Understanding the identification of Special Educational Needs in England: the current reality from classroom to policy level

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sch of Education and Lifelong Learning


The field of provision for children with special educational needs (SEN) has been a challenging aspect of education, with tensions at all levels, from policy to classroom, including the identification of SEN. This research, which will focus on the understanding of the identification of SEN, aims to facilitate a greater common understanding of SEN and so contribute to improving the effective use of limited education resources, and facilitate the equitable distribution of these resources.

This proposal builds on my MA dissertation which indicated conflicting understandings concerning the identification of SEN. This study will focus particularly on three categories of SEN, within three local
authorities (LAs) in the South West of England; Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD), Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH). MLD and ASD have been selected because they are the most common primary types of need at the two levels of SEN, SEN support and Education Health and Care (EHC) plan (DfE, 2018a). Of the four categories of SEN in the current Special Educational Needs and Disability code of practice: 0-25 years (DfE and DoH, 2015) (The Code), SEMH is the only category to have changed formally since the 2001 Code (DfES). SEMH replaces the previous category which referenced behaviour explicitly. Despite this change, the place of behaviour within SEN is largely unresolved. The ASD category is perceived to have expanded and challenging behaviour still informs the new category of SEMH.

Utilising strong existing links to regional educational psychology services (letters of support following), this study will examine the understanding, at LA and school level, of these particular SENs within the LAs of Devon, Plymouth and the City of Bristol, which contain both rural and urban characteristics. Ofsted (2018), the inspection agency, has highlighted the current national crisis in SEN. Parental challenge of SEN identification and provision decisions has recently resulted in judicial review of LAs' SEN funding plans, further indicating current policy and practice challenges around SEN identification and provision. In response to national concerns, the House of Commons Education Committee is currently reviewing SEN policy and practice.

This project's general aim is to explore and clarify understandings of SEN, specifically at school and LA level, with particular reference to the identification of MLD, ASD and SEMH.

1. Examine data trends in 3 LAs for the identification of MLD, ASD and SEMH at the level of SEN Support and EHC plan.
Research Questions: Regarding the recorded identification of MLD, ASD and SEMH in primary, secondary and special schools, what trends can be identified from 2010 - 2018 for the 3 SEN categories
i. Within each of the 3 LAs
ii. Across the 3 LAs
iii. Compared to national trends?

2. Exploratory survey of decision-makers' identification of SEN in 3 LA areas. In this part the survey will involve:
1. LA decision-makers regarding EHC plan identification (for pupils with more significant SENs) trends and processes,
2. Primary and secondary school Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCos) regarding SEN Support identification (for pupils with less significant SENs) in their schools,
3. Parents' perspectives on SEN identification.

i. What are participants' understandings of SEN and its identification with particular reference to the identification of MLD, ASD and SEMH?
ii. What issues do they identify associated with SEN identification and what improvements do they consider are required?

I am particularly aware of the need for sensitivity in exploring views around SEN and identification of need, especially with children and parents, and undertake to conduct research 'to the highest ethical standards in any and all contexts' (BERA, 2018).


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2269060 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2022 Tanya Tothill