How has special education needs evolved in the 40 years since the Warnock Report?

with Professor Geoff Lindsay, Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), University of Warwick

How has special educational needs evolved in the 40 years since the Warnock Report?

Everyone in the SEND sector should recognise the significance of the 1978 report on special educational needs by the late (latterly Baroness) Mary Warnock, that she wrote forty years ago. It laid the foundations for the introduction of what became statements of special educational needs that laid out legally-mandated provision for children in schools.

As we know, the 2014 reforms changed the landscape for disabled children again. But, four decades on from the Baroness' report, an extensive set of papers has been published in Frontiers in Education: Special Educational Needs by a group of academics, about how SEN, now SEND, has evolved from 1980 to 2020. The chief editor, Professor Geoff Lindsay, of the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR) at the University of Warwick, has written for us about the papers, that are all freely available, and a new ebook that collates them all (links at the end).

The Warnock Report on SEN – 40 Years on by Prof Geoff Lindsay

The system in England for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has developed over time. But where did it come from?

The key building blocks can be traced back to the 1978 report to the government, from a committee set up to advise on special educational needs (SEN). Special Educational Needs: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People became known as The Warnock Report, because the committee was chaired by Mary Warnock (later Baroness) who died last year aged 94 years.

In recognition of this, Klaus Wedell, Julie Dockrell and I, have edited an e-book (link at the end), which is freely available to download. The purpose of this collection of 16 papers, is to consider the aims of the Warnock Report and its continuing major impact on the legislation that has followed. This includes the recent Children & Families Act 2014, which provides the legal basis of our current SEND system.

Klaus, Julie and I have been immersed in SEND for our professional lives, as educational psychologist practitioners in local authorities, and then as professors of educational psychology and SEN at the University of Warwick and UCL. As I am Chief Editor of the open access journal, Frontiers in Education: Special Educational Needs, I organised an open invitation for papers.

The 16 papers accepted were published individually over the past year. They have now been brought together in an e-book, edited by Klaus, Julie and me and published as part of a Research Topic in the journal in March 2020. It can be downloaded from the Frontiers site free of charge.

Professor Geoff Lindsay
Professor Geoff Lindsay

Origins of Warnock Report and the consequent legislation

Commissioned by the government in 1975, the 26-strong committee was chaired by Mary Warnock and reported to the government in March 1978. As noted in our editorial for the e-book, when Mary Warnock was asked in an interview in 2018 interview how she came to be selected to be chair, she replied: ‘I’d been the headmistress of an [academically high achieving] school and was thought to be interested in education…so I came with perhaps a useful ignorance of the whole subject’. She had been a tutor in philosophy at Oxford University.

The three years' work by the Warnock committee, examined and built upon the SEN system of the time, drawing upon ideas and practices that were then current. For example, the term ‘special educational needs’, the main title of the report, was taken from the work of Professor Ron Gulliford. This reflected progressive thinking, based upon research, which showed that there was no simple distinction between ‘handicapped’ and ‘non-handicapped’ children and young people.

The Warnock Report was widely anticipated. It had been set up as a result of extensive lobbying pressure by both professionals and parents in the preceding 10 years. It established the significant development in policy and practice that had been achieved during those years. Significantly, it had completely overtaken the (by then) outdated terms of reference given to the committee by the government.

The Warnock Report and its influence on the first comprehensive legislation on all SEN the Education Act 1981, has been a massive influence on the developments, conceptualisation, policy and practice, for children and young people with SEN, both nationally and internationally.

Reading the Warnock Report, even after 40+ years, it is striking to see these ideas examined and developed. For example, the importance of parents was stressed, both as parents and also as part of the assessment and decision-making on a child’s SEN and provision. Moreover, the title of that chapter of the report, Parents as Partners, indicated the nature of the role: not simply to provide information, or even to have their rights recognised, but fundamentally to be a partner with professionals and others.

Some key ideas in SEN

Parents as Partners: Reading the Warnock Report, even after 40+ years, it is striking to see these ideas examined and developed. For example, the importance of parents was stressed, both as parents and also as part of the assessment and decision-making on a child’s SEN and provision. Moreover, the title of that chapter of the report, Parents as Partners, indicated the nature of the role: not simply to provide information, or even to have their rights recognised, but fundamentally to be a partner with professionals and others. This fundamental idea has of course developed over time.

Multi-disciplinary assessment: Assessment should be a multi-disciplinary and should be developmental, the report argued. This was based on the rejection of static decisions, e.g. the use of IQ to categorise children, not only at the time of assessment, but also for the future. This was replaced by recognition that children’s patterns of abilities and needs can vary, to different degrees and in different ways, over time. The requirement for annual reviews followed from this thinking.

Diagnosis and teminology: Diagnostic labels were seen as having some usefulness but were not sufficient – or even helpful – in determining needs. Needs should drive decisions regarding action: from teaching and learning in a school or early years provision, to the SEND system as a whole, including the development of types of special provision. Reading the report’s chapter 3 Section III, ‘A new system to replace categorisation’, indicates the far-reaching, progressive approach to this topic. It is well worth reading even now. For example, did you know that at that time, some children were officially categorised as ‘educationally subnormal’? The committee recommended the use of ‘children with learning difficulties’ which has persisted in education.

Early intervention is vital: The next aspect I will note – of many ideas in the Report – was the importance of early identification and early intervention. Recent cross-party political support has led to important reviews of the evidence, and recognition of the importance of both of these processes. One manifestation of this development has been the setting up of the Early Intervention Foundation. The EIF has undertaken reviews and provides guidance on a range of issues for both professionals and parents.

Our Warnock, 40-year on e-book

Our e-book provides a rich variety of papers relevant to SEN and the SEND system. In the first main paper (after the editorial, which sets the scene) Klaus, Julie and I present an overview of the Warnock Report, the subsequent developing statutory systems, and also cover research addressing a number of the ideas that appear in the Warnock Report. However, this is not intended simply to be a historical review. Rather, what we have tried to do is examine the developments and implications, and hence the relationship, between the earlier ideas of the Warnock Committee and the situation today.

The remaining 15 papers provide more specific evidence, ideas and discussions regarding SEN and SEND. Some report results of studies exploring practice, e.g. differentiation and personalised teaching approaches. Others examine the SEND system and its working, e.g. how SEND policies may produce perverse incentives, which are unhelpful; evidence that educational support for children’s needs may be driven less by need but by the diagnostic SEN category attributed to them.

Other papers include a critical appraisal of the use of statements of SEN (now replaced by Educational, Health and Care Plans) and the working of the Children & Families Act’s new system of disagreement resolution, whereby parents or young people with SEND challenge decisions by local authorities and schools regarding provision for a child’s special educational needs.

Final comments

This e-book provides an up to date overview of SEN and the SEND system in England. Drawing upon international, as well as UK-based authors, we explore aspects of conceptualisation, policy and practice which have relevance both to this country and internationally. We also include a proposal for a novel contemporary approach to educational policy-making for pupils with special educational needs/disabilities: an Education Framework Commission.

We hope that readers of the Special Needs Jungle will find interesting material in this e-book that will be relevant to either their families’ situations and concerns, or if you're an educator, your professional practice. And perhaps, also, you might consider reading some of the original Warnock Report itself.

Professor Geoff Lindsay PhD, C.Psychol, FBPsS, FRSA, FAcSS, HonMBPsS.

Geoff Lindsay is Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Educational Needs at the University of Warwick, where he is also Director of the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR). Geoff was previously Principal Educational Psychologist for Sheffield Local Authority. He is also Chief Editor, Frontiers in Education: Special Educational Needs.

Latest papers by Prof Geoff Lindsay:  

  • Lindsay, G., Dockrell, J., Wedell, K., eds. (2020). Warnock 40 Years On: The    Development of Special Educational Needs Since the Warnock Report and Implications for the Future. Lausanne: Frontiers Media SA. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88963-573-3
  • Lindsay, G., Conlon, G., Totsika, V., Gray, G., & Cullen, M. A. (early view). The impact of mediation on resolution of disagreements around special educational needs: Effectiveness and cost effectiveness. Research Papers in Education.
  • Dockrell, J.E., Ricketts, J., Palikara, O., Charman, T., & Lindsay, G. (2019).What drives educational support for children with developmental language disorder or autism spectrum disorder: Needs, or diagnostic category?  Frontiers in Education. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2019.00029.
  • Gray, G., Totsika, V. & Lindsay, G. (2018). Are evidence-based parenting programmes still effective, after the research trial ends?  Frontiers in  Psychology, 9: 2035.  
  • Lindsay, G. & Totsika, V. (2017). The effectiveness of universal parenting programmes: The CANparent trial. BMC Psychology, 5:35.Link:
  • Lindsay, G. & StrandS. (2016). Children with language impairment: prevalence, associations and ethnic disproportionality in an English population. Frontiers in Education, 1.2. Link:

Also read:

Don’t miss a thing!

Don’t miss any posts from SNJ - simply add your email address below. You must click the link in the confirmation email you’ll receive to activate your free subscription.

You can also keep up with us by following our WhatsApp Channel!

Want more? Be an SNJ Patron!

SNJ is a non-profit company and everyone who writes here does so voluntarily. We need your support to help us with costs by donating once or as a regular patron. Regular donors get an exclusive SEND update newsletter as thanks! Find out more here

Tania Tirraoro

We LOVE to hear what you think... please take a minute to add your views here, so your comment is seen by all!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.