Where next for SEN Support?

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The SEND Review side-lines the importance of SEN Support in schools and risks driving more parents to seek Education, Health and Care Plans. Sara Alston is concerned

The recent SEND review – Right support, right place, right time (DfE, 2022) – epitomises much that is wrong with our current SEN system, focusing as it does on Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) to the detriment of SEN Support.

EHCPs and SEN Support are the two levels of support set out in the SEND Code of Practice (DfE, 2014).

The review tells us that 15.8% of all school pupils – 1.4 million – have identified SEN – 12.2% require SEN Support and 3.7% have an EHCP.

The most common type of SEN Support needs include speech, language and communication needs at primary level and social, emotional, and mental health needs at secondary level. Autism is the most common type of need for EHCP students (DfE, 2022).

Despite the vast majority of children with SEN being identified at the SEN Support level, the review included just 14 mentions of SEN Support in more than 100 pages.

The lack of focus on SEN Support both in the review and in wider policy, undermines the support these students receive and leads to a push from parents and others for more EHCPs (as this is seen as the only way of securing support).

An EHCP requires an assessment involving professionals beyond the school and then gives statutory status, funding, local authority involvement, and a plan that is reviewed at least annually to support the child’s SEN.

It is often easier to get the involvement of outside agencies before a child is granted an EHCP. This is because once the plan is in place, it is often seen as done and dusted and some services withdraw. Rarely, does the level of outside agency involvement increase with an EHCP, though it may guarantee that support continues.

A child on SEN Support is equally entitled to and should be able to access assessments from outside agencies, but in reality these services are not always available. A child SEN Support should also have provision, outcomes or targets set which are reviewed regularly (usually termly) as part of the assess, plan, do, review cycle.

Ultimately, there can often be little real difference between the support available to a child with SEN Support and a child with an ECHP. In both cases the support should reflect the child’s needs.

However, the thresholds are so high for EHCPs that schools are regularly forced to provide support and evidence of its impact before a local authority will even carry out an EHCP assessment or grant an EHCP. This means that a new EHCP often only reflects the support already in place.

So why the focus on EHCPs?

Part of the problem is that there are no clear criteria for when a child is identified as “SEN Support”. The SEND review has suggested that standards be introduced for this. At present, it is a source of constant confusion and concern for schools and parents. There are so many posts on online SENCO groups asking about who should and should not be on the SEN register.

This all increases the value of an EHCP as an unequivocal statement of the child’s needs while SEN Support continues to be seen as fluid, insecure, and dependent on school policy.

SEN Support covers a very broad spectrum. Under the previous system, we had School Action and School Action Plus which provided some form of criteria – those whose SEND was supported in school only and those with outside agency involvement.

There were many reasons why this did not work, including when there was a shortage of services to support a child’s higher needs. However, currently, SEN Support can cover everything from a child receiving a minimal level of additional support – e.g. a daily 10-minute session to meet a specific need – to children requiring a high level of provision to access learning or the school environment in any way. This adds to the confusion and makes communication about needs, particularly at transition, problematic.

Moreover, SEN Support looks different in different schools. The provision should be matched to children’s needs and promote inclusion and independence. But what this looks like and how it works is not always clear to parents and children (or even to staff).

Partly this is because schools have different working models. In some schools, the focus is on one-to-one support while others focus on group support. In some schools, support is within the classroom and for others it is largely through intervention groups and outside of the classroom.

Even within the same setting, support may vary from year to year depending on staffing and budgets. It certainly changes as children move between schools.

Parental expectations

This lack of clarity often feeds into a parent’s belief that the only way to ensure their child has support, particularly at transition from primary to secondary, is through an EHCP.

Many parents feel happy and confident with the support their child receives via SEN Support in the small and familiar setting of their primary school. However, they lack the confidence that their child will manage in the larger unfamiliar secondary setting without an EHCP. Many parents seek EHCPs in upper key stage 2 for this reason. Some also believe that an EHCP will give them a greater choice of schools.

Schools need to be clearer with parents that good SEN Support level provision may look different but is provided at secondary.

In theory, parental choice is the guiding principle with an EHCP, however reality means that this choice is limited by the availability of places, the need to match the child’s needs to what the provision can offer, and issues of cost.

There are thousands of parents of children with EHCPs in dispute with local authorities over this issue and many more children either without school places or struggling in inappropriate settings.

Too often the authority sends the paperwork to the nearest “appropriate setting” as the cheapest option regardless of parental choice and parents are left to fight for anything different.

Equally, there are views that an EHCP entitles a child to one-to-one support, but very rarely does an EHCP state this and certainly not for more than a very short period of the day.

In fact, with the exception of a very high level of physical/medical need or very significant safeguarding concerns, all the research indicates that children should not have constant one-to-one support. It does not support their learning or independence and often leads to an over-reliance on adult support. It also creates a separation between the child and their teacher and peers.

And yet many parents, teachers and some school leaders believe that this is what children with SEND need to learn and that it will be provided by an EHCP.

The question of funding

At the heart of the issue is the question of funding. EHCPs tend to state support in terms of hours and/or specific provisions. However the provision is expressed, it almost always includes the 12 to 13 hours of support which are indicated in the “notional” £6,000 SEN budget attached to all children at SEN Support level.

This money is usually used to fund provision across the school, including teaching assistants, SEND resources, and the SENCO. This amount was set in the SEND Code of Practice in 2015 and has not increased, so it is no longer fit-for-purpose and cannot cover the early intervention and support that so many children need.

Any EHCP funding in mainstream includes the notional funding and, in some cases, very little more. Nevertheless, there are expectations from parents and some teachers that an ECHP is a “limitless” source of funding and many headteachers are desperate for any source of funding.


In reality, for many children, SEN Support with a regular and robust cycle of assess, plan, do, review and clear provision and outcomes is what they need to promote their learning and ensure their inclusion. They can be supported through small tweaks and adaptions to quality first teaching with or without the support of an additional adult.

However, the lack of regard, value, clarity and consistency in SEN Support provision has reduced its value. This has led to a vicious circle where an EHCP is seen as the only guarantee of support, funding, and recognition of need and so has increased the demand for EHCPs from schools and parents.

The problem is exacerbated as budget cuts have made it more difficult to access services or provide support. The lack of early intervention increases needs that could once have been met by SEN Support but can be no longer and so require a higher level of support.

The increased demand for EHCP in itself further impacts the funding pot and the lack of focus on SEN Support leadsing to an increased demand for EHCPs. The SEND Review recognises this but its focusing solely on EHCPs will only feed into this cycle further.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Sara is the co-author of The Inclusive Class and is currently working on a book entitled Working Effectively with your TA, due out in February with Bloomsbury Education. Visit www.seainclusion.co.uk or read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via https://bit.ly/htu-alston

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