Concern for pupils who have lost their SEN recognition

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Photo: iStock

“Before September 2014 your child was said to have SEN – post-September they do not. How has this been managed in schools?”

An SEN expert has raised concerns about the sharp drop in the numbers of children registered as having special needs – and the impact this might be having on the families affected.

Helen Curran, senior lecturer in SEN at Bath Spa University, is raising questions over what exactly has happened to the group of pupils that are no longer identified as having SEN.

It comes as snapshot research by Ms Curran revealed that 63 per cent of SENCOs said that the number of children on their school’s SEN and disabilities register had fallen as a result of the government’s SEN reforms.

The SEN reforms, introduced in September 2014, saw a new “SEN Support” category introduced for the identification of pupils with less severe forms of need. This replaced the School Action and School Action Plus categories, which had previously signalled if pupils needed extra help.

Ms Curran carried out her survey of 74 SENCOs in March, six months after the changes, and found that some respondents felt that, given budget and time pressures, the reforms were a way for schools and local authorities to reduce the number of pupils being supported. More detailed interviews with nine SENCOs also found on-going concerns about budgets and time, as well as the manageability of the reforms.

Government data published in July shows that the proportion of pupils in England classed as SEN dropped from 17.9 per cent in January 2014 to 15.4 per cent in January 2015. In January 2010, the figure was 21.1 per cent, meaning that most recent drop has been much more pronounced.

Notably, ministers have previously argued that some pupils were wrongly identified as having SEN in the past and were simply low-achievers. A 2010 Ofsted report also said that a quarter of children in England identified as having SEN should not have been labelled as such.

However, Ms Curran, a former SENCO and former assistant headteacher, said that Ofsted’s report was now five years old, meaning the recent sharper drop in figures since the reforms came in suggests that it is not just previous misidentification of SEN that is behind the reductions.

She said: “What really struck me is that when you ask SENCOs, many of them say that the 2014 reforms themselves have led to these reductions.

“SENCOs have stated that they have ‘re-evaluated’ children in light of the reforms. Some children previously on school registers have not made it onto schools’ new ones.

“This does beg the question: if the SEN numbers are reduced, what has happened to the group who were previously identified as SEN, but are no longer now? Were they incorrectly identified in the past, or are pressures on school resources – including SEN support costs, time and staffing issues – playing a part?

“It’s also interesting to think of this from the parent’s perspective: before September 2014, your child was said to have SEN – post-September, they do not. How has this been managed in schools?”

Commenting on the research, charity Ambitious about Autism said it was “deeply worrying” if pressure on budgets was driving the reduction.

Chief executive Jolanta Lasota said: “The SEN reforms are about supporting young people with autism and other SEN to thrive and achieve at school – not about an arbitrary change in the way that we classify SEN. If pressure on budgets is driving schools to reduce the number of children they identify as having SEN that is deeply worrying.

“We know that at least 1 in 100 children have autism and that many are currently not getting the support they need to succeed at school. Our Ruled Out report found that over half of parents of children with autism say they have kept their child out of school for fear that the school is unable to provide appropriate support. This points to an under – rather than over – identification of needs.

“Identification of SEN should be based on an assessment of a child’s needs and nothing else. We mustn’t let the debate about numbers distract us from delivering the best possible additional educational support to the children that need it.”

Elsewhere, Ms Curran’s research has highlighted positive aspects of the SEN reforms, with a number of the SENCOs saying that they had brought about greater engagement with parents. Also, teachers are beginning to take greater responsibility for children with SEN in their classes, according to the respondents in the research.

The research, SEND Reforms 2014 and the Narrative of the SENCO: Early perspectives of impact on children and young people with SEND, the SENCO and the school, was presented to the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association last week. Visit


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