4.4.2 Special Educational Needs (SEN) - Learners, specific pedagogies and strategies

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

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

  • To understand the meaning of the term SEN and the various different conditions which are grouped together under this label in schools
  • To understand the differences between different types of learners and their needs as dictated by their condition
  • To have a growing understanding of the different approaches towards teaching and learning that can be taken with different students
  • To identify the strengths and limitations in existing provision for SEN pupils

Historical Background

In order to have a full understanding of SEN, it is important to have a grasp of the historical background to the definition and attitudes towards those who experience learning difficulties. Educational practice has been influenced by different models of disability, the main two being the medical model and the social model.


The medical model regards disability as a personal issue which has its root in specific conditions, disabilities or illnesses which can be improved through medical intervention or some form of rehabilitation measure (Hedlund, 2009), as opposed to considering the needs of any one or group of individuals who are affected (Burke and Cigno, 2000). Hedlund (2009) observes that this view of disability focuses purely on the problems of each individual medical condition in order to formulate some sort of diagnosis as to how their problems can be improved. This view is rooted in the ideas put forward at the beginning of the 20th century which saw people viewing individuals purely in the light of their difficulties and their limitations. Alfred Eicholz grouped needs into three specific types: mentally deficient, physically defective and/or epileptic and retarded. The education for the 'mentally deficient' was provided away from their peers and mainstream schooling, often in the country where they learnt skills concerning practical farm work, in that it was thought that they were less likely to do any harm (Haskell and Barrett, 1993). This treatment is similar to the way in which the containment of any contagion is approached, in that individuals were separated from society (a form of quarantine) with the issue of disability being contained, thereby reducing any harm (Hedlund, 2009). The 'physically defective and/or epileptic' were placed on a strict, medically supervised diet in residential facilities, being taught basic life skills. Those who seemed physically healthy but less able than others were labelled as being 'retarded'; these individuals were taught in special schools on a day-to-day basis, being provided with teaching and learning exercises which were designed to help them to overcome their issues to facilitate the joining of mainstream schools (Haskell and Barrett, 1993).

This model regards disability as preventing individuals' ability to function, as a result of health issues or injuries. The very fact that terms such as 'retarded', 'mentally deficient' and 'defective' were used imply that individuals were in some way broken and were in need of repair in order to be 'normal'. It was believed that the normalising process could be facilitated through training programmes or aids, and that an individual's situation could be improved by their practising, in order to hone their abilities such that they could make some sort of valid contribution to society whilst protecting themselves against their impairments or issues which were the result of their disability (Beith et al, 2008; Hedlund, 2009). Labelling of this kind continued to be used in the Education Act of 1944. The handicapped were grouped in 11 distinct categories by doctors who used "… pseudo diagnostic labels such as 'educationally subnormal'" (Topping and Maloney, 2005, p.3) in their descriptions of each category. Whilst this Act ensured that individuals who had any form of disability were entitled to special education, it did label them as 'suffering.'

This model has been the subject of criticism resulting from its emphasis upon the individual and the issues that they face, as opposed to looking at their abilities and what they are able to do in spite of their difficulties. It precludes any consideration, as a result of a 'diagnosis', of an individual's potential, and highlights society's shortcomings with regard to providing opportunities for those who have any form of disability.


The move towards challenging these long-held ideas came with a shift in the focus of attention from a deficit viewpoint to one of concentrating on "… social oppression, cultural discourse, and environmental barriers" (Shakespeare, 2006, p. 197). In the United Kingdom, the social model of disability has provided an analysis of the social exclusion of disabled people (Hasler, 1993), with this model developing from the work of the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation [UPIAS]. The expressed aim of the group was to ensure that anyone with any form of impairment be afforded the opportunity to live independently and to have control of their own lives through being able to participate in, and contribute to, society. In conjunction with the pressure placed upon government by the Liberation Network of People with Disabilities, the British Council for Disabled People was established in 1981.

The first challenge for the UPIAS was to redefine disability. They argued that disability was something that was imposed upon them, in addition to their impairments, as a result of their denial of access to full and meaningful participation in society. This meant, as far as they were concerned, that disabled people were being oppressed (UPIAS, 1975). They defined disability as "… the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities" (UPIAS, 1975 cited in Shakespeare, 2006, p. 198). It is important to recognise that many supporters of the social model attest to the accuracy and validity of the statements and views that were developed by the UPIAS, in the current socio-political climate (Shakespeare, 2006).

In terms of education, the initial impact of the social model was seen in the Warnock Report (1978), which fashioned the fundamental principles of the 1981 Education Act. Warnock's document considered a child's individual needs whilst still providing general classifications covering their particular issues and problems. Learning issues were separated into four categories - mild, moderate, severe and specific - with these being suggested in order to help inform educators and Local Education Authorities (LEA) as to the best means of supporting children during the educative process. This aspect of the report was critical in that it stated that the majority of children with SEN would need to be identified and provided for in mainstream schools. Furthermore, the Warnock Report (1978) claimed that up to 20% of all children would need some form of support during their time at school, hence the emphasis on the implementation and monitoring of the 200+ recommendations contained within it.

The Education Act (1981) was a watershed in terms of providing a definition for special needs. This were defined as "a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made" (Education Act, 1981, 1.1). Special educational provision was defined as learning opportunities that were arranged in addition to the activities provided by the LEA. This Act placed the responsibility for the education of those with special needs in the hands of mainstream schools, who were to be provided with additional help via additional monies and/or materials and support (personnel) through Statements of Special Educational Need.

The strength of this model is in its simplicity - it is easily explained and understood, and generates debate as well as demanding social change. Through this debate, it identifies many of the social barriers which need to be removed, with Oliver (2004) commenting that it is not merely a theory but an effective tool with which to generate change. It is a model which focuses upon social oppression and the moral responsibility of society to change itself, in order that disabled people are able to engage more with it. In addition, the social model has had a positive impact on the self-esteem of disabled people which allows them to make a personal contribution to society.

Its weaknesses include the fact that there is no acknowledgement that an individual's impairment does have an impact on a disabled person's life. In addition, it makes a clear distinction between the impairment (medical) itself and disability (social), the differences between which are much more difficult to differentiate in real life. The concept also fails to recognise that, no matter how much change is initiated, a barrier-free life for those who are disabled is impossible to put into operation in its entirety; for example, everyone needs to be able to read and write to a certain extent in order that they are able to participate in everyday life (Shakespeare, 2006).

Learning Issues, Strategies and Inclusion

The following section aims to discuss learning issues in order to provide a better understanding of some of the difficulties faced by those who have special needs and how educators support them in their development and learning.

Employing different and/or separate strategies with SEN pupils ensures that they have equality of opportunity (Equality Act, 2010) to the curriculum which promotes a more inclusive environment in the sense that they are able to access the same material as their peers, albeit in a slightly modified form. Different approaches allow children to develop their communication and interaction skills, which are enhanced by being in mainstream education. The inclusion of those with learning issues in mainstream schools also provide opportunities for improvements to be made with their social skills - the other children also benefit from interaction with individuals with issues, in that they are able to develop a sense of empathy for their problems and embrace their differences which promotes a sense of unity and equality. It should also be noted that many of the approaches which can be adopted with SEN pupils can also be used to good effect with other students.

The drive for inclusion of all children is evidenced within documentation produced by the DfE and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). The DfE (2014) specifically state that teachers should, in all their dealings with pupils, be aware of the equal opportunities legislation which covers race, sex, disability, belief or religion, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, and pregnancy and maternity. It has also recently updated the SEN Code of Practice (DfE/DoH, 2015) to ensure that all children and young people have access to the support they require from their early childhood right through until the age of 25, which also provides links to the Children and Families Act (2014) and the Special Needs and Disability Regulations (2014). Ofsted make its contribution through ensuring, as a part of their inspection of schools, that the needs of those designated as having SEN are being met, inclusive of case studies involving pupils with disabilities and SEN. Clearly, there is a commitment to providing the best possible start in life for those who experience learning difficulties of any sort.

This commitment also extends to placing those who have special needs in the correct place: it will not always be the case that their needs are best met through mainstream schooling through limitations in budget, staffing and the physical environment. Where an individual's condition is particularly severe or requires more specialist support, provision within a special school might be more appropriate for them. Inclusive practice involves finding appropriate solutions for each individual pupil, by treating them as an individual and placing them at the heart of the educative process.


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