The special educational needs

According to Warnock (1978), special educational needs can be ‘fluctuating… and contextually defined”. Explain what is meant by this statement and evaluate the extent to which the SEN Code of Practice (2001) reflects this understanding of special educational needs.

“Special Educational Needs (SEN) is a legally defined term that refers to the school based learning needs of pupils that arise from a wide range of difficulties – including cognitive, physical, sensory, communication or behavioural difficulties as well as those who are perceived to be specially gifted in one way or another” (A.

Smith and N. Thomas, 2005, pp220 -237)

This essay will discuss in detail why Mary Warnock views special educational needs as “fluctuating and contextually defined” as well as why the Warnock report (1978) had such an impact on the way children with special educational needs were educated. This essay will also outline in detail how the SEN Code of Practice reflects the understanding of special educational needs in regards to policies and practice in an educational environment as well as how the code has been altered since its original release.

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As well as the changes made to the original document, this essay will look into why the changes were made and the impact they’ve had. It will also identify the medical model and social model in relation to SEN in detail and how they are important when it comes to how society views people with a disability. Each view will be explained in detail as well as positive and negative things about each model.

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The Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice (2001) is a piece of legislation issued by the Department of Education to any government funded organisation. It gives guidance to schools and local authorities to help identify, asses and provide help for children with special educational needs. A child with special educational needs can be defined as someone who has “a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of the same age”. (, no date). A child with special educational needs can potentially need extra support when it comes to their education, and the SEN Code of Practice was created in order to help organisations when it comes to policies and procedures. It explains the processes all organisations should follow in order to meet the needs of the children. Prior to the SEN code of practice, under the 1944 Education Act, children with special educational needs were categorised by their disability defined in medical terms.

A lot of children were seen as “uneducable” and “maladjusted” and where automatically placed into “special” school. The SEN Code of Practice was introduced to give children with special educational needs a fair chance in learning. It also provides advice on carrying out assessments on children with SEN and how a child with SEN can make the transition to college or work. The revised Code emphasises the importance of involving the parents in the decision making of their child’s education. The Warnock Report (1978) is a report which was devised by a former head teacher, Mary Warnock under instruction from the then Minister of Education Margret Thatcher. She was asked to produced a report which would “review educational provision in England, Scotland and Wales for children and young people handicapped by disabilities of body and mind (Evans, 1995:146)” (A. Hodkinson and P.Vickerman, 2009, pp.55-72).

The report showed that 20% of all children have some kind of need at some point in their life. This was later supported by Knight (1999) who found that a “typical class” will have two very able students, five who can complete tasks well, fifteen average students, six who will struggle, one with specific learning difficulties and one with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder). (Serdar. H, 2011). The report made 225 recommendations on the policy and organisation that governed the education of children with special educational needs. The report came up with four major conclusions which included a new concept of SEN should be introduced, educational needs should be judged on professional assessments, parents should have more say in their child’s education and a new terminology should be put into place.

The report recommended that instead of “categorising children by deficit they should have their SEN identified and where possible these needs should be met in mainstream schools.” (A. Hodkinson and P.Vickerman, 2009, pp.55-72). This report now lays the foundations for the introduction of statements of special educational needs. The statementing process can be viewed as one of the most significant changes in legislation. The Warnock report introduced the term special educational need to help identify any child needing extra support throughout their education. It also put into place a new terminology which would help identify specific areas of a child’s special educational needs. Whether it be located within their language, speech, visual or hearing difficulties as well as many others and how sever the problem was.

When it comes to the policies on children with special educational needs there are certain procedures that need to be followed. These can all be found in the SEN Code of Practice, which as previously mentioned has been altered since it original release. According to the SEN Code of Practice (2012) (, 2012) areas covered include principles and polices, working in partnership with parents, pupil participation, identification and assessment, statements of special educational needs, annual review and many more. It is vital to be aware of these procedures when it comes to the education of a child with special educational needs as the code has been designed to help make effective decisions. However, it does not tell you what to do for every individual case which is what Warnock meant by her statement of “fluctuating and contextually defined”.

According to Warnock (1978), special educational needs can be fluctuating and contextually defined. The 1978 report put integration of disabled children on the national agenda. The report said that integration was right for some but not for all. (The term integration means allowing children with SEN to attend main stream schools with the offer of extra help when needed). This basically means that no two children are the same. Children can be grouped into certain categories in regards to their disability yet they will all be at different levels of learning. So by saying it is “fluctuating” means that every child’s needs will vary, yet by being “contextually defined” means that rules and regulations in regards on how to educate the child still have to be followed, (this being in regards to whether the child in question is able for mainstream school or not.) You can have a group of 10 children for example, all the same age who all have Asperger Syndrome and therefore have all been labelled as children with special educational needs.

However, 7 of them may be more capability and therefore can go to a mainstream school. So regardless of the grouping and labelling of children, it is important to understand each individual child’s needs. It was not until 1971 where integration started to occur and since the release of the Warnock report in 1978 it has become more and more apparent in today’s society. Warnock criticised the fact that children with SEN where automatically put into special schools by judgement of a professional with no input from the child’s parent. She found that this was not only damaging but also unnecessary. Even though legislation and legal acts have been put into place to help children with SEN, depending on the child’s disability can depend on the sort of support the child will receive. Warnock thought it to be important that children with SEN had the option to go to a mainstream school and that the appropriate help could be given. The report, for the first time, proved the importance of a parent’s opinion on the education of their child and not just a professional’s opinion.

Previous to this, many parents were finding that their decisions were being over ruled by local education authorities. The act also stated that children with special educational needs needed to be assed and where possible, integrated into mainstream schools as Warnock is a firm believer in integration. The report states, “It is also built upon the recommendations of the Warnock Report and the 1976 Education Act and so reinforced the principle that children should only be integrated into ordinary schools if their needs could be reasonably met; that this should be efficient in terms of resources; and that it should not be to the detriment of other children” (Wearmouth, 2001 p16). Nevertheless, Warnock also believes that not all children with SEN are able for mainstream schools and therefore would benefit more from going to a school which is specifically for children with special educational needs.

The original SEN Code of Practice which was put into place in 1994 had to be re drafted as it was not seen as suitable any more once the Warnock report was released. The Warnock report itself had a major impact on the original SEN Code of Practice as many of its finding were made into legal legislation. “The term SEN was specifically defined and afforded legal status and with this the employment of the categories of handicap” (Gibson and Blandford, 2005 p16). There were a variety of changes made to the report which are;

“A stronger right for children with SEN to be educated at a mainstream school New duties on LEAs to arrange for parents of children with SEN to be provided with services offering advice and information and a means of resolving disputes A new duty on schools and relevant nursery education providers to tell parents when they are making special educational provision for their child A new right for schools and relevant nursery education providers to request a statutory assessment of a child

It contains separate chapters on provision in the early years, primary and secondary phases and new chapters on:
Working in partnership with parents
Pupil participation
Working in partnership with other agencies

The Code recommends that, to help match special educational provision to children’s needs, schools and LEAs should adopt a graduated approach through School Action and School Action Plus and Early Years Action and Early Years Action Plus in early education settings.” (, no date).

By making these changes to the report it is clear that certain aspects of it weren’t working. According to parliament (2005) around 18% of children in England were categorised as having some sort of special educational needs. Based on a large amount of evidence, it’s been proven that the SEN system was failing. The Governments policy on inclusion has come under major criticism by Warnock and in 2005 she criticised it for its “confused and changing definition which is reported to be causing the closure of special schools and “forcing” some children into mainstream schools when it is not in their best interest to be there, resulting in distress for both pupil and parent.” (, 2005). The various Acts and Legislation that have followed since the issue of the Warnock report demonstrate the progress in attitude that has taken place in trying to include all children in a common educational framework.

The current debate on disability is mainly branded by two models of disability. Each model provides a framework for understanding the way in which people with impairments experience disabilities. The two models are the Social Model and the Medical Model, two very different approaches. The Medical Model (also known as individual model because it promotes the notion that it is the individual who must adapt to society) goes hand in hand with the idea of segregation as it sees people with disability as a group in its own. It sees disabled people as being defined by their illness or medical condition. They are seen to be the ones who need to change and adapt to circumstances and it is not society who need to change their views. The medical model will define a person by their illness and promotes the view of a disabled person as dependant. It promotes the view that all disabled people need help and therefore are systematically excluded from society. It tends to believe that managing ones illness or disability completely revolves around identifying the disability from an in-depth clinical perspective as control tends to totally reside with professionals.

The medical model also feels that society should invest resources into health care to enable a disabled person to live more independently and freely like a “normal” person would do. It does however allow people with SEN to have access to the best quality care and treatment. Once assessed, the child can be placed in accordance to his or her disabilities which will make their life easier as they will have all the available resources to hand. The medical model has however been criticised by some disability rights groups as it can be seen as a civil right issue as it can affect the way in which disabled people view themselves yet it is still predominant in many people’s attitudes towards disabled people. The Medical model tends to label people reducing them to feel part of a group, a group of people whose problems all stem from the fact they do not have “normal” bodies. The medical view is however still present today, very much so in the form of IQ tests and assessments. It all comes down to the idea of grouping people on accordance to their ability. This then results in people being labelled into certain groups due to their intelligence, the same way children with SEN will be labelled into groups and segregated into special units.

The Social Model on the other hand, is a model that has been devised by people with disability in response to the medical model. The social model has been developed with the aim of removing barriers so that disabled people or people with a medical condition have the same opportunities as everyone else in society. They believe that their disability is caused by the barriers put into place by society and that exist within the way society is organised therefore problems are defined in relation to needs and not that of the individual. The social model view is that of society discriminating against people with impairments which leads to them feeling excluded. “People with impairments are disabled by the fact that they are excluded from participation within the mainstream of society as a result of physical, organisational and attitudinal barriers” (, no date). These barriers stop them from gaining equal rights to things such as employment, public transport, education and even housing.

The social model however does not give up and tries to find their way around said barriers. The good thing about the social model is it does not emphasise what is “different” about children with special educational needs but highlights what is the same with them allowing integration to be a much easier process. The social model believes very much in inclusion and recent developments are indeed promoting it by stating that schools must be able to provide an education to children with a wide range of SEN therefore rapidly reducing the rate of segregation. By law, children with SEN are now not allowed to be refused by any mainstream school. In terms of children with special educational needs, segregation means putting children with SEN into specialist schools which can result in the child leading a very separate life to “normal” people.

Today, the Warnock report is still seen as the most influential piece of legislation in regards to the education of children with special educational needs. Once released, it had a major affect on the special educational needs code of practice which eventually led to the code being re-drafted in 2001. Through her extensive research and by expressing her own opinion, Mary Warnock has changed how the schools are run in relation to children with SEN. Parents have more rights on the educational decisions of their children and slowly, segregation is being extinguished. And through integration, children with SEN are able to have a normal education in a mainstream school environment which in the long run, helps them to fit into society much more easily. However, through structures like the medical model still having significant value to assessing a child with SEN, segregation is still apparent throughout today’s society.

This is not however necessarily a bad thing. Some children need to be in a specialist school, and it is important that the parents of the said child get a say in the matter which is now possible thanks to the Warnock report. All in all, Mary Warnock is right in saying special educational needs can be fluctuating and contextually defined. All educational setting need to be aware of the rules and regulations when it comes to teaching a child with SEN but it does not mean all children with SEN have the same needs. Yet thanks to the Warnock report, parents are now given more of a choice as to whether they want their child to attend a mainstream school or not. In regards to the SEN Code of Practice, it is apparent that the rules, regulations and legislation that have been put into place are effective when it comes to the education of a child with SEN. Even though, the act has had alterations throughout its time, it seems to now be very successful in aiding SEN children. There is nevertheless, always room for improvement.

Reference List (no date) (Accessed: 18 June 2012)

A.Hodkinson and P.Vickerman. (2009) Key Issues in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion. London: SAGE (2005) (Accessed: 18 June 2012)

A. Smith and N. Thomas (2005) Physical Education: Essential Issues. London: SAGE (no date) (Accessed: 19 June 2012) (no date) (Accessed: 19 June 2012)

Serdar. H (2011) ‘Week 3: History of SEN’ Available at UEL Plus (Accessed: 19 June 2012) (2012) (Accessed: 19 June 2012) (no date) (Accessed: 19 June 2012)

Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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The special educational needs. (2016, Mar 17). Retrieved from

The special educational needs essay
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