Quick Guide: Special educational needs and disabilities

Quick Guide: Special educational needs and disabilities


This Quick Guide provides information on the law and practice of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and how they relate to exclusions challenges.

Not all children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will be at risk of exclusion. However, statistically speaking, children with SEND are much more likely than any of their peers to be excluded. As a result, a large proportion of exclusion challenges will involve a discussion of SEND issues.

What does SEND mean?

The government includes much of its guidance to schools on all matters relating to SEND in the SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years.

A definition of SEND appears in statute at Section 20 of the Children and Families Act 2014. It states that:

  • A child or young person has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her.
  • A child of compulsory school age or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she -
    • has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age, or
    • has a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions.

This is a very broad definition that will encompass a lot of different needs. This definition is further broken down into 4 categories. These are:

Communication and interaction

In paragraph 6.28, the SEND code of practice defines communication and interaction needs as:

difficulty in communicating with others. This may be because [young people] have difficulty saying what they want to, understanding what is being said to them or they do not understand or use social rules of communication. The profile for every child with SLCN is different and their needs may change over time. They may have difficulty with one, some or all of the different aspects of speech, language or social communication at different times of their lives. Children and young people with ASD, including Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, are likely to have particular difficulties with social interaction. They may also experience difficulties with language, communication and imagination, which can impact on how they relate to others.

Cognition and learning

At paragraph 6.30, the SEND code of practice defines cognition and learning needs as:

When children and young people learn at a slower pace than their peers, even with appropriate differentiation. Learning difficulties cover a wide range of needs, including moderate learning difficulties (MLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD), where children are likely to need support in all areas of the curriculum and associated difficulties with mobility and communication, through to profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), where children are likely to have severe and complex learning difficulties as well as a physical disability or sensory impairment. Specific learning difficulties (SpLD), affect one or more specific aspects of learning. This encompasses a range of conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Social, emotional and mental health

At paragraph 6.32, the SEND code of practice defines social, emotional and mental health needs as:

difficulties which manifest themselves in many ways. These may include becoming withdrawn or isolated, as well as displaying challenging, disruptive or disturbing behaviour. These behaviours may reflect underlying mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression, self-harming, substance misuse, eating disorders or physical symptoms that are medically unexplained. Other children and young people may have disorders such as attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder or attachment disorder. Schools and colleges should have clear processes to support children and young people, including how they will manage the effect of any disruptive behaviour so it does not adversely affect other pupils.

Sensory and/or physical need

At paragraph 6.34, the SEND code of practice defines sensory and/or physical needs as:

a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of the educational facilities generally provided. These difficulties can be age related and may fluctuate over time. Many children and young people with vision impairment (VI), hearing impairment (HI) or a multi-sensory impairment (MSI) will require specialist support and/or equipment to access their learning, or habilitation support. Children and young people with an MSI have a combination of vision and hearing difficulties. Some children and young people with a physical disability (PD) require additional ongoing support and equipment to access all the opportunities available to their peers.

What other forms of need exist? 

In addition to the clinical and strictly educational needs outlined above, a young person’s behaviour can be influenced by factors in their personal life and their home life.

The exclusions guidance specifies that headteachers should consider whether such factors have been a factor in a young person’s education before deciding to exclude them. It states in paragraph 4:

While an exclusion may still be an appropriate sanction, the headteacher should also take account of any contributing factors identified after an incident of misbehaviour has occurred.

There are some life events that will, on a common-sense understanding, cause upheaval in a young person’s personal life. These include bereavement, bullying, homelessness, domestic violence, and problems with immigration status. However, there are a range of factors, known as adverse childhood experiences ("ACE"), that are well researched and shown to influence a young person, sometimes causing them to exhibit disruptive behaviour.

The Scottish Government highlights 10 widely recognised ACEs as:

  • Abuse
    • physical
    • sexual
    • verbal
  • Neglect
    • emotional
    • physical
  • Growing up in a household where:
    • there are adults with alcohol and drug use problems
    • there are adults with mental health problems
    • there is domestic violence
    • there are adults who have spent time in prison
    • parents have separated

NHS Health Scotland has published accessible guidance on ACEs.

What responsibilities do schools have to address SEND before exclusion?

The exclusions guidance addresses the issue of unsuitable provision in stating the following in paragraph 56: 

Where a school has concerns about the behaviour, or risk of suspension and permanent exclusion, of a pupil with SEN, a disability or an EHC plan it should, in partnership with others (including where relevant, the local authority), consider what additional support or alternative placement may be required. This should involve assessing the suitability of provision for a pupil’s SEN or disability

Schools must therefore act when they have concerns about a young person’s behaviour. This is particularly important considering that the Department for Education's own published statistics consistently show that persistent disruptive behaviour is the most common cause of all exclusions, both suspensions and permanent. In practice, this means that schools will often have indicators that a young person is at risk of exclusion based on their pattern of behaviour.

This duty extends to seeking support outside of the school environment, asking for support from the local authority and specialist services if necessary.

Schools have separate duties under the SEND code of practice. Schools are required to ensure that the process of implementing, reviewing, and amending support is a considered and evidence-based process in accordance with paragraph 6.62:

The SENCO and class teacher, together with the specialists and involving the pupil’s parents, should consider a range of evidence-based and effective teaching approaches, appropriate equipment, strategies, and interventions in order to support the child’s progress. They should agree on the outcomes to be achieved through the support, including a date by which progress will be reviewed.

Where the school has exhausted other options, they should consider requesting an EHCP in accordance with Paragraph 6.63 of the SEND code of practice.

Critically, an exclusion can never be because the school feels unable to meet additional needs. This is made clear by paragraph 20 of the exclusions guidance. 

What powers does a school have to help someone with SEND access their education?

Schools have a range of options available to them to support someone within their own resources. A school receives a grant per pupil. In addition, they have a discretionary amount of money to top up this money to provide for young people with SEND. Within this discretionary amount, the school can provide programmes and support using the staff already onsite, for example, teachers, SENCOs, and pastoral workers. However, they can also commission services, assessments, and programmes.

Common programs to investigate whether unmet needs are a factor in a young person’s behaviour include:

An assessment by an educational psychologist

An educational psychologist is a professional who can be based in a school, with the NHS, or with a local authority. They assess a young person through a range of means, including speaking with them, observing them in their day-to-day routine, speaking to the adults around them, and analysing their work. They can then make recommendations to the school about their needs.

Speech and language assessment

Where concerns exist around a young person’s communication, a speech and language therapist can assess them and recommend a package of support to support them with their communication.

A mental health assessment

Where concerns exist around a young person’s mental health, often young people will be referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, a component of the NHS providing mental health support to children and young people. A referral to CAMHS should lead to an assessment and can result in a formal diagnosis, a referral to specialists, or a recommendation for support within the school setting.

Common programs to address additional need include:

A course of mentoring

Mentoring can take a range of forms. Generally speaking, it is about a young person receiving support from someone in the school community in the form of talking sessions, which can either be scheduled, routine, or ad hoc. Sometimes the mentor is an older student, and sometimes it is a member of staff.

One-to-one classroom support

Some young people benefit from one-to-one support in the classroom, even if just for a small part of the school day. This is often provided by a teaching assistant.


Counselling can be of help in supporting young people with their mental health and dealing with the impact of trauma and ACEs. Counselling can be made available in school or through external provision.

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This information is correct at the time of writing, 5th September 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

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