4.3.2 Disabled, Disadvantaged and Special Educational Needs (SEN) learners

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the terms 'disabled', 'disadvantaged' and 'SEN'
  • To understand the differences between different types of learners
  • To identify different teaching and learning strategies that can be used both inside and outside the classroom
  • To identify different kinds of techniques which are most valuable in inclusive practice with different groups of learners

Definition of Terms

Disability can be regarded as "a physical or mental impairment" [that] has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal everyday activities" (Equality Act, 2010, p. 4). Disadvantaged can be defined as "socially or economically deprived or discriminated against" (Collins English Dictionary, 2014), with disadvantaged pupils being those whose family, social, or economic circumstances impact upon their ability to learn at school (RAND Corporation, 2016). For the purposes of this discussion, the disadvantaged will be thought of as those who are socially or economic deprived. Children are deemed to have SEN if they have a learning issue which requires them to have special educational provision.

"Children have a learning difficulty if they:

  1. have a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age, or
  2. have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of the same age"

      (Education Act, 1996, Section 312)

Differences between Disability, Disadvantaged Learners and SEN


Disability is an umbrella term which serves to corral different groups who face challenges in society (Hedlund, 2009). Definitions vary according to the interpretation and attention that is given to different aspects of disability, and the perspective from which disability is being viewed.

Models of Disability

There are four distinct models of disability - medical, social, relative and cultural. The medical and social models will be explained in greater detail in chapter 4, but an overview is provided here:


The medical model views disability as a personal issue, with roots in specific illnesses, conditions or disabilities, which can be addressed through medical intervention or rehabilitation (Hedlund, 2009). This view of disability exclusively focuses on the problems of each individual medical condition in order to formulate a diagnosis of how problems it causes can be improved. For those who subscribe to this model, those affected are regarded as 'broken' and 'in need of repair' in order to be 'normal'.


The social model operates in direct opposition to the medical model. Rather than focusing attention on what people are not able to do (a deficit viewpoint), this model concentrates on "… social oppression, cultural discourse, and environmental barriers" (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 197).


The relative model regards disability as a combination of medical and social issues; it arises due to a difference between the perceptions of what people are able to do, as opposed to what they can achieve in actuality. Disability is explained as a result of the interaction between an individual's abilities and what they need to do in order to be an active member of society. This model looks to provide solutions and fill this gap by recognising that there are a range of approaches which can be utilised to resolve the problems faced by those who are disabled.


The cultural minority model concentrates on the experiences of people with disability in that their practices and preferences are atypical of the majority of people in society, which leads them to be discriminated against (Hedlund, 2009). This model highlights the fact that individuals who have been unable to develop their senses, or do not use them in the same way as others, are discriminated against by the majority who utilise these forms of communication.


There is no specific definition for 'disadvantaged'. As a general principle, the term covers those who are discriminated against as a result of being socially or economically deprived. In educational terms, this is usually determined by eligibility for free school meals (poverty) or those who have been looked after by the local authorities and/or have been adopted (social) (Long and Bolton, 2015). The pupil premium was introduced by the government in 2011 in an effort to increase social mobility and to have an impact upon the performance gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. This premium provides additional funding for each pupil who is identified as being disadvantaged, which the school can use in any way it deems best, in order to facilitate improved pupil outcomes (Macleod et al., 2015).

Single parent families, workless households, those with low qualifications, those living in specific areas and types of housing, and those who belong to ethnic minority groups are some of those who are at risk of poverty. It is important to acknowledge that there are a number of factors which contribute towards low attainment in schools; Darton and Strelitz (2003) comment that as education is an ongoing process, different factors will have a cumulative impact on learners' development. Poverty is consistently linked with poor educational outcomes, although the exact cause of this is unclear; poverty itself has associations with low expectations, a lack of motivation and/or successful role models, poor nutritional levels, the need to support family income and overcrowding in the family home. It is through catering for the needs of learners and their families that the opportunities for better life chances can be provided (Blake and Shortis, 2008).


There are 11 separate categories of SEN that are recognised by the government (see Chapter 4.2). Children's issues can range from learning difficulties (specific, moderate, severe, profound and multiple), to Behavioural, Social and Emotional Difficulties (BSED - sometimes known as SEBD [Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties]), speech, language and communication needs, sensory impairment (visual, hearing, multi-sensory) and physical disabilities. There are also 'hidden' specific needs, such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Asperger's syndrome.

It is clear that there is overlap between each of these different categories, and that it is essential that there is a unified approach towards catering for both individual and collective needs within an educational environment.

Catering for Learning Needs in the Classroom

'Learning needs' is an umbrella term which covers a range of issues, some of which are noted above. It is important for all practitioners to realise that there is a degree of overlap in the approaches that can be utilised in catering for various different learning needs.

Disabled learners

Clearly, it is important that all areas (inside and outside) of the school are accessible to those who are confined to wheelchairs and/or use crutches or callipers in order to move around. It is particularly important that simple changes to improve accessibility are addressed from the outset: for example, the width of doorframes, the space between desks and/or workbenches and the placement of light switches and electric sockets at wheelchair eye level.

Practitioners should adopt standard practice when presenting material to the group; they should avoid standing in front of the window so that their face can be seen, and any new instructions or information should be delivered from the front of the classroom. Assignments should be clearly written on the board, including any reference numbers (e.g. textbook pages) that the class will need to use during the course of the lesson.

In addition to this, it is critical that these pupils are afforded permission to adjust their position in the room as necessary in order to be able to see information that is presented at the front of the classroom. Similar flexibility needs to be shown regarding the way in which pupils are able to demonstrate the extent of their learning. Assignments should be modified to accommodate their needs, which may include the use of bold lined paper, shortened written assignments and/or homework and oral tests (Teaching Students with Visual Impairments, n.d.).

Disadvantaged and SEN learners

It is important to recognise that disadvantaged pupils can include those for whom English is not their first language, those who live in poverty and those who have a different cultural background; 'SEN' can cover those who experience learning difficulties (which can vary in severity) as well as those who have mental health issues which have an impact upon their behaviour, their emotions and their ability to manage their conduct in social situations.

Clearly, it is important that practitioners have an appreciation of each individual child's background in order that their support for them can be accurately targeted. For example, making a recommendation for an impoverished pupil to make use of a tablet or PC at home might be the cause of upset or offence. However, instituting an after-school club for all pupils, so that they are able to have access to ICT for the purposes of engaging in research and/or homework, could help to support those pupils whose families do not have the disposable income to afford such technology in their own home. There also needs to be sensitivity towards cultural issues and specific topics which might be the cause of embarrassment; for example, the teaching of sex education. It is critical that practitioners have an appreciation and social understanding of the cultural and religious needs of each of the pupils so that varying beliefs can be respected and accommodated, whilst still ensuring that the necessary curriculum content is delivered to pupils.

A study by Macleod et al. (2015) stated that schools had attempted to utilise a number of strategies to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils since the advent of the pupil premium in 2011. The most popular strategies were those which focused upon teaching and learning, particularly paired or small group additional teaching, improved feedback and one-to-one tuition with individual students. Good practice begins with good assessment - this provides information about the strengths and weaknesses of an individual's abilities, which in turn informs the planning for personalised provision whilst documenting their progress. Davis et al. (2004) found that support mechanisms in the classroom, such as paired work and group work, were invaluable not only in raising levels of attainment, but as a means of regulating behaviour. Peer mentoring and monitoring enabled pupils to learn the skills necessary to monitor and regulate themselves, both in terms of their behaviour and their desire to learn.

Catering for Learning Needs Outside of the Classroom

It is important to recognise that children's learning needs are the same, irrespective of whether they are learning inside or outside of the classroom. Outdoor spaces are equally important to children's learning, in that they are able to engage in activities in a less formal environment which allows them to experiment with their language as a result of increased opportunities to socialise with each other whilst they are learning (Duarte and Gutierrez-Gomez, 2007). The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (n.d.) list six distinct benefits of learning in an outdoor environment:

  • supports an appreciation of the advantages of being active.
  • provides learners with opportunities to experience the natural world, inclusive of the different seasons and changes in the weather
  • allows children the chance to interact with, and therefore develop, an understanding and respect for their environment
  • affords children the opportunity to explore and discover, which enhances their ability to experiment in solving problems
  • provides children with the opportunity to learn how to manage risk (within a safe environment)
  • builds interest, enjoyment and motivation to learn in the outdoor environment.

It is important that practitioners have an enthusiastic attitude towards learning outside - they should provide a positive lead and engage in purposeful activities which concentrate on building up not only children's interest in nature and their physical strength but also their core skills.

Valuable techniques in Inclusive Practice with Different Groups of Learners

All techniques and strategies that enable individuals with difficulties to have access to the curriculum are valuable - it is critical to understand that there is no single strategy which will be a 'panacea for all ills', as the whole notion of inclusive practice is driven by the fact that every child must be treated as an individual, and will need an individual approach for their needs. No matter what a child's individual learning needs are, it is important that they are placed at the centre of the learning process, with practitioners matching their teaching and learning strategies to learners' stages of experience and development (Trussler and Robinson, 2015). It is important that all learners are supported in their learning through a combination of direct teaching, individual learning and the group learning in order that their different needs are met. Practitioners need to ensure that children not only make progress in their academic pursuits, but that they develop and mature as people, growing in confidence and competence as a result of their school experiences.


Blake, J., Shortis, T. (2008) 'English, Language, Diversity: Creative Opportunities in the New National Curriculum Orders' English Drama Media 10

Children and Families Act (2014) London: The Stationary Office

Collins English Dictionary (2014)

Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (n.d.) 'Benefits for Early Years of Learning Outside the Classroom.' Retrieved 14th November 2016 from http://www.lotc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Benefits-for-Early-Years-LOtC-Final-5AUG09.pdf

Darton, D., Strelitz, J. (Eds) (2003) Tackling UK poverty and disadvantage in the 21st-century: an exploration of the issues. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Department for Education/Department of Health [DfE/DoH] (2015) Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Statutory guidance for organisations which work with and support children and young people who have special educational needs and disabilities. London: Department for Education/Department of Health

Duarte, G., Gutierrez-Gomez, C. (2007) 'Play, Language, and Laughter in Outdoor Spaces.' in Diaz Soto, L. (Ed) The Praeger Handbook of Latino Education in the U.S. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers pp. 369 - 372

Macleod, S., Sharpe, C., Barnardinelli, D., Skipp, A., Higgins, S. (2015) Supporting the attainment of disadvantaged pupils: articulating success and good practice. Research report. London: Department for Education

Davis, P., Florian, L., Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., Farrell, P., Hick, P., Humphrey, N., Jenkins, P., Kaplan, I., Palmer, S., Parkinson, G., Polat, F., Reason, R., Byers, R., Dee, L., Kershner, R., Rouse, M. (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A Scoping Study. Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills

Department for Education and Skills (2003) Every Child Matters. London: The Stationary Office

Department for Education and Skills [DfES] (2001) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. Annesley: Department for Education and Skills Publications

Education Act (1981) London: HMSO

Equality Act (2010) London: HMSO

Hedlund, M. (2009) 'Disability Concept: A Complex and Diverse Concept.' in Marshall, C. A., Kendall, E., Banks, M. E., Gover, R. M. S. (Eds) Disabilities: Insights from across Fields around the World Volume 1, 2 and 3 Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

Howard, R. (2012) 'A commitment by nursery managers to outdoor play is essential for early years development.' Retrieved 14th November 2016 from http://www.daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/1557900/nursery-managers-showing-a-commitment-to-outdoor-play-is-essential-for-early-years-development

Linn, R. L., Miller, M. D. (2005) Measurement and Assessment in Teaching.(9th Ed) Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Educational Ltd

Long, R., Bolton, P. (2015) Support for Disadvantaged Children in Education in England. Briefing Paper No. 07061. London: House of Commons

Oliver, M. (2004) 'The Social Model in Action: If I had a Hammer.' in Barnes, C., Mercer, G. (Eds) Implementing the Social Model of Disability: Theory and Research Leeds: The Disability Press

Parliament Publications (2011) 'Written evidence submitted by BBC Children in Need.' Retrieved 31st October 2016 from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/744/744vw140.htm

Phye, G. D. (1997) Handbook of Classroom Assessment Learning, Adjustment and Achievement. San Diego: Academic Press Inc

RAND Corporation (2016) 'Disadvantaged Students.' Retrieved 31st October 2016 from http://www.rand.org/topics/disadvantaged-students.html

Ryder Richardson, G. (n.d.) Open Up to Outdoor Mathematics. Learning through Landscapes Retrieved 14th November 2016 from http://www.ltl.org.uk/nsgw/documents/LTL-Maths-Early-Years-Booklet-final1432742138.pdf

Shakespeare, T. (2006) 'The Social Model of Disability.' in Davis, L. J. (Ed) The Disability Studies Reader (2nd Ed) London: Routledge

Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations (2014) London: The Stationary Office

Success for Kids with Hearing Loss (n.d.) 'Children with Hearing Loss - Helpful Adaptions in the School Environment.' Retrieved 8th November 2016 from http://successforkidswithhearingloss.com/relationship-hl-listen-learn/accommodations/

Teaching Students with Visual Impairments (n.d.) 'Accommodations and Modifications.' Retrieved 7th November 2016 from http://www.teachingvisuallyimpaired.com/accommodations.html

Trussler, S., Robinson, D. (2015) Inclusive Practice in the Primary School: a guide for teachers. London: Sage Publications Ltd

Warnock Report (1978) Special Educational Needs: Report to the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. London: HMSO

World Health Organisation (WHO) (2016) 'Disabilities.' Retrieved 31st October 2016 from http://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en/

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.