers and teaching

In law, the class teacher should remain responsible for working with the child, whether or not interventions involve teaching away from the main class (DfE and DoH 2015: §6.52). Teachers should receive some training in SEN(D) during their teacher training and may/may not be engaged in ongoing professional development. Teachers employed specifically to support pupils’ learning in schools may include both qualified and unqualified staff. The special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) must be either a qualified teacher or head teacher. The SENCO must achieve an additional postgraduate qualification, the “National Award for Special Educational Needs Co-ordination” within 3 years of appointment under the Education (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) (England) Regulations 2014, §3.

Staff specialising in SEN(D) may include:

  • Teachers for hearing or visually impaired children who must, by law, have specialist qualifications (DfE 2018b, 2018c). They may be employed either internally in the school, or by external agencies to advise teachers.

  • Trained speech and language therapists (SLTs) who provide specialist assessments of speech, language, and communication problems, support and advice to parents/carers and professionals.

  • Qualified physiotherapists who provide specialist assessment and intervention to children who have a range of conditions that limit their mobility, function, and/or independence.

School personnel

Most schools employ classroom assistants who may have some formal training. Primary teachers may be assisted by a nursery nurse, who may be trained, for example, in language and number skills. Special support assistants/special attachment welfare assistants may support children on Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). In many schools, parents, often untrained, come in to assist teachers.

Further reading and online resources

Department of Education and Science (DES). 1978. Warnock Report: Special Educational Needs. Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, Cmnd 7212 . London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Frederickson, N. and T. Cline. 2015. Special Educational Needs, Inclusion and Diversity , third edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw Hill.

Goswami, U. 2015. Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning, CPRT Research Survey 3. New York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

SEND Gateway. 2018. “Welcome to the SEND Gateway hosted by nasen—the one-stop shop for all things SEND.” Accessed December 14, 2018. http://www.sendgateway.org.uk/ .

Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ). 2017. Adjustments for Candidates with Disabilities and Learning Difficulties . London: JCQ.

National Association for Special Educational Needs (NASEN). n.d. “Home.” Accessed December 14, 2018. http://www.nasen.org.uk/ .

Wearmouth, J., A. Gosling, J. Beams, and S. Davydaitis. 2018. Understanding Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in the Early Years. Principles and Perspectives . London: Routledge.


Children and Families Act. 2014. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/contents .

Department for Education (DfE). 2018a. “National Statistics, Special Educational Needs in England: January 2018.” Darlington: DfE. Accessed December 14, 2018. http://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/special-educational-needs-in-england-january-2018 .

Department for Education (DfE). 2018b. Specification for Mandatory Qualifications for Specialist Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments . London: DfE.

Department for Education (DfE). 2018c. Specification for Mandatory Qualifications for Specialist Teachers of Children and Young People Who are Deaf . London: DfE.

Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health (DoH). 2015. Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0 to 25 Years . London: DfE and DoH.

Department of Education and Science (DES). 1978. Warnock Report. The Special Educational Needs, Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, Cmnd. 7212. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Wearmouth, J. 2017. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities in Schools. A Critical Introduction . London: Bloomsbury.

A learning difficulty that calls for special educational provision to be made.

Under the terms of the 2010 Equality Act (section 6), a child is disabled if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on his/her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

A set of written rules that explain how people working in a particular profession should behave, for example in relation to special educational needs in schools and colleges.

A legal document that describes a child or young person’s special educational, health, and social care needs and prescribes the additional or special provision that will be made to meet those needs.

An administrative body in local government that is responsible for a range of services for people and businesses in defined areas such as education.

This term is commonly used in educational regulations. It means that the budget for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is subsumed into the general funds provided to the school for everything. For example, if a young person requires £6,000 additional resourcing to meet their needs the school must provide it out of their own funds—which, “notionally,” include funding for resources for children identified as “having” SEN(D).