For any SENCO looking at how SEN is defined, identified and assessed in her own local education authority and elsewhere, it soon becomes apparent that the identification and assessment of SEN is not only complex but confused. Michael Farrell suggests that SENCOs can contribute to clarifying our understandings of SEN.

In one sense, there is no group of children  ‘out there’, as it were, for whom it can be universally agreed that they have SEN and for whom special education might be appropriate. One reason is that providing special education with its preferential funding is socially, economically and politically influenced and this in turn is related to the difficulty of identifying at least some types of SEN.
This is illustrated by the disparity of the percentage of children considered to have SEN in different countries. As long ago as the mid 1990s, a publication by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1995) indicated that the United States of America categorised 12% of its students as disabled and provided them with individual education programmes, while in many other countries the figure was 5% or less. A similar disparity is found between different local education authority areas of England.

LEA criteria and SEN Yet this variation is not merely random or completely socially relative. It can be more carefully defined than it often is and it should be possible to reach agreement about what SEN is supposed to mean. In line with such an aspiration, in England, some LEAs, often crucially assisted by SENCO groups, have developed criteria for pupils with statements of SEN.

Unfortunately, even where LEAs have worked to develop such criteria, the SEN and Disability Tribunal can effectively overturn these by making decisions based on supposed individual ‘needs’ of children with no reference to the attempts of the LEA to develop criteria to support equity in allocating resources (Farrell, 2004, p29-30).

The SENCOs role in encouraging local criteria If there is considerable local variation in views of what SEN is, the SENCO can adopt an important, though difficult, role in seeking to improve this. For example, parents, schools, LEA officers and professionals working for the health services and social services may all have different ideas (perhaps not often made explicit) about what different types of SEN are. The SENCO could begin by getting a clearer picture of the views of parents in her/his school by, for example, using a questionnaire to determine how parents would define different SEN. This might involve providing them with extracts from any guidance currently used by the LEA on identification and assessment or/and extracts from criteria developed by other LEAs and asking for comments. If there is a local federation of schools – or even, in the absence of a federation, groups of schools which work closely together in an LEA – this can allow a group of SENCOs to collate the views of a wider population of parents. A local SENCO ‘forum’ can be a vehicle for such wider consultation. Putting such information together with the schools’ views of SEN, SENCOs are then in a position to consult with LEA officers if they have not already done this. One approach is to form a group of parent representatives, school representatives and LEA officers and others to review and refine criteria for SEN. The stronger the representation of parents, the less likely it is that individual parents will develop idiosyncratic ideas of what SEN is and when funds should be spent on their child for the preferential provision that the identification of SEN offers. SENCOs can then extend the process to regional consultation using existing Regional Partnerships.

Of course, it would not be supposed that such criteria would say everything there was to say about a child, or that in some instances it might be difficult to determine the main type of SEN.

The importance of identification in deciding resource allocation In recent years, the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (DfES, 2001) has unhelpfully encouraged schools and others to identify SEN in relation to the levels of resources required to ‘meet’ the supposed needs of pupils. ‘School action’, and ‘school action plus’ interventions, for example, are characterised in terms of the school being able to provide for a pupil from its own resources and requiring outside support and advice. This would seem to imply that there are no within-child elements to disability and learning difficulty. However, the allocation of resources is not meant to be random, it is supposed to be based on something. In the case of a pupil with SEN, this something is the pupil’s disability or learning difficulty. This has to be defined and clearly understood before resources are allocated. However much proponents of an extreme social view of SEN try to fudge this, for example seeing SEN as just another additional ‘need’ that requires resources, identification of the difficulty or disability is still necessary. At the same time, however, work clarifying basic categories of SEN has taken place in connection with the pupil-level annual school census (PLASC) returns. The problem remains, though, that no one knows the extent to which different LEAs have different notions of what the various categories mean, because they are still very rudimentary.

If criteria for pupils considered to have SEN become clearer, resources are more likely to be allocated to pupils who require them most. A first step towards this might be that all pupils at the ‘school action’ part of the SEN framework will no longer be considered to have SEN and that pupils considered to be at the present ‘school action plus’ will be assessed by educational psychologists and others using clear criteria. Further work on agreeing and tightening criteria for statements of SEN would continue.

Categories and types of SEN Although England uses categories of disability and learning difficulty for some purposes, there is pretence in some quarters that it does not. The OECD publication mentioned earlier (OECD, 1995) indicated that of 22 countries surveyed, all used categories of disability except the United Kingdom. Using categories may be portrayed as negative labelling by those who believe that providing for pupils with SEN is about removing ‘barriers’ rather than anything to do with the child or taking account of possible within child factors. But it helps provide a more consistent method of allocating resources for pupils who require them. The lack of national clarity about what SEN is and sometimes a lack of local agreement is unhelpful. The Audit Commission (2002) has raised questions about the wide range of supposed SEN. Also an OfSTED report (OfSTED 2004) makes the following observation about a survey conducted in special and mainstream schools: ‘Within the schools visited in this survey, the percentage of pupils recorded as having SEN ranged from 5% to 34% in secondary schools and 10% to 60% in primary schools. The wide range was sometimes justified, but by no means always, so reinforcing the findings of the Audit Commission Report published in 2002. Variations in the interpretation of the criteria in the SEN Code of Practice were often related to judgements made with insufficient reference to objective factors and comparisons with other schools and judgements about whether lower attaining pupils were making “reasonable progress” lacked context’ (ibid. p. 14). For special schools educating mainly pupils with statements of SEN, having clear criteria for statements is particularly important. It is essential if a special school is to compare the educational progress of its pupils with that of pupils with SEN in mainstream schools, units and other provision that there is agreement about what the types of SEN mean. Given all this, special schools may also try to find time to encourage agreement locally and regionally on clearer criteria for statements of SEN. Again the mainstream school SENCO has a vital role to play in working with special school colleagues to assist in this.

So, if one were to directly answer the question, ‘can SENCOs help local authorities decide what SEN might mean?’ the response is surely ‘yes’. In the absence of any top-down comprehensive government attempt to develop nationally agreed criteria, it is indeed difficult to see who would be better placed to develop such agreement.

Audit Commission (2002) Special Educational Needs: A Mainstream Issue London, The Audit Commission. DfES (2001) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice London, DfES. Farrell, M (2004) Special Educational Needs: A Resource for Practitioners London, Sage/Paul Chapman. Farrell, M (2005) Key Issues in Special Education: Raising Standards of Pupil Attainment and Achievement London, Routledge. OfSTED (2004) Setting Targets for Pupils with Special Educational Needs London, OfSTED.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1995) Integrating Students with Special Needs into Mainstream Schools Paris, OECD.

Dr. Michael Farrell trained as a teacher and as a psychologist (Institute of Psychiatry) and has worked as a head teacher, a lecturer at London University and as a local education authority inspector. He is currently a special education consultant working with LEAs, voluntary organisations, universities, schools, and ministries in Britain and abroad. Among his books, which are translated into European and Asian languages, are: Special Educational Needs: A Resource for Practitioners (Sage, 2004); the New Directions in SEN Effective Teacher’s Guides series (Routledge, 2005); and Celebrating the Special School (Fulton, 2006).