Take down the SEND umbrella

In my last post I argued there is so little shared meaning around the SEND term “learning difficulty” we’d be better off abandoning it altogether.

I was being sneaky.

I have greater misgivings and this is an argument there’s so little shared understanding around the term SEND it isn’t useful.

I’m also arguing the increase in the number of children being added to SEND registers isn’t because more children are “special” but because more children are finding school tough.

The term “SEND” does a lot of work.

So much must nestle under the umbrella.

Children with physical disabilities who find academic work easy and get great grades; children with profound learning disabilities; children so mentally unwell they must be educated in hospital; children who just find learning harder than some other children; children who can’t always manage their emotions and get into fights; timid children so anxious about some lessons it makes them feel ill.

And so many more.

An enormous, enormously diverse group of children whose only real commonality is a “K” next to their name on a school information system.

It is impossible for such an umbrella term to be useful because when we try to describe children with SEND we are talking about everyone and nobody simultaneously, and this is made worse by a lack of standardisation and consistency around how SEND designation is made.

Even if SEND exists as something with meaning we don’t know who the children with SEND are.

The system won’t allow us to say this.

It demands identification, generalisation, tracking and intervention but trying to do this for a group without an identity can only do harm.

The first issue how the one term – SEND – implicitly homogenises those assigned to it and how this creates and then propagates a sort of “SEND” identity and off-the-peg generalist SEND strategies and interventions.

If you want to know how this works get together a group of parents with children identified as having SEND and ask them about “social stories”, “zones of regulation” or “visual timetables.”

The point here isn’t that there is something inherently wrong with any of these strategies but the perception they’re applied to children not because of an individual need but because the child “has SEND” and these are “SEND strategies.”

This isn’t just supposition. Even the Education Endowment Foundation propagates it.

Here’s one of their blog posts that offers five suggestions to “support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND.”

While the advice isn’t bad it’s assumption of a distinct SEND identity shows how integrated such generalisations have become.

But how can we avoid generalisation when accountability measures around outcomes and Ofsted makes the same generalisation?

Analysis of results and other indicators of success compare “SEND” pupils against those without SEND, incentivising everyone to see things this way and disincentivising more sophisticated thinking and conclusions.

This creeping genericism makes it difficult for those working with “children with SEND” to build knowledge and become expert in specific learning needs. There just isn’t time or space to do it. Instead, expertise often means expertise in securing resource and navigating the byzantine systems and structures that have evolved to maintain predominantly generalist ways of doing things.

Generalisations and categories are not always bad.

While they always hide nuance, they can be useful to allocate resources wisely and make system level bets around what to prioritise and focus on – but for these to have a chance of being helpful they must have some validity – if they have none then no associated analysis, strategy or intervention can be of use.

If the don’t then they can do real harm.

I’ll return to J L Austin’s “Performative Utterances” here.

Austin points out that descriptors are not just neutral reflections of a reality that already exists – they change and create new realities.

When a child is identified as “having SEND” we transform them into a “child with SEND” and this has lots of associated effects.

Even when we have more specific and secure designations – such as autism or dyslexia – we risk something akin to “diagnostic overshadowing”, when one identified and formerly assigned characteristic becomes a hinderance in seeing a person as more than this diagnosis.

This is bad enough when identities have meaning and a disaster when they do not.

Here’s a provocation based on a hunch.

Often when the term “child with SEND” is used there’s a caricature that comes to mind.

It doesn’t mean a child in a wheelchair or a visually impaired child. It doesn’t mean a child like my daughter with an identified genetic condition and associated learning disability.

Rather than these it means a child who struggles in school. Probably has a low reading age. Probably has lower attendance than their peers. Probably behaves poorly. Probably has handwriting that’s hard to read.

They have designations like “learning difficulty” or “cognition and learning”.

This is a lot of children and a group that probably overlaps considerably with the 30 or so percent of children who don’t get GCSEs at Grade 4 and above.  

They aren’t special.

They are children who sit on a perfectly normal spread of human characteristics. The need to construct them as different says far more about the values of our society than it does about them as people.

The problem is not them – it’s us.

Our problem is we find these children hard to teach within our established parameters and constraints.

By designating them as somehow “special” we locate the problem within them and allow space for the implication these children are the responsibility of the school’s SEND department or even an alternative more specialist setting.

I know this isn’t how anyone wants things to be.

It isn’t the fault of teachers or schools – meritocratic societal norms and associated accountability measures privilege those who find learning easiest and at worse can make schools hostile environments for those who struggle. Take – as an example I know well – GCSE history specifications.

They are massive.

It isn’t possible for a teacher to support children who struggle in learning, mastering and overlearning it because if they do, they won’t finish the course and there are harsh professional penalties for this.

But a child who struggles to master such a bloated curriculum isn’t special – they are entirely normal.

It’s also a problem for children who can’t read well transitioning from primary to secondary school, which work on a general assumption Y7 pupils will be able to access the curriculum. Many can’t and the general structures of education aren’t set up for these children who often find themselves very quickly lost. This isn’t inevitable – the best secondary schools recognise this and do teach reading explicitly and an encouraging recent trend has seen secondaries hiring primary teachers to help – but those that do this are going against and not with established structures and modes of practice.

Those that don’t do this are more incentivised to add the child to the SEND register.

And these grow and grow – since 2016 the percentage of children on SEND support and with EHCPs has risen year on year. Every year we spend more money on a system nobody thinks is working well.

My contention is this is because we’re feeling the impact of austerity, recession, Covid lockdowns, the cost-of-living crisis and associated increases in child poverty and a general deterioration in adolescent mental health.

It’s implausible these things have no effect on education and logical to think this means more and more children are finding school tough, which is leading to more and more being identified as having SEND.

This problem is being made worse by a decline in specific support for specific needs. While most working in education will be familiar with the disgraceful state of children’s mental health services the effect of the pandemic on things like speech and language therapy is probably less well known, and the great pressure on the NHS and social services places such support at even greater risk.

This drop in specific provision is likely to drive greater “SEND” identification as failure to meet these needs leads to more children struggling at school.

If all this is true adding more children to SEND registers will do no good because the problem isn’t caused by what’s happening in schools and can’t be solved with any simple generic strategy.

Adding names to a list is just more names on a list.

We’re problematising more and more people. We’re enlarging a group that already has no identity and encroaching on space we need to think and talk about how society can better support education and how schools in general might be better set up for more children – and here it’s vital to strongly emphasise this post is not an argument schools need fewer resources or that budgets allocated to children identified as having SEND can be cut.

We need more money but spending it on small-scale strategies and interventions to help more and more disparate struggling individual children is finger-in-dam thinking.

It’s also clear more money and expertise is required on things outside education that support education and we can’t expect schools to pick up the tab for wider societal failure.

We are identifying more and more children as having SEND when there is no such thing.

It’s a problem and we must stop.

Take down the SEND umbrella.

There are too many holes. It isn’t keeping anyone dry.


  1. Replace the term “SEND” with the specific need the child has.
  2. Build knowledge and expertise in specific needs children have.
  3. Adjust accountability measures to incentivise the education system to value the needs of those who find learning difficult as highly as it values the needs of those who find it easy.
  4. Provide greater funding and support for services that support children with specific needs.
  5. Provide greater funding and support for children and families in poverty or at risk of poverty.

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