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SEN Guide

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An introduction to Special Education Needs (SEN) in England

The proportion of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) continues to rise.  As of January 2019, there were just over 8.8M pupils in total, including 1.3M pupils with SEN.  SEN pupils represent 14.9% of the total pupil population.

SEN pupils fall into two specific categories. 


Pupils where extra or different help is given from that provided as part of the school’s usual curriculum. The class teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) may receive advice or support from outside specialists. The pupil does not have an education, health and care plan.  There are currently 1.04M pupils in this category.


A pupil has an EHC plan when a formal assessment has been made. A legally binding document is in place that sets out the child’s needs and the extra help they should receive.  There are currently 270,000 pupils in this category.

These pupils will be able to go to a particular school depending on a number of factors.  The information provided here is intended to help you understand more about the options available to help you decide and seek support for your particular child.

SEN Stats Chart (1).png
An Introduction to SEN

Types of Special Education Need

Everyone is different and that includes everyone with special needs.  

There are four broad areas of need and that have been defined by The Department of Education and the Department of Health.  It is therefore useful to understand these as they will underpin much of the activity you will engage with in working with educators and carers.

These areas are used to help identify what action a school needs to take.  Individual children often have needs that cut across all of these areas and that may change over time so they don't necessarily fit into a category.  Any assessment of need should ensure the full range of requirements is identified, not just the primary need.

The four areas of need are helpful for SENCOs planning provision at Universal, Targeted and Specialist levels. They are helpful because a school or other educational setting can plan to meet a child’s presenting needs immediately without waiting for a formal diagnosis.

Types of SEN

Cognition refers to the thinking skills and thought processes that a child/young person has acquired through their prior experience.

Learning needs are on a continuum and can vary across subjects and situations. Children with learning needs may learn at a slower pace than their peers despite appropriate differentiation.


Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD) through to profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).

  • Moderate learning difficulties (MLD)

  • Severe learning difficulties (SLD),where children are likely to need support in all areas of the curriculum and associated difficulties with mobility and communication

  • Profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), where children are likely to have severe and complex learning difficulties as well as a physical disability or sensory impairment.


Specific learning difficulties (SpLD) affect one or more specific aspects of learning. This encompasses a range of conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Learning difficulties can be general or specific and related to one or more areas of the curriculum. Difficulties may be short-term in one or more areas or severe and long term.

Cognition and Learning

Social, Emotional and Mental Health

Children and young people may experience a wide range of social and emotional difficulties which manifest themselves in many ways.


These may include becoming withdrawn or isolated, as well as displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing behaviour. These behaviours may reflect underlying mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, self-harming, substance misuse, eating disorders or physical symptoms that are medically unexplained.


Other children and young people may have disorders such as attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder or attachment disorder.

Some children require special educational provision because they have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the educational facilities generally provided. These difficulties can be age related and may fluctuate over time.


Many children and young people with vision impairment (VI), hearing impairment (HI) or a multi-sensory impairment (MSI) will require specialist support and/or equipment to access their learning, or habilitation support. Children and young people with an MSI have a combination of vision and hearing difficulties. 


Some children and young people with a physical disability (PD) require additional ongoing support and equipment to access all the opportunities available to their peers.’


Physical and sensory needs cover a wide range of medical conditions in addition to those mentioned above. Some children with physical disabilities may be very cognitively able so the levels of support must be tailored to a person-centred needs analysis of each child’s needs and preferences, taking into account the views of children and their families. 

Sensory and/or Physical Needs

Communication and Interaction

Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) have difficulty in communicating with others. This may be because they have difficulty saying what they want to, understanding what is being said to them, or they do not understand or use social rules of communication.


The profile for every child with SLCN is different and their needs may change over time. They may have difficulty with one, some or all of the different aspects of speech, language or social communication at different times of their lives.’


Children and young people with ASD, including Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, are likely to have particular difficulties with social interaction. They may also experience difficulties with language, communication and imagination, which can impact on how they relate to others. Communication and interaction needs could include:

  • difficulties with producing or responding to expressive or receptive language

  • difficulties uttering speech sounds

  • difficulties understanding spoken and other communications from others

  • difficulties with understanding age-related social conventions of interaction, such as turn-taking during conversations or appropriate level of physical contact during play

Types of School

Types of Schools

The apparent range of options available to children with special needs can be mind boggling. Depending on the nature and severity of disabilities, as well as presence of any coexisting disorders, the options include different types of schools which are explained below. 

Key differences between them include:

  • the amount of time pupils spend in mainstream versus specialist classes. 

  • any specialism the school may have in particular conditions

  • how the school itself is funded, be it state or independently funded



The majority of children with SEN in the UK attend mainstream schools. State funded schools are required by law to provide the support and physical adjustments (as outlined in individual EHCP - Education Health and Care Plan) necessary for your child to be able to fully participate at school. 

Section 43 of the Children and Families Act 2014 says that all schools must admit a child if their EHCP names the school. Effectively this means that local authorities can instruct any school to admit a child with an EHCP. When parents request to name a particular school in EHCP, the local authority will consult with the school. If the school responds claiming that it’s not able to support the child, such claim may be challenged by parents. The local authority has the ultimate power to name the school in an EHCP.

Mainstream School
Mainstream School with SEN Unit


SEN units are special provisions within a mainstream school where the children are taught mainly within separate classes. These units receive additional funding from the local authority specifically for the purpose of the provision, they cater for a specific type or types of SEN (e.g. autistic spectrum disorders) and are usually for pupils with statements or those with EHCPs (but could include pupils with SEN but without a statement or plan)


Resourced Provisions are where places are reserved at a mainstream school for pupils with a specific type of SEN, taught mainly within mainstream classes, but requiring a base and some specialist facilities around the school.

Resourced provisions receive additional funding from the local authority specifically for the purpose of the provision,  cater for a specific type or types of SEN and are usually for pupils with statements or those with EHCPs (but could include pupils with SEN but without a statement or plan)

Mainstream School with Special Needs Resource Provision
What is a Special School?


A school which is resourced and organised to provide for the education of pupils with an Education, Health & Care Plan who need a high degree of support in the learning situation and in some cases specialist facilities, equipment and teaching.

Alongside state maintained special schools, there is a significant number of independent and fee charging non-maintained schools addressing different SEN. 


Fee charging special schools independent of local authorities.

The local authority has the duty to ensure that the provision set out in the EHCP is made. However, under section 42(5) of the Children and Families Act 2014, local authorities do not need to do so if “suitable alternative arrangements” are made.

If an independent school is named in Section I of your child’s EHCP, and there is no other suitable state school which your child could attend, it is likely that the local authority responsible for your child’s special educational provision should be paying the fees. However, if the local authority suggested a different school to be named in the EHCP but you chose to send your child to an independent school and pay for it yourself, this is likely to count as making suitable alternative arrangements, and the local authority have no further duties towards your child.

In practice, parents can often successfully persuade their local authority to come to a contributory funding arrangement where local authority agrees to pay for the additional SEN provision that they would have had to provide anyway in their preferred maintained mainstream school.

Independent Special School
Non-Maintained Special School


Special schools which are not maintained by the state but charge fees on a non-profit-making basis. Most non-maintained special schools are run by major charities or charitable trusts.


Pupil Referral Units are an alternative education provision which is specifically organised to provide education for children who aren't able to attend school and may not otherwise receive suitable education. This could be because they have a short- or long-term illness, have been excluded, or are a new starter waiting for a school place. Some Pupil Referral Units have dedicated SEN units. 

Pupil Referral Unit

Key Documents

There are a number of official documents that set out many of the rules and the approach to SEN provision in England.  Whilst these can be quite heavy reading they do set out key principles and guide the schools, local authorities and other bodies when they plan and deliver their care, we suggest you should at least be aware of them and ideally have some familiarity with them.


Here you can find official guidance written specifically for parents and carers.

SEND: Guide for Parents and Carers

This guide explains how the system that supports children and young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND) works.

It covers the law and guidance on which the system is based, places to go for help and further information, details about changes to the system from 1st September 2014.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on vulnerable children and young people


Questions and answers about the provisions being made for vulnerable children and young people.



Here you can find a range of documents that must be followed by certain bodies involved in the delivery of SEN provision.  These can be useful to families in better understanding the rules and expectations that govern them which will shape your interactions with them.

Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0-25 Years

Details the legal requirements that must be followed without exception and statutory guidance that must be followed unless there's a good reason not to by local authorities, health bodies, schools and colleges to provide for those with special educational needs.

Key Documents
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