Early years and special needs

What if I think a child in early years education may have Special Educational Needs?

If the child you are raising aged 0-5 and is receiving early years education from a nursery, playgroup or daycare centre in the maintained, private, voluntary and independent sectors that a local authority funds, and you believe that they are not making good progress, you should discuss this with the childcare provider. There can be a number of reasons for a child not progressing: children do make progress at different rates, and have different ways in which they can learn best, but it could also be a sign of your child having special educational needs (SEN) or having a disability. This could be the case if they are finding it significantly harder to learn than most other children of their age. It will be important to consider the child's development in a number of respects, such as their speech and language, their physical co-ordination, and how they relate to others.

If you suspect that the pre-school age child you are raising has SEN, you may wish to contact your local Parent Partnership Service (PPS). The PPS provides information to parents and carers of children with SEN about matters relating to the children's needs. Although education authorities are legally required to provide a local PPS, many fund an independent provider to deliver it, rather than providing it directly themselves.

It can help to put the points you wish to make into a letter to the early years provider, as this will ensure that they are clear about what your concerns are, and it will ensure that they are put on record. If you state in the letter that you would like to meet with the provider to discuss your child's special educational needs, then the provider has to arrange to meet with you. You can take a friend or adviser with you to this meeting.

What will the school do if I inform them that I think the child may have Special Educational Needs?

If your child is having difficulties and this is due to their having special educational needs (SEN), then the education provider must follow the government's Special Educational Needs Code of Practice(i). All early years providers (whether private or government funded) must have arrangements in place to support children with SEN. If the pre-school education your child receives is from a government-funded or maintained school, then it is required to have a SEN policy which must be freely available to parents and carers(ii), so you can ask for your own copy before you go to the meeting with them. You may also find it useful to read the Department for Education's SEN Code of Practice before the meeting. These schools are also all required to have a designated member of staff who is the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO). The SENCO should liaise with parents, teachers and others to ensure that the school's SEN policy is implemented and children with SEN receive the support they need. You should ask the school to ensure that the SENCO attends the meeting.

What might happen at the SEN meeting with the school?

The meeting may come to one of several different conclusions:

  1. The pre-school education provider may feel that your child is getting on well, and as a result of the discussions you may agree with them.
  2. The pre-school education provider may feel that there are no problems, but you disagree with them.
  3. The pre-school education provider may decide that the child will be given help through the school's routine differentiation.
  4. The meeting may agree that the child has SEN and will need SEN support (This used to be known as Early Years Action and Early Years Action Plus). You may be asked to agree to the pre-school education provider taking external advice.

If Option 1 is the outcome, then no further steps need to be taken as the child's needs are already being addressed by the pre-school education provider.

If Option 2 is the outcome, then you may want to contest the decision. You may want to contact a more senior member of staff, or the local Parent Partnership Service, or an advice organisation which specialises in matters relating to the education of children with SEN. The local education authority will run a disagreement resolution service, which the PPS will be able to provide you with details about.

If Option 3 is the outcome, it will be important for you to understand what is meant by differentiation, and how it is going to work for the child. Differentiation involves the recognition that children make progress at different rates and learn in different ways. In order to ensure the child makes progress, the pre-school education provider may need to try alternative methods of education, which are designed to meet the learning needs of the individual child. There are many ways that this could be done, for example the child could be moved into a smaller group, or books could be used that fit the child's own particular experiences, or the child could be given more one-to-one time with the teacher.

If Option 4 is the outcome and it is agreed that the child has SEN, then additional support should be identified and provided to ensure the child's needs are met. A SEN support plan should identify the interventions to be made, the hoped for outcomes, the expected impact on progress, development or behaviour and identify a clear date for review. Parent or carers should be involved in planning support. Good practice is for this information to be written down, and is sometimes known as a SEN support record.

What if the child's difficulties are severe?

If the child manifestly has difficulties which will not be met through this process, then it is possible to go straight to a Education, Health and Care needs assessment. (A EHC assessment is the process for deciding whether a child requires additional education, health or social care support) However, if the level of additional support a child will need is initially unclear, then the school will usually start by provide SEN support, then if it becomes clear that additional support is likely to be needed, they should request the local authority to carry out an EHC needs assessment. You should be aware that you have the right to request a EHC needs assessment, even if the pre-school education provider does not agree with you that one is needed. The local authority must respond within 6 weeks to your request. You can appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) if the local education authority refuses to carry out a statutory assessment. For more information about EHC assessment and plans, go to Contact a Family website.

Further information about early years education for children with SEN

Contact a Family

(i) DfE (2014) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years
Statutory guidance for organisations who work with and support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities
(ii) DfE (2014) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years, para. 6.79

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