Dropping SEN figures and the ‘waiting room’ category: the DfE replies

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on the latest SEN figures for England that were released by the Department for Education. We noticed that there had been a rather steep drop in the number of children with SEN - 2.5%. This was largely Year 7 children, who seemed to mysteriously shed their SEN status over the summer as they journeyed from Primary to Secondary school. Amazing!

Another perplexing item was the seemingly new category, or in Edu-speak a new 'code' that I hadn't seen before. Here's the bit from the post that I'm talking about...

Talking of proper assessment of need, in 2015 pupils who were formerly School Action but have transferred to SEN support are now required to be allocated a 'type of need'. And so, a new code called, ‘SEN support but no specialist assessment of type of need’  has quietly been introduced. This is something else I find perplexing and when I put a call out on Twitter for a definition, others did too.
According to the new SEND Code of Practice,6.45, when a child is thought to have SEN their needs should be analysed and if relevant an early assessment by external experts is advised. So there should be NO pupils whose needs have not been identified. It's like saying it's a 'CBA (Can't be arsed) to find out,' category which seems to be the complete opposite of the ethos that the DfE want to see. However, later, someone Tweeted that it could be a way to make sure support isn't delayed. Though without assessment, how do they know what provision is needed?      SNJ, SEN figures show 2.5% drop in children with special educational needs in England

sen figures

The Department for Education replies...

I figured that SNJ readers would like answers to these curiosities so I emailed the Department for Education for a quick explanation.  Stuart Miller, the Deputy Director of SEND was good enough to reply with answers. Below is the official explanation, reported verbatim:

1. Reduced numbers at ‘SEN support’ – we think there’s probably a combination of factors here (though we're interested to know what others think too):

  • previous over-identification – the reduction is a continuation, though clearly at a faster rate this year, of the downward trend that began in 2010.  This followed an Ofsted report which said that pupils identified as needing less intensive support would not be identified as having SEN if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all.  The pattern over time is consistent with previous years, showing a gradual increase in identification during primary education and then a reduction over the secondary phase;

  • better identification of need; and meeting needs without labelling them as SEN – the figures are likely to reflect the focus on supporting schools to more accurately identify the needs of all pupils; and schools, correctly, only identifying children as having SEN when they require support that is additional to or different from that for the majority of children of their age.  We think numbers identified as having SEN have fallen over recent years as schools have looked critically at whether the support for children previously identified as having SEN could be met from whole school provision but without the SEN label;

  • some changes to the collection compared to previous years – these should be taken into consideration when looking at the time series.  For example we have removed the primary need of ‘Behaviour, Emotional and Social Difficulties’ (BESD) to reflect that behaviour issues are not necessarily related to SEN. Those with this primary need in 2014 were not all expected to move to the new category of ‘Social Emotional and Mental Health’ (SEMH) in 2015.

Note that Stuart Miller does say he is interested in what others think too, so please do tell the DfE your views on this - please make sure you leave your comments in the post comments, (not just Facebook), to ensure they can see your ideas.

In my view, the first point raises suspicions of why the sudden steepness of the drop. And if the final point in the list is true then surely the school should have recorded why a child no longer is listed as having SEN? I would like to see a deeper delve into these figures so that we are not just postulating on the reasons for this big drop. We need to know why and to what extent, the above three points may be true. Or, is there some other reason entirely?

2. SEN support but no specialist assessment of type of need

The second query was about this new code: ‘SEN support but no specialist assessment of type of need’ The DfE says:

"Prior to ‘SEN support’, schools were required to record, on the census, a primary type of need only for those children and young people at ‘school action plus’ or with statements, but not for those at ‘school action’.  It is very likely that the primary type of need would have been known for the majority of those children and young people ahead of previous census dates.

This time around, we think ‘SEN but no specialist assessment of type of need’ numbers may well include a number of children who are receiving support that is additional to or different from that made for most pupils but for whom it has not been possible by the time of the census to establish a definite primary type of need. This may be because specialist advice has not been sought.

In January 2015, 28,490 pupils were in this category.  Of those, in January 2014 (ie the previous year), 12% were School Action Plus, 43% were School Action and 45% were not categorised as having SEN. So, almost 9 out of 10 would not have had a primary need recorded on the census in 2014.

So it seems that this category is for children who may have an SEN but who haven't had any type of external assessment by the census cut off date for reporting a school's SEN statistics. That's quite a lot of children who are waiting to have their needs assessed.

It appears that this code of  SEN support but no specialist assessment of type of need is a 'placeholder', noting there is, or may be, an issue with a child. A sort of limbo status, perhaps while some learning interventions are being tried before an assessment is requested. Or perhaps it's like a 'waiting room', while a child has been referred for an external assessment. We know that there is a shortage of Educational Psychologists, Speech and Language Therapists or other experts with specialist training to assess a child so some sort of wait is inevitable (while interventions are meanwhile also being tried)

As the DfE said, previously a primary type of need for children on School Action would not have been recorded, whether one was known or not. But this category says a child's primary need is not yet determined by an expert; it's a big question mark and implies that more will be done so primary need becomes known and then, presumably the child will no longer be in this category.

In my view, this category should be constantly monitored so that there are few, if any, children on it. Determining if there is any need should be prioritised and then, if there is one, an assessment should be carried out as quickly as possible. What should not happen is that children remain in this category for longer than one term. If a child's name is in this category for more than that, questions need to be asked.

Tania Tirraoro


  1. Cary Canavan

    This is nothing new – transition to secondary schools is often when special need provision falls away. The dropping SA and SA+ under the umbrella of SEN support is a convenient way of abdicating responsibility. This has become a trend with academies.

    In the field of autism – my area of interest – there has always been a tendency to fail to meet the statement, which is illegal but no-one checks. We need to have annual audits of autism provision, training and accountability. Many of our children end up in BESD units or PRUs before GCSEs and no-one gives a damn!

  2. Jo Sanger

    This is what happened to my son,was diagnosed with asd adhd at 4 years old, supported on sen plus throughout primary, support from staff and a understanding, soon as he went to year 7 at secondary school, they said he had no needs and needed a statement to prove he needed help,,,the sen at school said he needed to go to pru in order to get a statement?my son was isolated from peers,and sent to pru,when he got a statement for meopham they said he needed a special school two weeks later,and starting threating permanent exclusion, which was the case,he was permanently excluded, left with no education for six months , went as far to ipr with governers, who still won’t let him return to school,it’s a disgusting discriminative guidance, that needs drastic changes,especially when my son’s school say the didn’t know the 5 th jan exclusion guidance was withdrawn, and used it whilst dealing with my son’s case.

  3. Natalie Packer

    Great article Tania – I agree, I also think the drop in SEN numbers is due to a combination of the factors mentioned above. Many SENCOs have really taken the time to consider what SEN means and how some children can have their needs met through high quality teaching, which in some cases has reduced numbers for good reason!

    There has been lots of confusion amongst SENCOs re the new census category! People have been using it for reasons other than the one Stuart has stated so I’m not sure the figures for the ‘SEN support but no specialist assessment…’ category this year truly reflect what the DfE are intending!

  4. Excellent article Tania. We have to remember that these figures only reflect one term of the SEND reforms. SENCOs were under pressure to implement the new category of SEN Support whilst also trying to re-assess all of those pupils who had previously been recorded within the category of BESD – replaced by SEMH but for many pupils this was not going to be a perfect match. Therefore the decrease in numbers of those recorded with SEN is partly due to a previous over-identification especially for some pupils at school action but also due to the time pressure to get the numbers recorded. I believe the new SEN support but no specialist assessment of type of need code, especially at secondary has been used this year for those pupils who were within the category BESD and secondary SENCOS did not have enough time to re-assess to establish primary need – I believe this also explains the primary need for secondary pupils moving from BESD to MLD.
    SENCOs felt under pressure to get it right in time for census day in January – There is still three years to embed the SEND reforms. SENCOs have worked hard this year to get it right within schools but there is still a long way to go. There is still a need for high quality professional development for all school staff to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to ensure needs are identified early and strategies are put in place to support them. It should not matter which category our pupils are placed – if they are getting high quality, differentiated teaching and still require additional and/or different provision then they are SEN Support.

  5. Ed Duff

    Its worth bearing in mind the context to this. There’s 2 relevant issues. First, Ofsted have said that too many children have been “labelled” as having special educational needs / disabilities. Second, the implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA).

    It is also worth understanding that in order to access SEN Additional Support, a child must be “labelled” as having SEND. The reduction in the figures, in real terms, does mean that children have ‘fallen out’ of additional provision.

    Given that there was / is a clear initiative to reduce the number of children “labelled” as having SEND, and that the implementation of the CFA is going pretty badly, it is a little unbelievable that the reasons for the rapid disappearance is purely because of improved practices. Whilst the DfE have set out frequently that the did not want any child to ‘lose’ provision as a result of the reforms, it does seem that, to some extent, this is exactly what has happened.

    I have very rarely spoken with parents who feel that their child has been inappropriately “labelled” as having SEND and is given support that they do not require. The opposite is far more common. From my point of view, I find it difficult to accept that there was such a significant over-provision for children that did not require SEND support.

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