UK (England) - Special needs education within the education system

Developing inclusion

The government wants there to be a range of provision to meet the needs of children with special educational needs, including provision in mainstream schools, in units or resourced provision attached to mainstream schools and in special schools. Schools and local authorities have duties to plan to increase access for pupils with disabilities to school premises and to the curriculum. Schools must ensure that curriculum arrangements, such as policies for homework and school trips, do not discriminate against pupils with disabilities, whether or not they currently have these pupils on roll. Likewise, accessibility plans must allow for the accommodation of such pupils whether or not there is currently a need for environmental amendments.

Under the Children and Families Act 2014, children and young people without Education, Health and Care plans must be educated in mainstream provision, other than in exceptional circumstances, for example being admitted to a special school for the purposes of an assessment. Local authorities must also arrange mainstream education for children and young people with EHC plans unless that is incompatible with the wishes of the child’s parent or of the young person or with the efficient education of other children or young people.

Special schools can be generic  – providing for a range of children with, for example, severe learning difficulties or physical disabilities – or they can provide for children with one particular type of need, such as autism. Special schools, alongside mainstream schools, have been given the right to become academies, which means they are no longer under the control of a local authority and they have more freedom about what is taught in the curriculum and the rates they pay teachers. Parents, community organisations and others have also been given the right to set up free schools, including special free schools. Special schools, along with mainstream schools, have also been given the opportunity to become ‘teaching schools’. Teaching schools are outstanding schools that work with others to provide high-quality training and development to new and experienced school staff. They are part of the government’s plan to give schools a central role in raising standards by developing a self-improving and sustainable school-led system.

Current provision

Under the terms of the Education Act 2002, all pupils at state-funded schools have a right of access to a broad and balanced curriculum and all local authority schools (including special schools) are required to deliver the National Curriculum, which is sufficiently flexible to accommodate different paces and styles of learning. While there are procedures for head teachers of local authority schools to make temporary exceptions from the National Curriculum for pupils, this option is rare, largely on account of the flexibility in the National Curriculum’s application. The National Curriculum has been reviewed and the new National Curriculum was introduced in September 2014. As part of the review, the National Curriculum inclusion statement has been revised to reaffirm schools’ duties under equalities legislation. It sets out that teachers must determine the support and teaching interventions their pupils need to participate fully in all parts of the school curriculum, including the National Curriculum. The statement also gives teachers and teaching staff the freedom to teach the National Curriculum in line with pupils’ specific and individual needs and make reasonable adjustments where necessary. Timetables can also be adjusted under the Equality Act 2010 to allow for the inclusion of children with disabilities.

The law assumes that pupils with special educational needs will be educated in mainstream schools. However, if this is not suitable to meet their needs, provision is available in ‘resourced’ schools (schools which can guarantee resources and staff expertise to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs – usually in a particular ‘category’ of need and regarded as an area resource). About one percent of the school population is educated in special schools, though the proportion varies according to the particular local authority. Children with Education, Health and Care plans can be dually placed in both mainstream and special schools. The organisation of special educational provision is a matter for local authorities working in collaboration with schools and other agencies. There are a number of examples of where mainstream and special schools have been co-located to promote contact between the mainstream and special school sectors and to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities and those with SEN. (See the legislation on disability discrimination under Legal system.)

The Achievement for All programme works with parents, carers, teachers, leaders and professionals from education, health, voluntary, public and private sectors to support vulnerable and disadvantaged young people and their families and raise aspirations, access and achievement.

Assessment of the attainment of pupils with special educational needs

The Early Years Foundations Stage (EYFS) is an overarching statutory framework that all early years providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe. It promotes teaching and learning to ensure children’s ‘school readiness’ and gives children the broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life. The EYFS was first published in 2008, with updated versions issued in 2012 and 2014. The EYFS:

  • contains seven areas of learning and development – there is a strong emphasis on the three prime areas which are most essential for children’s healthy development: communication and language, physical development and personal, social and emotional development (with four specific areas in which the prime areas are applied: literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and expressive arts and design);
  • includes a progress check at age two for parents/carers on their child’s development;
  • links with the Healthy Child review carried out by health visitors, so that children get any additional support they need before they start school; and
  • seeks to strengthen partnerships between practitioners and parents/carers, ensuring that the new framework uses clear language.

In the final term of the year in which a child reaches age five, and no later than 30 June in that term, the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) must be completed. The Profile provides parents and carers, practitioners and teachers with a well-rounded picture of a child’s knowledge, understanding and abilities, their progress against expected levels and their readiness for Year 1. The EYFSP will no longer be compulsory in September 2016, following the introduction of a baseline assessment to measure a cohort of pupils’ progress from the beginning of reception to the end of Key Stage 2. Further information about the EYFS and EYFSP is available.

There is a statutory requirement for all pupils to be assessed at the end of Key Stage 1 (ages 5–7), Key Stage 2 (7–11) and Key Stage 4 (14–16). There is no longer a statutory assessment at the end of Key Stage 3 (ages 11–14).

As part of the review of the National Curriculum, the attainment target ‘levels’ were removed and not replaced. The programmes of study within the new National Curriculum set out the expectations for pupils at the end of each key stage and schools are free to develop a curriculum relevant to their pupils that teaches this content. This must include an assessment system that enables schools to check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations at the end of the key stage, and to report regularly to parents. Schools will continue to benchmark pupils’ performance through statutory end-of-key-stage assessments, including National Curriculum tests.

The government will publish ‘Performance Descriptors’ in 2015 to support robust and accurate teacher assessment judgements of pupil performance at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

A series of ‘preparatory’ stages, known as the P scales, has been developed to lead up to the National Curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties who make slower than normal progress and whose progress would otherwise not be captured by the staged approach appropriate for other pupils.

Current testing in schools

  • Key Stage 1: phonics screening check which is administered to pupils in Year 1 to judge their ability to decode words. Pupils who do not meet the required standard in the screening check will be required to retake the check in Year 2 the following year. School-level data is not published, but national results are published during September.
  • Key Stage 1: statutory tasks and tests in maths and English reading and writing. The results are not reported, but must be used to inform teacher assessment in these subjects. Schools must also make a teacher assessment of speaking and listening.
  • Key Stage 2: statutory tests in maths, science and English reading, and a separate test of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Test results are reported, alongside a teacher assessment standard for English writing. In addition, schools must determine and report separate teacher assessment standards for reading, writing, and speaking and listening, plus an overall teacher assessment standard for maths and science.

At Key Stage 4, pupils take externally set public examinations (the General Certificate of Secondary Education – GCSE – or other examinations). The qualifications that have been approved for teaching in maintained schools and colleges are available on the Department for Education’s Section 96 website.

Following a review of vocational education, the government introduced study programmes for post-16 students from August 2013.

Study programmes ensure that all 16–19 year olds who are not on an apprenticeship or in paid employment are taking substantial qualifications that will challenge them and offer progression into further study or skilled employment. Students are expected to study towards achieving English and Maths GCSE grades A*–C if they do not already have those qualifications, or to take stepping stone qualifications which will help them work towards this achievement. Work-related learning or work experience is also an expected part of all study programmes.

Study programme principles apply to all students, those taking academic as well as vocational courses, and include students attending sixth forms, sixth form colleges, further education colleges and other training providers. For students with learning difficulties or disabilities, these principles apply up to the age of 25. All these students should be on worthwhile study programmes, which may include traineeships or supported internships, underpinned by high expectations which will help them to progress.

The needs of students with learning difficulties or disabilities are very wide ranging. It follows that programmes will vary considerably, including the proportion of the study programme focused on achieving qualifications. In a few cases, for example, where a student has profound and/or complex learning difficulties or disabilities, the study programme may contain no qualifications at all and either be focused on work experience or on non-qualification activity that will contribute to a young person’s preparation for adult life. In such cases, the student may be exempt from the requirement to study towards achieving English or maths qualifications.

Quality indicators for SNE

The quality of special education is included within wider quality assurance mechanisms rather than being a discrete issue. Schools are subject to inspection by the responsible government department Ofsted. The quality of education for all pupils, including, specifically, those with special educational needs, is part of the inspection framework. Similarly, Ofsted inspects SEN provision as part of the whole Further Education and Skills Framework.


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