On public and private sector responses to assessment of children and young people’s special educational needs


Boy, school image

No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding.


I have made assessment of children’s special educational needs for over two decades. My methods have changed over the years and my client base has changed equally. In an employed capacity, working with a Local Authority support service for children with learning and behavioural difficulties, I was guided and constrained by set procedures, recommended assessment tests, imposed time limits for assessment and my remit within the team.

As an independent SEN Consultant since 2002, the nature of my work is more diverse and my role with a range of educational settings and organizations across the public, private and third sector, has widened, so that assessing children’s needs is no longer the mainstay of my working week.

So, it was a delight to be involved recently in a small scale project to assess the needs of a number of pupils in an independent school, pupils for whom previously, there had been little in the way of assessment, unless that had been instigated by parents. It has marked a process the school have undertaken to review their SEN practices and to move forward to a greater understanding of, and response to, individual pupil’s special needs.

Since the conclusion of that project, I have been pondering the differences in approach, between schools within the public and private sector, and present my musings here, in no great detail, but as thoughts to be explored further, in due course. My comments are in no way definitive, or represent all schools in all contexts, but reflect trends in practice as seen by my service.

Assessing Children and Young People’s SEN

Schools within the public sector –

  1. Tend to prioritise requests for advice for children approaching the end of each key curriculum stage
  2. Have a frustration that assessment advice is not always followed through to each key stage, particularly at transition points – pre-school to foundation, primary to secondary
  3. Refer typically 3 x more boys than girls for assessment and more Summer-born children than any other group
  4. Are frequently over-burdened with an expansive SEN register and finite resources to meet needs
  5. Are often forced into difficult decision making regarding which pupil is put forward for assessment
  6. Fall short on follow up, so that assessment advice becomes the end goal, rather than a starting point for action
  7. Refer pupils for whom concerns have been raised across multiple areas of need – learning, BESD, communication and interation, attendance, health related issues, or other co-morbidity of need
  8. Refer pupils for whom SEN has been a feature of school life over a protracted period of time
  9. Work within a mult-professional platform whereby health, education and social care services each play a part in a child’s assessment and support
  10. Strive to maintain effective communications between all services and professionals involved in a child’s SEN

Schools within the private sector –

  1. Tend to prioritise requests for advice for children approaching selective entry junior or senior school
  2. Rely overly on parents to identify, explore and seek external professional advice for their child’s SEN
  3. Refer more children with single issues SEN, for e.g. dyslexia, rather than children with complex SEN
  4. Have a narrow understanding of SEN that children may experience, even within a selective entry setting
  5. Frequently have a number of children whose SEN has been ameliorated by small class sizes and/or more personalized approaches to teaching and learning
  6. Can overlook SEN within children because resources and class sizes have masked difficulties
  7. Often rely on individual personnel or the SEN or Inclusion team within the school to manage needs, at the expense of having a collaborative, whole school approach to SEN
  8. Can value the individual to the extent that ‘needs’ are seen as idiosyncracies and not recognized as SEN
  9. Can act in isolation of local or national policy advice and remain static and outdated in p0licy and practice
  10. Can be innovative and pioneers of excellent SEN and Inclusion practice where the right professionals are involved and have status within the school

In each case, schools within the public or private sector are responding to demands placed upon them, by Ofsted, by the Local Authority, by parents, by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, by Governors, by other education and health professionals.

Smiling boy at school

Regardless of sector, I am struck by how all educational settings have responded to a growing awareness of the challenges faced by children and young people, as they progress from dependence to adult hood and independence. No child or adult is immune from the effects of disability. need or disadvantage, whether that be temporary, transitory or long term and complex needs.

A universal benefit of assessment, at the earliest point for intervention, is the time that is given to understanding and making sense of each child’s life and world. It is the greatest privilege to be able to meet young people and have time to learn about their lives and current difficulties and to have an opportunity to bring about change.

Always the goal of the assessor should be to understand, first and foremost, the young person who sits before them and their context, both within the school and at home. Without understanding we have nothing more than a collection of assessment data that could relate to any child, from any standardized group, from any context.  Understanding is key.


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