Children and young people learn in different ways and at varying rates. Here, we look at how children with special educational needs (SEN) may get extra or specific help in school or nursery.

First of all, we outline the structure that exists to support those with SEN and then we suggest how you can approach a school or nursery if you have concerns about your child. 

The Education Authority (EA) replaces the five Education and Library Boards and is responsible for making sure that arrangements are made for children and young people with SEN in their area. In practice, it's the actual school or nursery that makes sure the child or young person gets the extra help needed. 

Code of practice

This Code of practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational needs and supplement provides guidance and practical advice to the EA, schools and others carrying out their statutory duties to identify, assess and make provision for children and young people with SEN. It also explains the level of support to be offered to them.  

Special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO)

The SENCO is the teacher in school or nursery with responsibility for:

  • the day-to-day operation of the school's SEN policy
  • responding to requests for advice from teachers
  • coordinating SEN provision across the whole school, ensuring that they liaise with various teachers about children and young people with SEN
  • maintaining the school or nursery SEN register
  • liaising with parents of children and young people with SEN and external agencies
  • establishing and contributing to the SEN training of staff. 

SEN support

A child or young person's SEN should be identified, assessed and provided for if they are: 

  • under the age of two
  • between the age of two and compulsory school age (normally four years old)
  • a registered school pupil up to the age of 19.

The code of practice sets out the way help can be provided to children and young people with SEN in five possible stages. Your child does not necessarily have to move up or down one stage at a time, neither do they have to progress through each stage to get a statutory assessment, particularly if you feel that this is the only way their SEN will be met. 

First steps (Stages 1 and 2)

Stages 1 and 2 of the code of practice are about identifying your child's needs and providing for them in school. If your child is thought to have SEN, they will be placed at Stage 1 on the school's SEN register. The teacher will then provide extra help for your child and monitor their progress carefully.  After an agreed length of time, the teacher will decide if they should: 

  • stay at Stage 1
  • be removed from the register (if good progress has been made and there is no longer a concern)
  • move to Stage 2. 

At Stage 2 the SENCO will collect more information about your child and an Individual Education Plan (IEP) will be written. This will give details of any additional support to be put in place by the teacher. This help can be provided by: 

  • using different learning materials
  • using special equipment
  • working with them on their own or in a small group.

By working closely with the school you may find extra ways that you can also help your child at home.

The SENCO should arrange reviews to decide whether your child should stay at Stage 2, move back to Stage 1 or move to Stage 3. 

Individual Education Plan (IEP)

The steps taken by a teacher(s) to provide extra support to a child or young person should be recorded in an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This should include:

  • a description of a child or young person's learning difficulties, pastoral care or medical needs
  • details of extra help needed, including staff members, materials, equipment and any specific programmes or activities with the frequency of this support
  • how a parent can help their child or young person at home
  • targets for them to achieve within a given time
  • details of monitoring a child or young person's progress and review arrangements.   

The IEP can be a link between the work in the classroom and you as a parent. You should have the opportunity to discuss your child's IEP with the teacher or SENCO at regular review meetings. The content of an IEP should change as your child's needs develop.

Getting extra help from outside school (Stage 3)

Sometimes schools need to look for help or advice from outside specialists and professionals. This could be a educational psychologist, autism advisory teacher, speech and language therapist and/or an occupational therapist. 

When professionals from outside school are involved, your child will move to Stage 3 on the SEN register. The school should tell you that they have asked for this help. You should be kept informed of your child's progress and have the opportunity to talk to their teacher(s) if you wish. 

The IEP should be changed and new targets set, these should be reviewed at regular meetings. If you child does not make good enough progress then it may be necessary to move to Stages 4 and 5. 

Getting a statutory assessment and statement of SEN (Stages 4 and 5)

These stages are only used if a child or young person's needs are so great that they need more help than school can provide from its own budget.

Statutory assessment (Stage 4)

As a parent, you have the right to ask the EA to make a statutory assessment of your child's SEN. The purpose of a statutory assessment is to provide a clearer picture of your child's learning difficulties and the best way to help them. Statutory assessments can only be carried out by the EA. 

A request for an assessment can be made by:

  • parents who put their request in writing to the EA
  • the school or nursery
  • another agency or professional involved with a child or young person with SEN. 

If the request for an assessment is being made by an agency or professional involved with your child then we suggest that you also make a request as a parent. This is so that you will have a right to appeal should the request be denied. 

Evidence will be collected from: 

  • school or nursery
  • an educational psychologist
  • health professionals involved with your child
  • social services (who will only give advice if they know your child)
  • anyone else whose advice the EA considers appropriate. 

Wherever possible, the EA should seek your child's views on their SEN and how they could be met. 

Statement of SEN (Stage 5)

This is a legal document which describes your child's need and the support that the EA thinks will help them. 

After a statutory assessment, the EA will consider whether or not to issue a statement of special educational needs.  

If your child is awarded a statement of special educaitonal needs, this will need to be reviewed annually

Discussing your child's progress

You know your child better than anyone, so if you have concerns about their education, then arrange to talk to their teacher. 

When trying to get extra help to meet your child's SEN, you will need to discuss your child's progress and school experiences with teachers, the SENCO and other professionals. Some of the things you may be concerned about, and can discuss with staff, include:

  • your child has learning difficulties
  • your child's progress is delayed
  • your child's needs are not being met

It's useful to do some preparation before meeting staff. The following questions may help you:

  • What extra help has your child received and how effective has it been?
  • What stage of the SEN process is your child on?
  • How long has your child been on each stage?
  • Does your child have an IEP? If so, have you had the chance to comment on it and has it been reviewed regularly?
  • Have any professionals such as an educational psychologist seen your child and suggested ways to help?
  • Do the school have all the information they should have in connection with your child's autism spectrum disorder diagnosis?
  • Are your child's difficulties getting worse? 

It is also a good idea to think about what changes you would like made to their education before attending the meeting. 

Requesting a meeting

If you'd like to discuss your concerns with teachers at your child's school or nursery, it might be best to write to request a meeting. It may be helpful to ask if a friend or adviser can attend the meeting with you. 

Download our sample letter.

Keep a copy of your letter to take with you to the meeting as a reminder of the concerns you have listed.  

Further help 

Further help for parents is available from our Education Rights Service on 0808 800 4102: press option 5. Specific help for appealing to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal is available from our Tribunal Support Line by pressing option 6. 

Useful documents and reading

Code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs (1998) Department of Education.

Supplement to the code of practice (2005) Department of Education (2005) Department of Education.

Special educational needs: A guide for parents (1997) Department of Education


Department of Education
Tel: 028 9127 9279 

Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST)
Tel: 0300 200 7812

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Last reviewed: 8 October 2015.