SEN Support in Schools – We’re Missing the Point

SEN Support in Schools – We’re Missing the Point

Every school-age child with a special educational need (SEN) should have a written plan of support.  Every single one.  That is my interpretation of the SEND Code of Practice (SEND COP) and I will explain why. 

Published in June 2014, Chapter 6 of the SEND COP describes the provision of SEN Support in Schools.  It describes a system that is far removed from the days of Individual Education Plans and from setting targets for children who are not achieving someone else’s idea of ‘good enough’ progress.

The new approach talks about children fulfilling their potential, about achieving their best.  It talks about understanding barriers to learning and providing support.  Critically, nowhere, anywhere, does it talk about targets.  Implied is: ‘make the environment right for the child and they will progress’. 

At the Whole School SEND Summit, last week Edward Timpson (Minister of State, DfE) reiterated the importance of identifying pupils that are making “less than expected progress”.  Not below average progress, or so many years behind lack of progress – but less than expected progress.  There is an important difference and this is outlined in point 6.17: progress should be measured against the individual child’s potential, not someone else’s idea of what they ‘should’ be achieving.  For more from me on this topic see here.

Every school is required to identify and address the SEN of the pupils that they support (6.2 of the SEND Code of practice).  So, to the leap that EVERY CHILD with a learning difficulty or SEN should have a written plan of support. 

Point 6.44 (page 100)

“Where a pupil is identified as having SEN, schools should take action to remove barriers to learning and put effective special educational provision in place.  This SEN support should take the form of a four-part cycle …….. This is known as the graduated approach”.

All children with SEN have barriers to learning by definition.  What we need to do is:

  • work together to identify them;
  • understand them and then;
  • allocate appropriate support to remove the impact they will have on learning and on school life.

**Insert sounds of exasperation here**  It just isn’t that easy is it?

It is probably important to state here that not all support/provision needs to cost thousands of pounds.  I have no doubt that a change in culture to genuine multiagency respect, to a less judgemental approach towards parents and one that lends itself to fewer assumptions (usually wrong), would save thousands of hours of time in dealing with frustrated parents and lead to better outcomes for the children.  There are also very many small accommodations that could be made for children that would have no financial impact at all, but that would make a big difference.

 The four parts of the cycle referred to in the COP are Assess, Plan, Do and Review.  Throughout, there is reference to the INVOLVEMENT of the children and their parents and recognising and recording their views.  Also the need to communicate to the parents, the teachers’ views of the child’s needs and details of all provision being offered.

I think some may find it hard to believe that this has been policy for nearly 3 years now.

Every child with SEN will have barriers to learning which should be identified through an assessment.

The Assessment

I think the phrase ‘barriers to learning’ is critical.  It doesn’t say ‘make a list of diagnoses’ or identify ‘causes for concern’.  I especially dislike the latter as, in my experience, many teachers have been unable to separate their own needs from Peter’s.  Their need for a cooperative child, and to demonstrate adequate academic progress for all pupils, was not impacted by Peter’s ASD, Dyslexia, Anxiety (freeze response) and so on.  Peter’s needs to not spend the day with a body full of adrenaline and mind numb with confusion didn’t impact on their tick boxes, or their comfort, in any way.

There are many barriers to learning that children with SEN experience:

  • Fatigue is a barrier to learning
  • Anxiety is a barrier to learning
  • Low working memory (or processing) compared to general ability is a barrier to learning
  • Pain is a barrier to learning
  • Being unable to eat lunch in the dining room is a barrier to learning
  • Not being able to record work that accurately reflects your ability is a barrier to learning
  • Low ability to understand social communication is a barrier to learning
  • Delayed emotional development (whilst presenting as bright and articulate) is a barrier to learning
  • Not being able to tolerate the feel of a school uniform on your skin is a barrier to learning
  • If your brain and thinking flit about uncontrollably at top speed, if your body needs to move more if because of your neurophysiology, it is biologically more difficult to concentrate.…..

You get the gist.  These may not be a ’cause for concern’ for the teacher, but they certainly impact on the day of children with SEN: on their ability to learn, to progress and to be happy.

They impact on our children’s ability to enjoy what their neurotypical peers can take for granted.  Isn’t that the whole point of equity?  To level the playing field? 

The SEN COP makes it clear that these barriers to learning should be assessed and understood so that interventions and support can be properly targeted.

The Plan

So, once these barriers to learning have been identified, support and interventions should be agreed and written in a plan.  All with the full involvement of the child and their parent.

What on earth could go wrong?

Have you noticed…. there’s still no reference to targets?

As an example, let’s take a child who struggles to write, whose ability to produce written work that properly reflects their level of ability is impacted.  Of course, they want: ‘their work to be recorded to a level that reflects their ability’.  Practising writing for 5 minutes a day is unlikely to level the playing field anytime soon is it?  It may be important and this provision may be considered beneficial, but a truly equal chance for this child to achieve their best will require more imaginative support.

How about anxiety?  Working with the child and parents, and possibly additional experts, the triggers in school for anxiety should be identified.  If anxiety (as a barrier to learning) is to be reduced to a level that means the child can learn on par with their peers then a number of accommodations may be required.  These might include:

  • support during key transitions;
  • additional preparation for change;
  • opportunities to avoid busy and noisy parts of the school on the days they feel they need to;
  • and many, many, more.

For Peter, being believed and understood was the one intervention that would have had the biggest impact.  He would have felt safer and his anxiety would have been reduced.  Barriers to learning would have been dissolved and his chance of enjoying his time at school and of learning would have been dramatically enhanced.

An important note here is to say that children with low muscle tone, or with impaired social communication skills, (and so on) cannot amend their physical make up any more than a diabetic child can grow a new pancreas.  A child that fatigues easily cannot decide to get less tired anymore than a deaf child can sort themselves out a new cochlea.  These barriers to learning will need to be considered and supported in the long term.  Whilst the impact they have on everyday life may fluctuate, they will not be fixed by a 6-week intervention group.

I don’t think interventions should be about becoming less disabled, but more about bridging the gaps so that their chances of achieving their best are as close to their academic peers as is possible.

Children with additional needs should not be set additional targets.  See here for more on that.

Implementation and Review

It should go without saying that for the plan to have any chance of helping it needs to be implemented, but I have recently heard stories that make it clear it does need to be stated.  Putting a plan in an office drawer will not lead to a child’s need being met, no matter how well it is written.

The helpfulness of the interventions in reducing barriers to learning must be reviewed at times agreed by the school and the parents, however, school staff should meet with the parents at least three times a year:

“6.65  Where a pupil is receiving SEN support, schools should talk to parents regularly to set clear outcomes and review progress towards them, discuss the activities and support that will help achieve them, and identify the responsibilities of the parent, the pupil and the school. Schools should meet parents at least three times each year.”

So what are the points that we are missing, referred to in the title?  I believe these are:

  • that it is all about ‘barriers to learning’, that a shift in thinking towards understanding these and bridging the gaps, whilst supporting development, where appropriate, should be normal practice by now;
  • that every child with SEN will have barriers to learning, so;
  • every child with SEN should have a plan of SEN support.


  • that if all children with SEN had a plan that was effective then the numbers of children developing AVOIDABLE BARRIERS TO LEARNING would be reduced.
  • AVOIDABLE BARRIERS TO LEARNING come about when a child’s needs are unknown and unmet in school and therefore are allowed to escalate and become entrenched.
  • many readers will know that the failure to recognise and meet Peter’s needs led to him needing a long admission to an inpatient psychiatric unit at just 9 years old:

“In just ten months Peter went from a boy who attended mainstream school unsupported, costing the taxpayer nothing in additional school resource, to being so broken by his school experiences he needed to be admitted to a psychiatric unit at just 9 years old.  As a result, he is unlikely to ever return to mainstream education again and needs support costing in excess of £100k per year”.

 Some things to consider:

  • Make a list of your child’s barriers to learning for yourself.
  • Draw a timetable with your child and go through it with them asking them to talk about each bit in their own way – I did this with an 11 yo last term and it revealed loads of ways that free adaptions could make his day more tolerable.
  • Expect to have a written plan that is developed with the full involvement of you.
  • Expect that it will be reviewed at least three times a year.
  • Expect that out-of-date school documentation possibly won’t lend itself to this approach and prepare to think about how you will talk about that(!).
  • Don’t expect the teacher to know chapter 6 of the SEN COP as well as you do – it is hard enough getting the day job done without reading up on SEN policy.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for an early review of the barriers to learning if more crop up and need thinking about or if the support that is in place isn’t having the desired impact.

A different way of thinking

I nearly called this post ‘A Different Way Of Thinking’.  I honestly think that this chapter in the SEN COP lends itself to dramatically improving the way that children are supported in school.  That if it was wholeheartedly embraced within the spirit in which it is intended, within the context of the culture laid out by the whole policy, then without a single penny of extra funding the lives of many children and their family would be improved.

For more about NOT setting additional targets (but instead implementing support) see here.

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29 thoughts on “SEN Support in Schools – We’re Missing the Point

  1. Thanks for your info above, It’s given me loads of things to think about, I’m so tired with the fight all the time, but I won’t stop until I get my son James sorted. The problem I think is he is the only Student in the school with High Functioning autism and suffers with anxiety and there is a lack of education!!!


    1. It may be worth checking out the other blogs as we have a bias towards the situation you describe. It is awful. Glad this helps though and i strongly suspect many of the other posts will too. xx


  2. This made me feel very tearful, because despite being in a specialist school, they have only talked to us about targets and my sons anxiety is becoming entrenched. He is now not attending. Do you mind if I ask, how is Peter and is he learning at home or in school now? I’m wondering what solution you found.


    1. jeez the special school seem to be missing the point don’t they. xx Peter is about to start a new ASD school that has a really good approach to mental health and input from a clinical psychologist into all that they do. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for another amazing blog. I will be using this to help move things forward at school for both of children who have recently been diagnosed with Autism 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s an excellent post. But the trouble is the reality. Schools and LAs simply will not accept (in my experience and research) any of the barriers you describe that do not translate into the child either disrupting a class or failing to attain average or higher academic achievement. The attitude is, that no matter what the parent or child say, at least average is good enough for them. Believe me, I have cited and quoted left, right and centre and been faced with the most appalling attitudes and barriers. If the child school-refuses in the end, they will still threaten with the EWO and SS. If they do not see it in school, if they do not understand it and if they do not accept what the family are telling them, they will ignore and deny it. Having even cited the SEN Code of Practice at an *upper* tribunal only for it to be called by the judge “various official documents” and entirely disregarded, I can tell you they don’t respect it and certainly won’t always uphold it.

    The other thing is, like many of the laws and legislation of this country, it’s very carefully written. You can imagine their legal team poring over it for hours and ensuring that every little bit is worded so it is arbitrary and use of the word ‘should’ is very different from the word ‘must’. Where it gives terminology that can be interpreted by the eye of the beholder, you will find at the end of it there is very little that you can use in your child’s favour. And when I say favour, I mean just to get their basic needs met. When they talk about including parents’ and childrens’ voices, an LA can discharge itself of it’s duty by having a section in an EHCP for ‘parent’s views’ which it will never treat as evidence that leads to actions in the EHCP and is conveniently in a separate section to professional reports with actions (which also seem to often work in partnership with LAs and schools by being deliberately vague, they may state what the child’s difficulties are but will often not state the action required. Whether that’s through a directive from above or fear of stepping on professional colleagues’ toes I don’t know, but it’s the case either way.)

    Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble. Always learn what you can about the Code of Practice of course, always use it where you can to make your case, but just don’t expect them to always listen. The Cerebra definition of an empowered parent will get parents labelled ‘difficult’ and sometimes bring retribution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We also have had similar obstructive (to the extreme) experiences. So damaging. I do know though that there are teachers that want to get it right and parents who can use this sort of thing with them. Also there are teachers that are sharing this and hopefully this will help them do what many do want to do, the right thing… if you see what I mean! thank you PAB for sharing this. it is helpful to know what might be coming our way in terms of obstructions too

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you. This is my mission today. We have changed to an alternative school which is individualized learning for every student, but I had been struggling to know where to start with barriers and the relationship between pupil, teacher and home so that needs are explained. Your post has given me a really good base to start. xx


  6. Me again. Thank you again for this post. I’ve had a good meeting with new teacher today and slipped in the words ‘learning barriers’. I felt his ears move when I said those words and I’ve come home to an email asking me to put a report together to identify what I think my daughters ‘learning barriers’ are. Yippee, I feel so renewed compared to the past few weeks not knowing how to move forward with a new school. I’ve just gone through you post again making notes and will spend time in the next few days really cracking my daughters needs so we can avoid another relapse from the wrong education techniques. We too went through mainstream with no recognition to the invisible disabilities which led to a breakdown and still in recovery 2 years on. I feel like there is some light at the end of the tunnel finally and I thank you so much for your post (again) its just what I needed to clarify things and set us off on the next part of our journey. I know my daughter is so talented and clever, not we have to allow her to be her best. xx


  7. Just to add we are in New Zealand. x I’m sorry that so many in the UK are in such heartbreaking situations. I feel lucky that, perhaps due to the smaller population, we are being listened to, albeit we parents have to do the hard graft to be heard. x


  8. This is gold. Will help us in our next mtg with school. You are, collectively, a massive boost to our learning curve here. Thank you for taking the time to share your wisdom. I don’t know how you find the time to do it, and you are providing a public service.


  9. Thank you for this, It made me think in a new way. “What are his barriers to learning?” I like the sound of that.

    I too have made a list of his ‘learning barriers’. I am usually stuck trying to explain his hidden anxieties – which get overlooked, the fact that he is quiet, well mannered…then lets it all out – on way home AND at home.

    Going to Tribunal, as LA refused needs assessment. (ASD diagnosed 2010)

    I too am tired of fighting the system… to get what is rightly his. Smile crossed my face, as I remember him saying, “are you going to fight someone muma?”

    ‘It’s a different kind of fight…one that I hope will get you what you need…’


  10. Reblogged this on School Refusal Families and commented:
    The vast majority of families with school anxiety difficulties have to BATTLE for a long time to get an EHC assessment or plan. In reality it should be straightforward because according to the relevant Law and statutory guidance the fact that their children are unable to attend school due to extreme anxiety indicates they MAY have SEN and MAY need additional support – the anxiety shows their needs are not being met in school.


  11. This is one reason there is an increase in home education. Also, many parents will be accused of FII by LA’s who issue care proceedings. Parents become a target where LA’s collude to claim parent is the problem.


  12. Reblogged this on cheeriosmilkandspoon and commented:
    Having been through the broken and very frustrating EHCP process in the UK this last 2 years, I firmly believe that a wholistic approach to supporting each child’s needs would be far better for everyone.

    We have fought and succeeded in having provision of weekly sensory integration/ occupational therapy for Charlie. It has come 4 years after he most needed it. It doesn’t feel like a victory yet because the provision for the other children in the city, the school and in the wider system hasn’t changed.

    I feel like I am walking a fine line, we are in a system where “he who shouts the loudest and wisest” get what he wants or needs. In shouting I hope I am not just getting “what I want” or solely what my child needs, but also raising the voice of others too, I pray that I am breaking new ground for others too


  13. Thank you for sharing your experience and so much helpful information,I feel better armed for this fight better informed and that’s what we need,all the best too all who take up this mantel for all our children,it’s a lot of strain and sleepless nights when you step in this arena.

    Liked by 1 person

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