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Updated: Apr 20, 2020

At the end of May the DfE released two sets of data relating to Special Educational Needs (SEN): Special needs: An analysis and summary of data sources analysing data from 2018 and the statistical release for Statements and EHC plans: England, 2019. They show much of the same data, but in different ways and with different foci. The former looked at proportions of the school and SEN population while the latter looked at numbers and focused just on EHCPs and statements. However, individually and taken together they seem to me to raise more questions than answers about what is going on with SEN in schools.


For 6 years from 2010 to 2016 the number of pupils with SEN fell. However, for the second year running there is an increase in the number; 1.24 million (14.4%) in 2017 rising to 1.28 million (14.6%) in 2018. The proportion of pupils with an EHCP/ statement had stayed constant at 2.8%, but has increased to 2.9%- 20% of all pupils with SEN. Similarly, the proportion of children with SEN support (without and EHCP/ statement) fell for 6 years between 2010 to 2016, but increased in 2017 (11.6%) and again in 2018 to 11.7%.

The statistical release document identifies that there were 11% more children with an EHCP in January 2019 (354,000) than in January 2018 (319,800 with an EHCP or statement) with the greatest increases in the 0-5 and 20-25 age ranges, some of which may reflect changes in funding arrangements. Even so this suggests that when the analysis document catches up it will show an increased proportion for 2019 as well. There remains a question why are there more children with SEN? Is this an increase in need or an increase in identification? Or even a reflection of the impact of cuts reducing schools’ ability to support all their pupils without additional funding?


The analysis document shows in January 2018 the most prevalent type of SEN for pupils with SEN was Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) at 21.6%. For those with SEN Support (without an EHCP), this figure rises to 24% of SEN pupils. Interestingly though for those with an EHCP the most common type of need is Autistic Spectrum Disorder at 28.2% of SEN pupils. However, only 5.7% of those with SEN Support are listed as ASD.

This raises some interesting questions. It would suggest that it is easier to get an EHCP for ASD than for MLD. Clearly, many of those with ASD can present with multiple difficulties impacting on their learning and wellbeing in a variety of areas (communication, learning, social, emotional, behaviour, etc.) and the severity and cumulative nature of their needs mean that they need the higher level of support, while many of those with MLD are more easily supported at SEN Support level. But the extend of the discrepancy suggests that something more complex is going on.

It could be evidence that the SEN system is equating diagnosis with the need for an EHCP. Implicit within this is an indication of a focus on the diagnosis rather than the needs of the child. There are many children with a diagnosis of ASD whose needs can be met within a mainstream school, either through quality first teaching or with SEN Support. However, often there is a feeling of entitlement, regardless of the impact of the child’s difficulties on their ability to access learning, that once a diagnosis has been reached the child should access additional support through EHCP. And so, this becomes the focus, often without full consideration of what adaptions could be made to meet the child’s needs.

There is evidence that it is easier to make a successful application for EHCP, if it is supported by a medical diagnosis, than just with evidence of educational need, which links the health part of the of the Education, Health and Care Plan. Further, there is a belief (and practice) this should be instigated by the school, rather than medical professionals. This feeds into a cycle where schools and families expect support at EHCP level for children with diagnosis of certain condition e.g. ASD or ADHD, so they are less likely to make the adaptions or access the training to support them at SEN Support level. This means that the children’s needs are less easily met and so their difficulties increase, and, this in turn means they are more likely to need an EHCP.

If we look at the proportion of pupils with an EHCP for MLD (12%), even if we add the proportions of EHCPs for Severe Learning Difficulties (12.5%) and Specific Learning Difficulties (3.5%), this is only 28%; still less than the proportion of children with EHCPs for ASD (28.2%). So why is MLD more prevalent at SEN Support than at EHCP? It could be that the figures are skewed as once a child has been issued with an EHCP, they are recorded under a different category, such as Severe or Specific Learning Difficulties or Speech, Language and Communication Needs.

Additionally, I suspect there is an over-recording of MLD at SEN Support because there is a lack of clarity for many schools about what constitutes MLD. I have worked with a number of schools where any child who is not making national expectations is recorded as MLD and others where almost no child is recorded as having MLD as their difficulties tended to be recorded as either Specific Learning Difficulties or Speech, Language and Communication needs. Without EP advice, which is increasingly difficult to access in many Local Authorities, an exact understanding of the root of a child’s difficulties is hard to ascertain, so many schools fall back on MLD as a ‘default’ catch all. This lack of clarity is increased as the descriptors used in the DfE statistics do not match the categories of need identified in the 2014 SEND Code of Practice. But more fundamentally, there is a common myth that without diagnosis you cannot apply for an EHCP, so children who do not meet medical criteria are left without the educational support they need and deserve.


To turn to the other statistics, these continue to raise questions. There remain more boys (14.7%) than girls (8.2%) at SEN support and with EHCPs; 4.2% of boys compared with 1.6% of girls. Again, the question remains is this about level of need or communication and identification of need. Boys commonly act out when they do not understand. While girls are often more withdrawn and compliant and better at masking their needs, so not exhibiting them in school. This could result in boys’ SEN needs being recorded and acted upon while the girls’ needs are missed.


There is an increasing number of children with SEN who are eligible for free school meals; 25.8% of those with SEN in 2018 compared to 11.5% with SEN. This significant difference raises many questions that the analysis document does not attempt to answer, including the link between poverty and other vulnerabilities and Special Educational Needs?


Looking at ethnicity in January 2018, 3% of White British pupils had an EHCP compared with 2.7% of minority ethnic pupils and for SEN Support 12.2% of White British compared to 10.3% of minority ethnic pupils. Travellers of Irish heritage (4.5%) and Black Caribbean (4.2%) pupils had the highest percentages of EHCPs while Indian pupils (1.8%) had the lowest percentage. Again, how far is this to do with need and how far is it a reflection of teachers’ and families’ expectations, pupil engagement and attendance?

We continue to have a position where 3% of children whose first language is English have an EHCP and 11.9% are at SEN Support compared with 2.4% with EHCP and 10.1% at SEN Support for those whose first language is not English. This raises the question whether SEN is being missed where a child has EAL. Is it that their difficulties and their additional needs are assumed to be rooted in their weaker English skills, rather than identified as special needs? As support and translation services are cut, it becomes more and more difficult for schools to assess and understand children’s capabilities in their home language, and so to assess the true nature of their difficulties and provide the appropriate support. Equally, in those areas lucky enough to have retained good EAL services is this support acting as a substitute for SEN support?


The attainment of children with SEN continues to rise slowly with a 1% increase in those achieving a Good Level of Development in EYFS and reaching the expected standard in the Y1 phonic screening. Similarly, the levels achieving expected levels at KS1 have remained fairly stable. At KS2, the changes in tests means there is little comparable data, but it is clear those with SEN show lower progress scores than those without SEN and this is lowest in writing. This is again true for the data at KS4.

Children with SEN were absent from school for more sessions than those without SEN. With figures of 8.7% for those with EHCP and 6.5% for those with SEN Support, compared to 4.4% for those without SEN. Those with an EHCP are most likely to be persistent absentees (25.1%) compared to those at SEN Support (18.3%) or for those without SEN (9.4%). Those with profound and multiple learning difficulties are more likely to be absent from school (14.9% of sessions), though the majority were authorised absences (13.7%). It would make sense that more vulnerable pupils, particularly those who need to attend more medical appointments or are more vulnerable to illness will be absent from school more. But it is not clear if this is exacerbated by mental health and anxiety which in some cases may be caused by the lack of an appropriate placement.

The analysis document highlights that pupils with SEN account for just under half of all permanent and fixed term exclusions. Pupils with SEMH have the highest number of permanent and fixed term exclusions.

The statistical release tells us that 4.8% of pupils (17,105) are with an EHCP are not currently receiving education in some form of educational establishment, with 1% of children with EHCP awaiting an appropriate provision. I know that this figure is an underestimate as I work with a number of mainstream schools who have been asked to take pupils which the Local Authority freely admit are not appropriately placed, but the authority has no appropriate placement and does not wish them to be out of school. At the same time, the number with EHCPs attending state funded special schools has increased since January 2010 from 38.2% to 44.2% in January 2018. There is a question why more children are attending special schools and so many are out of education. Again, it suggests that mainstream schools are finding it more difficult to support children with SEN.


There are more children with SEN, more of whom also have some form of medical diagnosis. More of them are out of school and more of are in or looking for specialist placements. We know that cuts to education have hit the most vulnerable pupils hardest. That schools are less able to support pupils with SEN and those eligible for FSM. The increased focus on data means schools are being pushed harder to explain why children are not meeting age expectations. This could be driving an increased identification of special needs, particularly of moderate learning difficulties. Further, the emphasis on data is inhibiting schools’ ability and willingness to support children who will not make age expectations and are pushing for these children to be educated elsewhere. This is increased by the emphasis on managing ‘bad behaviour’ and the acceptance of zero tolerance approaches where children are excluded for behaviour that is often the communication of their special needs. This is also reflected in the controversy about off-rolling. The pressures from above are reducing schools’ capacity and willingness to make the adaptions necessary to enable children with SEN to access mainstream education.

At the same time, the cuts to Local Authorities SEND budgets is increasing pressure to reduce the rising tide of EHCP applications. This in turn could be leading to an increased demand for diagnosis and ‘medicalisation’, particularly as cuts make educational diagnosis, particularly for those unable to afford a private assessment, more and more difficult to access.

It is just possible the revised OFSTED framework might alleviate some of the pressure of data on schools, but that feels a long way off. In the meantime, we need to try and understand what the data is telling us about special needs and consider how we can adapt the system to meet children’s needs with or without diagnosis.

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