By Kate Freeman, Consultant – Speech and Language in Education

The classification of SEND (special educational needs and disability) applies to four in ten children at some point in their educational career[1], so it is important for us to get identification and support right. Yet, a new report points to a postcode lottery in terms of both identification and support for children in primary schools with SEND.

According to the Children and Families Act[2], a child or young person has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her. According to the Code of Practice which followed this Act, all educators have a responsibility to identify and support children with special educational needs and disabilities[3].

However, a recent report, published by the Education Policy Institute and the Nuffield Foundation in March 2021, identified that the chances of an individual primary aged pupil receiving SEND support from the school or from the local authority is largely dictated by the school that the child attends, rather than their individual circumstances. It goes on to say that the huge variation in SEND support for children can be explained by inconsistent approaches to identifying children. The report’s authors call for better and more widespread use of standardised assessment to identify children with SEND.

The findings show that key groups of pupils are less likely to have their SEND identified.

These are:

  • Children attending academy schools, who are less likely to be identified with SEND compared to other similar pupils, indicating that pupils’ needs may be overlooked in these settings.

  • Children living in the most disadvantaged areas of the country.

  • Vulnerable pupils, including those who move schools; are frequently out of school; and those who have suffered abuse or neglect.

This lack of identification was linked, over and over again in the report, to school and local authority issues, rather than factors relating to the individual child and their needs. The authors write “The most important finding from this report is that which primary school a child attends makes more difference to their chances of being identified with SEND than anything about them as an individual, their experiences or what local authority they live in.”

One of the four categories of SEND referred to in the Children and Families Act is ‘communication and interaction’. This includes the large numbers of children whose needs are referred to as ‘speech, language and communication needs’; or ‘SLCN’.

What proportions of children are likely to have SLCN?

According to the Communication Trust[4], SLCN “cuts across labels and diagnoses – so many children and young people who have other types of SEND also have SLCN.”

The Communication Trust identifies that “There are some groups of children and young people who are at much higher risk than others, for example:

  • All children with SLI (now known as Developmental Language Disorder) have SLCN which is often severe and complex. [Developmental Language Disorder affects 7.6% of the population[5]].

  • All children with learning difficulties have SLCN. This affects 3% of all children[6].

  • All children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which includes Asperger syndrome, have SLCN. This affects 1% of all children[7].

Other children are at increased risk of SLCN, including those with dyslexia…dyspraxia…ADHD[8]… and Behaviour Social and Emotional Difficulties (now known as Social Emotional and Mental Health difficulties)[9]”

In addition, in some disadvantaged areas, over 50% of the reception-aged population have difficulties with their speech, language and communication development[10].

It stands to reason that children whose wider SEND is not being identified, will also not have their SLCN identified – meaning that they are less likely to access the support that they need.

What can a lack of identification mean for a child with SLCN?

Many reports, including the Bercow, 10 years on report[11] highlights the history of lack of identification of SLCN in schools and early years settings across the country. Now, it seems that this applies to other forms of SEND too.

Lack of identification of need invariably means lack of support. The Communication Trust describes the story of James who has SLCN which remains undiagnosed and unsupported. In different stages of his life, he bites and kicks the other children (3 – 5 years); is always in trouble in school (6 – 11 years); struggles to read and write (aged 11 – 14) and knows he won’t get a job (leaving school).

Although this case study is not a real person, the research highlights large numbers (60%) of pupils in secondary schools in disadvantaged areas with undiagnosed SLCN[12] and more than average numbers of young people (74%) involved in youth justice systems with (often undiagnosed) SLCN[13].

Referring back to the lack of identification, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) report states “Which school a child goes to matters an awful lot to whether they receive SEND support at both the lower and higher levels. The system of assessment is inconsistent and not well adapted to the child’s individual needs.”

This situation provides a perfect storm for children whose SEND / SLCN is unidentified to move through their educational lives without their needs being supported. Many may very well end up like the Communication Trust’s James.

What can we do differently?

The report authors’ recommendation that there is “Greater use of age-standardised assessments where appropriate instruments exist to increase consistency in assessment” is fundamental to ensuring identification of need.

In 2014, the Government identified that all young people working with Youth Offending Teams should be screened for speech, language and communication needs[14]. Although this is beneficial to those young people already caught up in the youth justice system, it may be seen as shutting the stable door somewhat after the horse has bolted!

The Early Years Foundation Stage profile provides an opportunity to monitor progress in children’s development at the end of the reception year in England. This, however, was not strongly correlated with the identification of SEND in the EPI report.

Tools which rely on observation are subject to the skills and knowledge of the observer and are not standardised according to age. This can lead, in some cases, such as with summer born children, to an over-identification of SEND. This is evidenced in the EPI report alongside the statement that assessment procedures do not always take into account the variation of up to twelve months that can occur with children in the same year group.

On the other hand, lack of educators’ specialist observation skills and knowledge may result in children with difficulties such as SLCN not being identified at the end of their Early Years Foundation Stage, or even at other stages in their educational careers.

Speech Link Multimedia Ltd has developed a number of screening tools that are used to identify children’s speech, language and communication needs in reception, and in years 3 and 7. They can also be used in other primary and secondary years to track pupils’ progress.

Speech Link Multimedia Ltd’s screening tools are age-standardised and delivered on-line. They include 34 – 74 items across 5-8 subtests (depending on the tool that is used). Scores are reported as a total score and section scores. Standard scores and percentile ranks are presented for the total score. Students are flagged for support at different levels.

With the system for supporting SEND currently being highly reliant on regular access to pupils over time, the EPI researchers conclude that the pandemic will likely have aggravated existing problems seen in SEND identification, with increasing numbers of more vulnerable children who need support falling under the radar of schools and authorities. Speech Link Multimedia Ltd’s 50,000 assessments report supports this view and raises concerns about a 20 – 25% increase in the numbers of reception children identified with substantial levels of SLCN in September 2020.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions affecting school attendance and the awareness that high numbers of children in more socio-economically disadvantaged areas are likely to have SLCN, combined with the need for age-standardised assessments, it is beholden on all educators to consider how they will screen children in their groups for SLCN.

To find out how Speech Link Multimedia Ltd’s screening tools can help your school identify and support students with SLCN.

Further reading:

[1] Hutchinson, J. (March 2021) Identifying pupils with special educational needs and disabilities Education Policy Institute and Nuffield Foundation

[2] Children and Families Act 2014 (

[3] Department of Health and Department for Education (January 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 or disabilities

[4] Don’t get me wrong The Communication Trust



[7] Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Pickles, A., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., Meldrum, D., Charman, T., (2006) Prevalence of disorders of the autism spectrum in a population cohort of children in South Thames: the Special Needs and Autism Project (SNAP) Lancet,15;368(9531):210-5

[8] Tannock, R., & Schachar, R., (1996) Executive function as an underlying mechanism of behavior and language problems in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Beitchman, J.H., Cohen, N., Konstantareas, M.M., & Tannock, R., (Eds.) Language, Learning, and Behaviour Disorders: Developmental, Biological, and Clinical Perspectives (pp. 128–155). New York: Cambridge University Press

[9] Ketelaars, M.P., Cuperus, J., Jansonius, K., Verhoeven, L., (2010) Pragmatic language impairment and associated behavioural problems International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 45(2): 204-14


[12] Spencer S, Clegg J and Stackhouse J (2012) Language and disadvantage: a comparison of the language abilities of adolescents from two different socioeconomic areas IJLCD2012 47:3 274-284

[13] Vaswani, N. (October 2014) Speech, language and communication difficulties Nina Vaswani, Research Fellow, Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice (CYCJ)

[14] AssetPlus: speech, language, communication and neuro-disability screening tool – GOV.UK (

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