Q&A: Special Educational Needs

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The government published a Green Paper in March which proposes changes to the provision for children with special educational needs (SEN) in England. What are SEN and how are children with them currently supported?

What are special educational needs?

More than a fifth of children (21%) in England are said to have special educational needs (SEN) - about 1.7m children.

SEN refers to learning difficulties or disabilities which range from problems in thinking and understanding, to physical or sensory difficulties and/or difficulties with speech and language.

But they can also be social problems - how they relate to and behave with other people, or emotional and behavioural difficulties.

What types of SEN are most common?

The largest categories are "moderate learning difficulty" (24.2%), behaviour, emotional and social difficulties (22.7%) and speech, language and communications needs (16.3%). A much smaller proportion of pupils have physical disabilities (3.8%), visual or hearing impairments (3.4%), and autism spectrum disorders (8.1%).

What types of children have SEN?

Children from all backgrounds can have special educational needs, but they are more prevalent among some sections of society.

At secondary school, boys are three times more likely to have statements than girls. Black pupils are most likely to have SEN, while Chinese pupils are the least likely.

Pupils with SEN are much more likely to be eligible for free school meals - a measure of deprivation - than those without them.

How are special educational needs met?

It depends on the severity of the need. SEN are usually picked up when the school or the child's parents notice that a pupil is falling behind their classmates.

All state schools are required by law to ensure that special help is provided for children with SEN.

In most cases an assessment of the need and action plan will be drawn up by the individual school alone.

This is initially done under a programme called "school action", under which more than half of children with SEN are listed.

If more support is needed, the child is listed as "school action plus", which may involve the school bringing in specialist help from outside.

In more severe cases, local authorities will have to make a formal assessment of a pupil's needs based on specialist advice.

This is a statutory assessment, resulting in what is known as a statement of special educational needs.

It describes the child's need and defines the specialist help that they should get.

About 13% of children with SEN have statements, but the number of formal statements written by local authorities is falling, despite an increase in the proportion of children known to have learning difficulties.

Where do children get this extra help?

The Labour government had a policy of inclusion, under which the aim was to give any child with mild to moderate learning difficulties a place in a mainstream school.

The policy aimed to end the situation where children were effectively kept separate from their more able peers.

However, some children have learning difficulties or disabilities severe enough for them to be educated separately in special schools.

Some of these will be private schools specialising in certain kinds of special needs provision.

And local authorities are obliged to fund places for children who they have assessed as needing them.

Alternatively, parents unhappy with the school and the local authorities' response to their child's case may take the step of funding the place themselves - if they can afford it.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government says, in its coalition agreement, that it will "prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools, and remove the bias towards inclusion".

The number of state and private special schools in England has fallen from 1,197 in 2000 to 1,054 in 2010.

Does the system work well?

Parents have long complained that they had to battle hard to get statements of SEN for the children facing the most severe difficulties.

Special needs campaigners have said some local councils are unwilling to "statement" pupils because of the legal entitlement and possible extra costs that brings.

A Commons education committee report in 2006 found the system "not fit for purpose".

And despite attempts to improve matters, Ofsted in 2010 still concluded that the system is complex and widely perceived as "unfair", with parents who are able to make sense of it having quicker and greater access to resources and support.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ofsted said as many as half of the pupils listed on "school action" would not actually have required that designation if teaching in schools was better.

This was partly because schools were not picking up problems that could be solved through normal teaching methods early enough, and partly because they were inappropriately labelling pupils' problems, Ofsted said.

Is the government planning to make changes to the system?

The coalition government wants to change the way pupils with SEN in England are provided for. It published a Green Paper in March 2011, which set out a range of proposals.

Four months of consultation follows the publication of the paper and a period of testing proposals will run in local areas from September 2011.

Any changes that require new legislation to be implemented will not happen until May 2012 at the earliest.

What does the Green Paper propose?

The Green Paper proposes a new single category of SEN and a single assessment process. Children with SEN should be identified in both early-years settings and in schools.

By 2014, the government wants those identified with SEN to have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) which will support them children from birth to the age of 25. This will replace the current statutory SEN assessment and statement and allow professionals from different social services areas to work together more closely.

The Green Paper proposes a personal budget, by 2014, for all families with children with a statement of SEN or Education, Health and Care Plan.

It also sets out to "remove the bias towards inclusion" and "prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools", giving parents the choice of a mainstream or special school for their child.

Do schools get extra money for pupils with SEN?

In some cases, schools can apply for extra funding. But for pupils on school action, the cases Ofsted flagged up as more likely to be over-diagnosed, schools are expected to provide support from their own resources.

Funding systems vary between local authorities, and in some areas, even if a school takes a child with a statement, it may have to provide some of the help for that child from its own budget.

Ofsted said that funding could be an "obvious motivation" for schools to inflate SEN figures, but said that in its study it did not find evidence that this was happening.

Inspectors said some local authorities had reformed their funding systems, partly driven by concerns that they were creating incentives for schools to identify pupils as having special needs.

Does having a large number of SEN children boost league table positions?

School league tables look at the attainment of pupils in national curriculum tests, know as Sats, and GCSEs. They also feature a measure called "contextual value added" (CVA), which aims to rate schools on how much progress their pupils make, taking into account factors about the school's intake, such as the number of pupils on free school meals.

The proportion of pupils with SEN is one of the measures used in this calculation.

Ofsted said some schools it visited believed increased numbers of SEN pupils would boost CVA scores, and this had led to over-identification of SEN, and contributed to lowering expectations for children.

But it said the problem was not system-wide.

Schools also point out that all their pupils' achievements are taken into account in attainment data, so taking pupils with severe special needs can make them appear less successful in the tables.

What happens elsewhere in the UK?

The systems in Wales are Northern Ireland is broadly similar to that in England, although they both have their own codes of practice.

In Scotland, the concept of special educational needs has been broadened to "additional support needs" and includes factors affecting a child's learning such as bullying, bereavement, family being in care or being a teenage parent.

Local authorities must provide for all such needs, and a plan must be produced if the child needs support from different agencies - such as health or social services.

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