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SEND - what's in a number?

 Blog posts are written by guest writers from the world of education. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.


The Department for Education (DfE) recently published its annual statistical report based on the census taken every January in schools in England on pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and SEN provisions.

Entitled ‘Special educational needs in England’ the report is always an interesting read. The headlines this year are that the number of pupils with SEN has increased for the first time since 2010 but the overall percentage has remained the same as it was in 2016 – 14.4%. The percentage of pupils with a statement or an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan remains at 2.8%.

Almost all children in schools in England who are either on SEN Support or have a Statement or an EHC plan are ascribed one of 11 ‘primary types of SEN need’. 

The issue of the ‘primary type of need’ is an interesting one. Sometimes it is straightforward to ascribe a primary need for instance when the child has a clear sensory or physical need. However, for many children it can be a difficult judgement to make, particularly when a child might have two or more areas of need and the school is left to make the judgement on which one to designate as the ‘primary’ need.

The SEN Code of Practice gives some good advice in this area in the helpful Chapter 6 on Schools: ‘A detailed assessment of need should ensure that the full range of an individual’s needs is identified, not simply the primary need.’

At this point I should just remind readers that whilst the Code of Practice is 292 pages long the chapter on schools is only 19 pages and makes for really useful reading for those put off by the thought of reading every page.

In this chapter the Code also sets out four broad areas of need:

  • Communication and interaction
  • Cognition and learning
  • Social, emotional and mental health difficulties
  • Sensory and/or physical needs

As all eleven primary SEN needs fit into these four areas it is clear that any school can develop its expertise and service offer in each of these four areas and know that it will cover all current or potential SEN needs.

I’ve used the information from the school census to produce an analysis across the four areas in the diagram below which many schools have found helpful in reviewing and considering the structure of the their SEN provision.


% of four broad areas of SEN need across schools in England in 2017

Communication & Interaction

Cognition & Learning

Social, Emotional & Mental Health

Sensory & Physical
















These figures are almost exactly the same as for the previous year and are unlikely to change greatly year-on-year. I think it’s much easier for all staff to get their head around these four broad areas of SEN rather than the 11 primary need areas; at least as a starting point to a greater understanding of SEN.

It helps when we think of children with SEN that we don’t consider them as a homogenous group. Often the question is asked in a school, ‘What are the outcomes for children with SEN?' 

I think we need to go a bit further than this and ask, ‘What are the outcomes for the broad areas of SEN need in a school?’ It is also reasonable to expect that every teacher knows not just that a child has SEN but what broad type of need they have and what adjustments they should be making to their teaching to accommodate those needs.

At a school or organisational level across the four areas of SEN the fundamental questions to ask are, ‘What is the service?’ and ‘Where is the expertise?’

In considering ‘What is the Service?’ schools should aim to develop staff skills across all four areas. Some leading schools have developed ‘centres of expertise’ around these areas, for example a ‘Learning Support Centre’, a ‘Communication Centre’ a ‘Social Support Centre’ under the guidance of Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) who are specialist trained and report to the SENCO. Where a school does not have the capacity to open a centre it can nevertheless develop expertise amongst its support staff in these areas. Of course there is no substitute for the expertise of a qualified teacher who understands SEND but to increase expertise in these areas I recommend the recent book by Natalie Packer ‘The Teacher’s Guide to SEN’ where there are many very practical examples about how expertise can be developed across these areas of SEN.

The percentages above are not going to change greatly over time so any investment in expertise and service will make a difference for many years to come and of course go further to ensure that children with SEN and their families are served well.

Malcolm Reeve

First published 21 November 2017