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Special Educational Needs for children with Learning Difficulties

Information and advice for parents and those involved with a child with Special
Educational Needs through learning difficulties or other disabilities.

What does it mean?

The term 'special educational needs' has a legal definition. Children with special educational needs all have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn or access education than most children of the same age. These children may need extra or different help from that given to other children of the same age.

The law says that children do not have learning difficulties just because their first language is not English. Of course some of these children may have learning difficulties as well.

Children with special educational needs may need extra help because of a range of needs, such as in thinking and understanding, physical or sensory difficulties, emotional and behavioural difficulties, or difficulties with speech and language or how they relate to and behave with other people.

Many children will have special educational needs of some kind at some time during their education. Schools and other organisations can help most children overcome their difficulties quickly and easily. But a few children will need extra help for some or all of their time in school.

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So special educational needs could mean that a child has difficulties with:

  • All of the work in school
  • Reading, writing, number work or understanding information
  • Expressing themselves or understanding what others are saying
  • Making friends or relating to adults
  • Behaving properly in school
  • Organising themselves
  • Some kind of sensory or physical needs which may affect them in school.

These are just examples

Help for children with special educational needs will usually be in the child's ordinary, mainstream early education setting or school, sometimes with the help of outside specialists.

The Government has set out in the Early Learning Goals of the foundation stage of education for children from 3 to 5 years what most children should be able to do by the end of school reception year. The National Curriculum for children from 5 to 16 years also sets out what most children will learn at each stage of their education.

Of course children make progress at different rates and have different ways in which they learn best. Teachers are expected to take account of this by looking carefully at how they organise their lessons, the classroom, the books and materials they give to each child and the way they teach. So all teachers will consider a number of options and choose the most appropriate ways to help each child learn from a range of activities. This is often described as 'differentiating the curriculum'.

Children making slower progress or having particular difficulties in one area may be given extra help or different lessons to help them succeed. The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies also provide for children to learn to read and write and understand numbers and mathematics in different ways and at different speeds, including special 'catch-up' work and other kinds of support.

So you should not assume, just because your child is making slower progress than you expected or the teachers are providing different support, help or activities in class, that your child has special educational needs.

What can parents do if they are worried that their child may be having difficulties?

A child's early years are a very important time for their physical, emotional, intellectual and social development. When the health visitor or doctor makes a routine check, they might suggest that there could be a problem. But if parents have any worries of your their own, they should seek advice straightaway.

If a child is not yet at school or not yet going to an early education setting, parents can talk to their doctor or health visitor who will be able to offer advice about the next steps to take.

If parents think a child may have a special educational need that has not been identified by the school or early education setting, they should talk to the child's class teacher, to the SENCO (the person in the school or preschool who is responsible for coordinating help for children with special educational needs) or to the head teacher straightaway.

If a child is in a secondary school, parents should talk to the child's form teacher, SENCO, head of year or head teacher.

It is best to start with a child's teacher or the SENCO. Parents will be able to talk over their concerns and find out what the school thinks. The SENCO will be able to explain what happens next.

When parents work together with their child's teachers it often helps sort out worries and problems. The closer parents work with their child's teachers, the more successful any help for a child can be. If parents think their child has severe difficulties but the early years setting or school disagree they can contact their LEA's special educational needs section and ask for their child to be assessed.

Remember - parents know their child better than anyone.

Parents might like to ask whether:

  • The school thinks their child has difficulties
  • The school thinks their child has special educational needs
  • Their child is able to work at the same level as other children of a similar age
  • Their child is already getting some extra help
  • They can help their child.

Other organisations parents can get help from are:

  • The parent partnership service in the local authority
  • Child health services
  • Social services
  • Local voluntary organisations, mainly charities.

If my child is identified as having special educational needs, what happens next?

Most children with special educational needs can have their needs met in a mainstream school, and the school should try to include you in any discussions and consider your views in making decisions about your child. They should also try to get the views of your child wherever possible. The school may decide that your child needs extra or different help, which may be a different way of teaching certain things, some help from an adult or use of particular equipment like a computer. In early education settings this help is called Early Years Action and in schools it is known as School Action.

What if my child doesn't make any progress under School Action?

If your child doesn't seem to be making enough progress, the class teacher or the school's SEN Co-ordinator (known as the SENCO) should talk to you about getting advice from other people outside the school. This might be from a specialist teacher, for example, or an educational psychologist or a speech and language therapist or another health professional. This kind of help is called Early Years Action Plus in early education settings, or School Action Plus in schools.

What if my child still doesn't seem to improve and needs more help?

In some cases, help provided by the school at School Action or School Action Plus may not be enough to ensure that your child makes progress. In this situation, either the school, having discussed the matter with you, or you, can ask the Local Education Authority (LEA) which is responsible for the school to carry out a Statutory Assessment of his or her special educational needs, taking account of specialist advice and your views as well. If the LEA decides after the assessment that your child needs more special help (and only around 3% of children nationally require this), it must write a Statement of Special Educational Needs, which is usually called a 'statement'. It describes the child's needs and all the special help he or she requires. The school can usually provide this help with the LEA's support. The statement is reviewed annually, and you will be invited to take part in review meetings.

If my child is receiving additional help through school action or school action plus but does not seem to be making progress, what can I do?

The first step is to talk to the schools special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) to establish the type of support your child is receiving, what progress he/she has made and what steps the school plan to take to meet your child's needs. If you feel that the support your child is receiving through their school is not meeting their needs you can contact your local authority (LA) and request a statutory assessment of special educational needs (SEN). The LA will consider all available evidence, from the school, education & health professionals and from you. If after considering the evidence the LA decide your childs needs cannot be met solely through school based provision they may decide to issue a statement of SEN.

The statement will:

  • set out the child's special educational needs, in terms of the child's learning difficulties which call for SEN provision, as assessed by the authority
  • set out the SEN provision which the LA thinks is necessary and
  • name a school or type of school or other type of provision.

If the LA decides NOT to issue a statement, or you disagree with the proposed statement, you can appeal to the SEN & Disability Tribunal, see below.

What if my child has a statement, but is not getting the support set out in the statement or the support does not meet his needs?

If your child is not getting the educational support set out in their statement you should first check with the school to see why, for example, is it a short term problem due to a staff absence/equipment broken down? If you are not satisfied with the reasons but feel the support set out is correct you should contact The Department of Education


If you do not think the provision set out is meeting your child's needs you can request a reassessment of your child's SEN. If this is declined or you disagree with a proposed amended statement you can appeal to the SEN & Disability Tribunal - see below.

What other help is available?

Each LA must provide independent support & disagreement resolution services to help parents through what can be a very emotional and stressful time. See below for details of these services.

What is a parent partnership service?

Parent partnership services provide support and advice to parents whose children have SEN. They provide accurate and neutral information on the full range of options available to parents. They do not 'take sides'. They help parents to make informed decisions about their children's education. Where parents want an independent parental supporter, the service should provide one. Disagreement resolution services provide an informal way of preventing or sorting out disagreements between parents (whose children have SEN) and the LA or school (this will only include independent schools where they are named in the statement). This is an additional service parents can use if they want to. The service is designed to be a way of resolving problems quickly and informally. Using the service does not affect your right to appeal to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal (SENDIST) .

What is the Special Educational Needs Tribunal?

The Special Educational Needs Tribunal (SENDIST) is an independent body that hears parents' appeals against LEA decisions on statutory assessments and statements.
You can appeal to the SENDIST if:

  • the LA refuses to carry out a statutory assessment of your child after you have asked them to
  • the LA refuses to make a statement for your child after an assessment
  • you disagree with the description of your child's SEN, the educational provision set out on the statement or the school or other provision named on your child's statement, (part 2, part 3 or part 4) when that statement is first made or if it is changed later
  • your child already has a statement, and the LA refuse to assess your child again or to change the name of the school in that statement
  • the LEA decide to stop your child's statement.

The SENDIST is based in London but, outside the south east, appeals are heard locally. The SENDIST is made up of three people. One of these will be the Chairman, who will be a lawyer. The other two will have experience of SEN.

You can go to the SENDISTon your own, or voluntary organisations or parents' groups can help you prepare your case and go with you. You can also ask up to two people who know your child to speak for you at the SENDIST

The SENDIST will look at the evidence and will make a final decision. In reaching this decision, the SENDIST may consider how the LA's actions compare to the guidance set out in the SEN Code of Practice. Just because an LA has not followed the Code will not always mean that their decision was wrong. But the SENDIST will expect the LA to explain why they have not followed the Code's guidance when that is relevant to the decision they have made.

First–tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability)

From 3rd November 2008 the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal ceased to exist as a stand-alone body and became part of a new two-tier Tribunal structure; the First-tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal. The two new Tribunals consist of chambers that group together jurisdictions dealing with similar work or requiring similar skills.

The existing judges and non-legal members of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal all transferred into the new two-tier system and continue their vital work in much the same way as they did before. Special Educational Needs and Disability now sits in the Health, Education and Social Care (HESC) Chamber of the First-Tier Tribunal. Appeals against the panel's decisions now go to the Upper Tribunal instead of to the High Court.

Parents whose children have special educational needs can appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability) against decisions made by Local Education Authorities in England about their children's education. For applications forms and guidance can be found by visiting http://www.sendist.gov.uk/Parents/index.htm

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