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In Brief: Pupils with additional needs

Image by Danny Lawson / Alamy

4 min read

In an occasional series, staff from Parliament’s libraries give The House choice nuggets from the archives. This week, Professor Grant Hill-Cawthorne, House of Commons librarian and managing director of research and information, looks at education and special educational needs

The journey to adulthood is shaped by our school experiences. The daily routine of classroom learning and playground recreation forms some of our earliest memories and most enduring habits. So central is the impact of education in our lives that we relive our schooldays frequently even as adults, remembering those days of grazed knees, vivid friendships, and stodgy food with clarity. But our school experiences will have differed wildly depending on our needs and how they were met. 

In England, around 1.6 million children and young people require additional support in school. Schools employ special educational needs co-ordinators to plan a more tailored approach for pupils who learn in different ways. 

The terms special educational needs (also known as SEN) and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are used to capture a broad range of support requirements. The SEND code of practice specifies that school-age children with SEN will have ‘”significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age” or will have a disability which prevents them from accessing the education services provided in mainstream schools for children of the same age.  

The number of pupils with additional needs has fluctuated over time. In 2007, the SEN incidence rate (percentage of pupils identified as having SEN requirements) was around 19 per cent. That rate increased, reaching a high of 21 per cent in 2010, but then dipped to 14 per cent in 2016 and 2017. In more recent years the SEN incidence rate has increased, rising to about 17 per cent in 2023. 

The number of pupils with additional needs has fluctuated over time

Unsurprisingly, levels of support for those with SEN vary widely. For school-age children in England, support could involve a special learning programme, extra one-to-one help from a teaching assistant or help communicating with other children. Some children and young people require more help and may be offered additional assistance via an education, health and care (EHC) plan. The proportion of pupils with EHC plans has remained more stable than the SEN incidence rate: 2.8 per cent of pupils between 2007 and 2017 were allocated EHC plans, but in recent years this rate has risen and peaked at 4.3 per cent in 2023. 

For those with EHC plans, autism spectrum disorder is the most common type of primary need reported, affecting around 116,000 pupils (around one-third of those with EHC plans) as of January 2023. 

These statistics demonstrate that the numbers of children and young people needing additional or alternative support are significant – and growing. Adaptations to provision are vital to ensure that all children and young people can access appropriate education.  

The Children and Families Act 2014 reformed how children and young people with SEN in England are identified and subsequently assessed and provided for. In March 2023, the UK government also published its SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which followed on from a 2022 green paper on reform to the system.  

As this plan is implemented, it will be interesting to see how changes to the system support the children and families touched by its policies. Given the significant role our schooldays play in shaping us, finding – and funding – the most effective way of offering support to children and young people with SEN is clearly a vital task for any government.


Read more about special educational needs and disability in the House of Commons Library briefings on The Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan by Robert Long, Shadi Danechi, Joe Lewis, Andy Powell and Katherine Garratt, and Special Education Needs: support in England by Robert Long and Shadi Danechi. Browse more topical research on the House of Commons Library website

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