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What are special educational needs and disabilities?

Under the government's SEND code of practice, a child has special educational needs if they have 'a learning difficulty or disability that calls for special education provision to be made for them'. 

Children of compulsory school-age (typically after a child’s 4th birthday until the end of the academic year in which they turn 16) are assessed as having a special educational need (SEN) if they:

  • have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or

  • have a disability that prevents or hinders them from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions

A child also has a SEND if they have a disability as defined in the Equality Act 2010. This is the case if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities

In practice, SEND can affect children's concentration levels, physical abilities, comprehension, reading and writing skills, behaviour, and/or their ability to socialise.

If you believe that your child has special educational needs, you should contact the SEN coordinator (known as a SENCO) in your child’s school or nursery. If your child isn’t in a school or nursery, contact your local council.

What support is available?

What support is available depends on the age of your child.

Support for Under 5’s

The types of SEN support available for children under 5 years of age include:

  • written progress checks for 2-year-olds

  • child health visitors conducting health checks for children aged between 2 and 3

  • written assessments of the children’s first year in primary school

  • a requirement for schools to make reasonable adjustments to take into account any disabilities

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework ensures SEND support amongst Ofsted registered nurseries, playgroups, and childminders.

You can also speak to your doctor to find out more about what SEND support is available.

Support for 5- to 15-year-olds

As a parent, you can talk to your child’s teacher or the school’s SENCO if you think you child requires:

  • extra help or encouragement from teachers

  • a special learning programme

  • help with taking part in class activities (eg by working in smaller groups)

  • extra observation in or out of class

  • assistance with communicating with other children

  • support with any physical disabilities (eg personal care)

Support for children 16 or above or those in further education

As a parent, you can contact your child’s college or other educational institution to discuss any requirements your child has. The college and/or local authority may then talk to your child about any support they need.

For more information about education law in relation to children with SEN and SEND, read Laws on children’s education.

What is an Education, Health, and Care (EHC) plan?

Children and young people up to the age of 25 who need support in addition to that which is provided as standard are entitled to an Education, Health, and Care (EHC) plan. EHC plans can be requested from local authorities. ECH plans essentially identify any educational, health, and social needs and set out the additional support required to meet those needs. In particular, they may entitle the child or young person to a personal budget that helps with their needs.

There is no set format for an EHC plan. However, it must have the following, clearly labelled sections:

  • the views, interests, and aspirations of the parents and the child

  • the child’s special educational needs

  • the child’s health needs related to SEN

  • the child’s social care needs related to SEN

  • the intended outcomes for the child, ie setting out how the extra help will benefit the child

  • the special educational provision and support that’s needed

  • the health provision that’s required

  • the social care provision that’s required

  • the child’s placement (ie the type and name of the school or other institution)

  • personal budget arrangements

  • advice and information (ie a list of the information gathered during the EHC needs assessment)

Parents can request an EHC plan, or a young person aged between 16 and 25 can request an EHC plan themselves. An EHC plan should be requested from the child’s local authority. A request can also be made by other relevant parties (eg teachers, doctors, or family friends). The local authority will decide whether to make a plan within 16 weeks. An appeal can be made to the SEND Tribunal if a party wishes to challenge the outcome (eg the decision not to make a plan or the contents of a plan that has been made).

For more information on SEND, see the government's guidance on children with SEND.

SEND and the Equality Act 2010

Under the Equality Act 2010, schools, early years providers, post-16 institutions, local authorities, and others have certain legal obligations in relation to disabled children and young people. These include:

  • not discriminating against disabled children and young people

  • not harassing or victimising disabled children and young people

  • making reasonable adjustments for disabled children and young people to ensure that they’re not at a substantial disadvantage compared with their peers

Failure to comply with these obligations can result in lawsuits and fines.

For more information, read Laws on children’s education.


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