Special educational needs and disability: definitions and data

This unit sets out the current definitions concerning SEN and related conditions. It considers the way in which such definitions require school staff and other professionals to make judgements on a case-by-case basis when identifying a pupil as having SEN.

It examines national data on the prevalence and variation of SEN, in turn highlighting some of the factors that might indicate a child being at increased risk of having SEN.

How do we identify which pupils have SEN?

In this clip, three specialists in SEN examine the challenges of identification. Professor of psychology and special needs Julie Dockrell, SENJIT coordinator John Brown and lecturer in psychology and habilitation studies Karl Wall discuss issues such as context, variation and misidentification, and how these affect pupils.

This audio clip relates to briefing 3 in your PDF of unit 2.

Show transcript
Discussion at the Institute of Education involving Specialists in Special Educational Needs.

Julie Dockrell – Professor of Psychology and Special Needs:

When we think of what we’re doing with identifying SEN, it’s underpinned by two issues. One is your model about what determines that a child has a Special Educational Need, and the other is where you contextualise that kind of identification.

So let me talk about contextualising first. So we know in the recent analysis of national data that Anna Vignoles has completed, that if you’re in a particular type of school setting, not just a local authority, you are more likely to be identified as having a speech, language and communication need than if you are in another one. So there are contextual issues about that which reflects the overall issue about the question of over-identification, and that feeds back to the notion of what kind of model we ought to have, and if we take a model that assumes, and this is an assumption that all children are exposed to quality first teaching in the areas that impact and that supports learning in the classroom, so that would be literacy and would be oral language, then what you find from that is that children who come up as having difficulty, having received that good teaching, are a smaller number.

You can then do specialist, evidenced informed interventions in perhaps groups where the children don’t have to have a special need at that point, but they’re having difficulties. And once that has been done, and providing there is evidence that underpins that type of intervention, and there are studies that are very clear evidence, then the child that is no longer ,or is not progressing in that context, then becomes an issue of concern, and that takes on some of the issues about variability across schools and local authorities, and it also means that you’re thinking about teaching and learning across the curriculum in different areas, you might have very good teaching and learning for reading but not very good for maths for example. So I think it’s the wrong question - are we identifying too many children across SEN?

John Brown – SENJIT Co-ordinator:

I think it’s an interesting question ‘are we identifying too many children with SEN?’ because we did some work with the European agency for Special Educational Needs three years ago I think, and across most European countries, one percentage keeps coming out, around three per cent of their school population have Special Educational Needs which is very close to the 2.8 per cent we designate statements of Special Educational Needs to. But then when you look at the much higher figures , it is quite hard I think to see how almost a quarter of a population can have something special about them and we also work in some school, these are mainstream schools where they will say to us at SENJIT - well eighty per cent of our children have Special Educational Needs, and to me the question there is: shouldn't the whole school's curriculum and its resources be geared to supporting those children and in a way they're not special within the context of that school are they? They are the school's intake.


But that's the issue about quality first teaching and also the fact that actually schools have different intakes. And if you're in one of the nice shire counties, then the intake is very different from downtown, inner London where you have high proportions of children who have a range of difficulties, so the three per cent holds only because we’ve constructed that three per cent, and it relates to the testing that we do.

The other issue is a major issue about teaching and learning and, it's quite interesting also depends on country so if we take something around reading, there are very few children in Italy that are identified as having reading difficulties in the early stages of reading because of the way the orthography, the written Italian is, it's very transparent. Where problems start coming up are when they're starting to write, so they have problems in spelling, particularly, and so there's a contextual effect that we might have more children with reading difficulties but that's nothing to do with English as the language.

You get exactly the same thing, you know people look to medicine as very clear diagnostic categories but it's not clear. And whether you can identify particular types of problems may depend on the hospital you go to, the consultant you see, in a whole range of areas and that's one of the big debates at the moment, is around the revision of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Diseases” and around health issues but also around mental health and to child development disorders, is tremendous amount of debate about what you're doing and how you should do this categorising.

Karl Wall – Lecturer in Psychology and Habilitation studies:

And enormous variation in the underlying evidence that feeds into it. There are studies that have been done in this country that suggests that of a class of thirty secondary school pupils perhaps a quarter have some need for visual correction: spectacles or contact lenses. Now if you go into a typical class, you may see one or two but you may see many that haven’t.


The other very important thing for education is how that maps out for the child in their learning and socialisation at different points in development, and it’s likely to change. But let me give you an example where we have fairly good objective measures of assessing hearing loss. Right. You can test it, the audiologist can do it and it’ll fluctuate but roughly if you’ve got a sensory neural loss you can do that. We know that some children with a sensory neural loss, which would put them in the moderate range ,have quite marked problems in classrooms with learning and with reading and other children in exactly the same range with exactly the same kind of support don’t. And we don’t exactly know why that that is. So one is the nature of the problem, and the other is how it manifests in the classroom, and the sensitivity of the classroom to adapt, and the teacher to adapt appropriately.

SEN variation: trends in overall numbers of pupils identified

The percentage of SEN pupils without a statement rose over the last decade, peaking in 2010. Drag the slider to see how the figures have changed. See the 2011 statistical first release on SEN (PDF, 230KB) for more information.

  1. In 2003, 14% of pupils with SEN did not have a statement to record this.
  2. By 2010, the percentage of SEN pupils without a statement had risen to 18.2%.
  3. The percentage of SEN pupils without a statement dropped to 17.8% in 2011. This can mostly be attributed to a notable decrease of in the number of pupils at School Action without a statement.
  1. 2003: 14%
  2. 2010: 18.2%
  3. 2011: 17.8%

SEN variation: month of birth

Younger pupils within a year group – those born in the later summer months, towards the end of the academic year – are more likely to have SEN.

You can find out more at the Institute for Fiscal Studies website.

Diagram illustrating the point that younger
               pupils within a year group – those born in the later summer months, towards the end of the academic year – are more likely
               to have SEN.

SEN variation: different needs identified at different ages and stages

This timeline demonstrates how the nature and type of children’s SEN varies at key stages, based on figures from 2009.

  1. Age:
  2. 7 years
  3. 11 years
  4. 17 years
  1. Under the age of 7, the highest percentage of SEN pupils without a statement have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
  2. From 7 to 11, SEN pupils without a statement are most likely to have moderate learning difficulties (MLD).
  3. In the age range of 12 to 17, it is most probable that SEN pupils without a statement will have behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).

Defining disability

A common misperception is that the definition of disability only applies to a small group of people. In practice, the definition in the Equality Act 2010 is much broader. This diagram demonstrates the overlap between the definitions of SEN and disability.


More The definition of SEN

The Education Act 1996 states that: “a child has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her”.

The definition of SEN in the Education Act 1996 is relative in two important ways:

  • Children are compared to the majority of children of the same age: a child has a learning difficulty if he or she has a “greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age”.
  • Provision to meet their needs is defined relative to the provision that is normally available in the area.

The Act states that:

  • A child has SEN if “he or she has a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her”.
  • A child has a learning difficulty if they have a: “greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age”.
  • A disability “which prevents or hinders [a child] from making use of educational facilities” amounts to a learning difficulty if it requires special educational provision.
  • Special educational provision is “additional to or otherwise different from” provision that is normally available in the area.

The Act’s definition of SEN includes more children than those who have learning difficulties in the commonly accepted sense, as it includes children who have a disability and require the provision of something additional or different.

For example, a child with a visual impairment who needs materials to be provided in an enlarged font is defined in the legislation as having a learning difficulty even if they are not behind in their learning.


MoreThe overlap

The definition of SEN includes many, but not necessarily all, disabled children:

  • A disabled child has SEN if they have a disability and need special educational provision to be made for them in order to be able to access the education which is available locally.
  • The largest group of pupils who may be disabled but do not have SEN are likely to be those with a range of medical conditions – for example, those with severe asthma, arthritis or diabetes may not have SEN but may have rights under the Equality Act.

Similarly, not all children with SEN will be defined as having a disability under the Equality Act:

  • Many of the pupils who have SEN and a statement or who are at School Action Plus, or Early Years Action Plus, will count as disabled.
  • Some children whose emotional and behavioural difficulties have their origins in social or domestic circumstances are identified as having SEN, but may fall outside the definition of disability in the Equality Act. However, those with a mental health condition are likely to be included where their impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

More The definition of disability

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disabled person as someone who has “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

A pupil who suffers from an impairment is not by default considered to be disabled. It is the effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities that has to be considered. To be defined as a disability, the effect has to be long-term and substantial:

  • The Equality Act defines ‘long-term’ as having lasted or being likely to last for 12 months or more.
  • 'Substantial' means more than minor or trivial but it may helpfully be thought of as meaning having some substance.

The combined effect of this is to provide a relatively low threshold for what may count as a disability, thus including more people in the definition.


Disability data

Data on disability is not collected in the School Census, although a voluntary collection of this information was proposed in 2011. As such, disability data is less well-developed than statistics on SEN.

Figures on the prevalence of disability can prove to be inconsistent and result in unreliable evidence.

To provide some correlation, a 2005 Cabinet Office report (PDF, 2.7MB) drew on a number of different sources to estimate that there were, at the time, 11 million disabled adults in the UK, accounting for 24% of the adult population.

The same report stated that approximately 7% of the child population had a disability, accounting for around 770,000 children under the age of 16.

SEN budget and provision mapping

In this clip, primary school inclusion coordinator Isma Sy-yed talks about wisely managing a school’s SEN budget, and the challenges and rewards of rigorous provision mapping. She explains how focused assessment, monitoring, and observation enable SENCOs to ensure that provision is effectively carried out and maintained.

This audio clip relates to task 1 in your PDF of unit 2.

Show transcript

Isma Sy-yed:

My name’s Isma Sy-yed and I’m the Inclusion Co-ordinator at Christopher Hatton Primary school.

Money or the budgets are always something that is at the back of a Headteacher’s mind, and the SEN budget is something that should be spent wisely in terms of interventions, effective deployment of staff, because at the end of the day, when we run interventions , annually you have to put this all on the costing map or the provision map, and the provision map is sort of like evidence that is public information that parents or members of the public can actually access in terms of well ‘how did the school spend the SEN budget in the academic year? Was it to fix a leaky roof? Or was it to buy in new programmes,’ so as the SENCo you would not be doing your job or you would be doing a disservice to the parents if say for example you weren’t bringing in a variety of resources or you weren’t bringing in effective interventions because Ofsted are really hot on judging the impact of interventions, and you can do an intervention to death and if it’s not benefitting the children then it’s almost like flogging a dead horse. So it’s really important to be on top of what’s working and what’s not. And that is through assessment, it’s through monitoring, it’s through even observations with your staff. Monitor your support staff, monitor the class teachers, it’s your job as a SENCo to make sure everything runs like clockwork and at the end of the day if you don’t do it, no-one else will.

For example when I’ve met other SENCo’s on the training days, the first thing all the SENCo’s do is just sort of have a moan about all the frustrations and all the barriers that you’ve hit because as a SENCo, you’re quite isolated because your sort of working on your own but yet you’re involved with so many different professionals, the different teams of outreach that come in, and you’re co-ordinating everything, making sure meetings run like clockwork, parents attend, you’re liaising with numerous amounts of people, and it’s just pretty much yourself. But it is so rewarding when you see the children move on and make progress, it is just the best thing in the world it really is, and it just makes you think ‘yes’.

Example of a provision map

A provision map should be designed to your own school’s requirements. It will help you plan and enhance your provision, and schedule where and when interventions should happen. The examples in the below PDF could give you an outline of how provision maps work. There are also different examples available elsewhere online that may be better for your setting.

Download provision map examples (PDF, 128KB)

An example of a provision map

How useful is pupil voice when pupils have SEND?

This discussion focuses on listening to and acting upon pupils’ views of their education. Contributing are psychology and habilitation studies lecturer Karl Wall, SENJIT coordinator John Brown, professor of psychology and special needs Julie Dockrell, and reader in the psychology of education Jane Hurry.

This audio clip relates to task 4 in your PDF of unit 2.

Show transcript
Discussion at the Institute of Education involving Specialists in Special Educational Needs.

John Brown – SENJIT Co-ordinator:

I’d like to draw us into the area now of pupils voice.

I think one of the interesting things is when you start focussing on what pupils, children, young people, think themselves, the perception that you get is often very different. In some work we did in the Midlands we asked for teacher’s perceptions, this was in relation to visual impairment, teaching assistants perceptions, parents perceptions, and the children/young people’s perceptions, and what was striking about the children/young people’s perceptions was that: A - they were generally different to everyone else, that what they thought was difficult wasn’t actually what the others thought was difficult, and certainly wasn’t difficult in the social sense, it was the social sense that was very significant for them.

So although they were working with the practicalities of their visual need, it was the social element of it that was of concern, and they, just contrary to what we’re saying earlier about progression, they were very conscious of how this might play out in the future. We were working with 12 and 13 years olds’, and they were thinking well: ‘what that does this mean when I’m studying in the senior part of the secondary school?’, ‘what does this mean about going to college?’, ‘will there be support?’, ‘will people notice?’, so their emphasis was quite different.

I think the mosaic approach that was developed here at the Institute in part, where you look at a different experience from many different perspectives and use very different modalities; pictures, videos, reporting conversation, is a way of capturing that, particularly with younger children because there is an issue if one’s going to say pupil voice is important, then how is that pupil voice accessed? And a formal interview or discussion like this may not be the most appropriate context in which to.

Julie Dockrell – Professor of Psychology and Special Needs

It’s not just access it’s actually, listen to and acted upon, I mean for a long time in the annual reviews, children with statements of Special Educational Needs, have an opportunity to voice their views and their concerns and what they’d like changed, and I’ve sat in many of these and I think rarely are what the child, the young person has said, actually taken on board and worked with, because the adults in the group know better, or that’s the you know the underlying assumption.


It certainly has to be facilitated, and that’s part of the preparation for that particular sort of activity and if it isn’t, that’s the likelihood of children’s voices coming out.


No but even if it’s facilitated, even if they say and they’re very clear and articulate about what they want the adults will sit and say yes okay, and but nothing changes.


It’s not up to them.


They’ve got to be taken seriously.


Or the systems can’t be flexible enough to support them. So for example I did some work up at one FE college, and one of the things that the young people in that college want was independent travel, but for various reasons some of them are still being bussed to college but the reasons were nothing to do with them and it was absolutely bizarre to see some people being bussed into college and when you ask them what they’re doing at college, they’re doing an independence course!

But the systems really need to be flexible and I suppose we’re trying to address that through things like personal budgets and so on, but I think it’s particularly hard for young people when they’re being given help to turn around, I remember one girl in a school saying to me ‘well actually I don’t want all this help’ and ‘I don’t want a teaching assistant with me the whole time’ but at her review, the teaching assistant was there, her parents were there, the school was there, they felt they were doing the best for her, it’s incredibly difficult as one young person to say I don’t want this help.


I think so but it’s also worth looking at data on samples that have shown that young people when they look back on their school days have said actually the most important thing to me was the learning support assisting to help me get through that, and there are studies that have actually 16, 17 year olds look back. So in a sense it’s like most of special needs it’s not ‘one size fits all’ isn’t it? And it’s how you do that.




But the issue of participation as part of the process to getting something done, is probably the very most difficult part of all of this, because with the best will and for the best motives one can create the situation where a voice can be heard, but very often when I've been in the past responsible for statement reviews where children, young people, being active in those reviews ,you come to a point where either explicitly or implicitly, the question is asked well ‘what will this do in the future?’, ‘how will this change what is going on?’ And often partly because of the systems, partly because of the capacities of the various services, the likelihood of that being changed is very, very, limited indeed because there is no explicit practical outcome that can follow on from it, that that group of people have control over or can influence, so there’s also an issue about the recognising the limits to what is possible, and where those limits come from and how they can be accessed.

Jane Hurry – Reader in the Psychology of Education:

Now I think that’s absolutely true, you have to take into account the realities within which you are operating, but I think certainly in my work with older learners, that’s kids in secondary school and going up the grades in secondary school – young people that are a bit turned off school, possibly will have Special Educational Needs in terms of their behaviour in school, if you don’t listen to what they’re interested in, if you don’t enable there to be an interchange at these angle reviews or whatever meetings they have with their teachers or tutors which allows them to see why they might want to do it, in other words if you don’t negotiate them to be part of the process, it’s not going to happen. And I can see the trouble is that teachers are put in the situation where there is a lot of tension between trying to get the kids through a qualification for example, or stick to a curriculum path, but on the other hand you have to take account of where it’s going to get to the point where it’s counterproductive and the child is actually going to stop attending school or something like that.