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Levels of support for SEN: the school-based stages and statements

Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date. Some links may no longer work. We are reviewing this section.


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Twenty per cent of school pupils in England have special educational needs (SEN).   Nearly 3 per cent have a Statement of SEN as they need more help or help different from that usually provided in ordinary schools.  Just over 17 per cent have SEN but no statement.

How these children and young people are to be treated by schools and local authorities (LAs) is set out in law and government guidance. Most SEN law is in Part 4 of the Education Act 1996, and most guidance is in the SEN Code of Practice. The Code says that all children and young people with SEN should have their needs met.
To establish whether a child or young person has SEN, and what kind and amount of help they need, schools and LAs look at how they are progressing compared to their peers in terms of their development and learning. They should take into account academic progress, but also language and communication, social interaction, behaviour, organisational skills (sequencing and planning) and sensory and physical development (including ‘clumsiness’).

They should also try to work out what the child or young person could achieve if they were given the right help.  If  a child or young person should be achieving at above average levels, then they need to do more than measure how they’re doing compared to their peers but consider what they should be achieving if they had the right help.
Many children on the autism spectrum are identified as having SEN before they come into contact with early years settings or schools. Others may go through school struggling because no professional has recognised that they are on the autism spectrum, so that for instance they are thought to have behaviour difficulties rather than an inability to understand social expectations.

The information below shows what parents are entitled to at each school-based stage and via statements of SEN, and what parents can do when they have problems. We use ‘must’ to indicate a legal requirement and ‘should’ to indicate the Code’s guidance. If bodies are not following the Code, they should be doing something as good or better.

The school-based stages

17.2 per cent of children have special educational needs but do not have statements.  For these pupils early years settings and schools are advised by the Code to use two ‘school-based stages’ to provide extra help:

•    Early Years Action or School Action
•    Early Years Action Plus or School Action Plus

The stages are called school-based because all or most of the extra help is provided by the setting or school. At the action stage, the help can be minimal, for instance weekly group sessions with a learning support assistant; at the action plus stage, the setting or school provides more help, but also goes outside the school to obtain, for instance, advice from an educational psychologist; a speech and language therapist; or a specialist autism or behaviour adviser.


The Code says that a child may be placed on the Action stage when they fail to make progress, including with persistent emotional and/or behaviour difficulties, and/or with communication/interaction difficulties, despite a differentiated curriculum (see the section on the National Curriculum for a full explanation on differentiation). The Action Plus stage should be triggered if these difficulties continue despite the additional help at Action.

Individual Education Plans

For both Action and Action Plus stages, the setting or school should draw up plans recording the strategies and resources staff will use to help the child, the expected results over a defined period of time, and when the plan should be reviewed to record success or failure of these efforts. Failure should mean trying something additional or different, and if not enough progress is recorded over successive IEPs, help should be escalated to the next stage or to assessment for a statement.

The plan is called an Individual Education Plan, or IEP for short. The IEP should be reviewed as often as is needed, preferably termly, but at least twice a year. The Code says that parents should be consulted on the IEP and take part in reviews, and if possible the child should also participate.  (see the separate section on IEPs)

Parents’ entitlements

•    the setting or school must tell you if they are making special educational provision for your child.
•    professionals should ensure that you understand procedures, are aware of how to access support, and are given documents to discuss well before meetings
•    you are entitled to know via the school’s SEN policy who the school’s SEN co-ordinator (SENCO) is, what SEN specialism and facilities the school may have, how the school allocates resources to and among pupils with SEN, and any arrangements for parental complaints about SEN provision
•    where the school knows a pupil has SEN, the governors must do their best to ensure the pupil receives the provision for their needs
•    the governors must also ensure that the pupil’s SEN are known to all those likely to teach him or her


Parents’ action

If as a parent you are concerned that your child is not getting the help they need, you should first collect evidence to support your views (such as successive IEPs showing lack of progress) and ask to meet your child’s teacher and the SENCO. Things may get sorted at that level via the school and external services providing more or different support. If the problem is not resolved then you can ask for a statutory assessment.  This is the first step in obtaining a statement of SEN.

If your child is on the autism spectrum and doesn’t have a statement and is in danger of exclusion, especially permanent exclusion, then it would be wise to ask the LA for a statutory assessment. Exclusions are probably a sign that the school cannot cope with your child’s difficulties with the resources they have available to them.

Many children and young people on the autism spectrum are statemented without their having to go through the school-based stages. Although the triggers may imply that to get extra help a child has to progress through the stages, with failure at each stage prompting more help, the Government says that additional help should be provided as soon as it is required rather than after a period of failure.

Statutory assessment and statements of SEN

The educational parts of a statement of SEN are legally enforceable.  The statement is a document that describes in detail all of a child's needs and all of the help (the provision) required to meet those needs. The LA (not the school) must make decisions about statements, and the criteria for those decisions and the procedure for making them are set out in law.

The criterion for the LA deciding that an assessment is needed is that the child needs or probably needs a statement of SEN. Children must have statements of SEN if they have difficulties that an ordinary school in the LA’s area cannot provide for out of its own resources. Many LAs provide more money to schools for SEN than used to be the case, and parents are therefore often told that statements are not necessary. But if your child requires, for instance, full-time trained support, or regular speech or occupational therapy or other regular specialist help from outside the school, it is likely that the school’s resources will not be enough and that a statement is necessary.

When the LA receives a request for statutory assessment from a school or from parents, the LA must decide within 6 weeks whether or not to assess. If the LA refuses, then you have the right to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability), a national body independent of the LA.

Statutory assessment is the process of the LA gathering information on whether a child needs a statement. The LA must get ‘advice’ (reports and evidence) from the child’s parent, the school (including IEPs), an educational psychologist, medical advice from the PCT, social services, and from anyone else they consider appropriate.

Parents may well want to get advice from experts independent of the LA, especially if they are in conflict with the school or other professionals over what their child’s needs are or what help is required. Parents can also get help with the process from Parent Partnership advisers or from voluntary organisations (see the ‘get help from’ section below).The LA is allowed 10 weeks to complete this evidence gathering, and then has 2 weeks to decide whether to issue a statement or not. If it decides not to issue a statement, the parent has the right to appeal to the SEN Tribunal.

Parents’ entitlements

During statutory assessment, you as a parent have legal rights:

•    to contribute your views
•    to contribute your own evidence about your child’s needs and the provision required to meet those needs
•    to complain to the Secretary of State if the LA breaches the time limit without good reason

The proposed/draft statement stage

The LAs must send a copy of the statement they propose to make to you and allow you to request changes and to state what school you want your child to go to.

The form of the statement is set out in law which the LA must obey, and the Code deals with this on pages 102-106. Part 2 must describe all your child’s needs (learning difficulties that require special educational provision), and Part 3 must match each need by specifying the kind and amount of help needed to meet it, e.g. full-time one-to-one support from a learning support assistant trained in the use of PECS (or whatever is needed for that child). Very rare exceptions are allowed to quantification of provision, limited to when flexibility is necessary to meet the child’s needs. Speech therapy almost always must go in Part 3 of the statement, and must be quantified.

You may feel that the statement doesn’t properly describe all of your child’s difficulties (for instance, if the effects of sensory sensitivity have not been included in Part 2). Voluntary organisations can advise on how to analyse a proposed statement and how to respond: see the ‘get help from’ section below. If you want  changes to the statement you can ask for a meeting with the LA officer involved so that you can suggest the changes you think are needed.  You can take an adviser with you to the meeting.

The LA must leave Part 4 of the proposed statement blank to give you the opportunity of choosing a school. You have a right to choose a maintained school, whether mainstream or special, which the LA can only refuse if it can show that the school would be unsuitable, or that placing your child there would be incompatible with the efficient education of the other children with whom your child would be educated, or with the efficient use of resources (the LA’s money). If you want an independent school, you must be prepared to show why maintained schools cannot provide an adequate education for your child. If you want a home education programme (such as EIBI) arranged by the LA, you must also be prepared to show why school placement is not suitable.

If you don’t feel that your LA is giving you enough information about schools then look in the ‘get help from’ section below for sources of information on autism specific provision. 

The LA must issue a final statement in 8 weeks after it issued the proposed statement. If you disagree with the final statement you have the right to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (SEN and Disability).

Parents’ entitlements
During the proposed statement stage, you have the following legal rights:

•    to contribute your views about the statement within 15 school days
•    to ask for a meeting with the LA officer
•    to state a preference for a maintained school, or make representations for an independent school
•    to receive all the reports prepared during statutory assessment with the proposed statement
•    to complain to the Secretary of State if the LA breaches the time limit without good reason

The final statement and afterwards

You should check the detail of the statement to ensure you are happy with it. Even if you did not object to the proposed statement, you can appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal (SEN and Disability) over Part 2 (description of needs), Part 3 (description of provision to meet the needs and/or Part 4 (type and name of school). You have two months from the date the statement was sent to you to appeal to the Tribunal.

Once the statement is issued, the LA must ‘arrange’ the provision specified in Part 3. If a failure of provision is not remedied after complaint to the school and LA, you have the right to complain to the Secretary of State or to take legal action.

Statements must be reviewed at least annually. The Code suggests more frequent informal reviews for a child under 5. It also suggests interim reviews where sudden changes in the child’s needs or knowledge about the child require it: for instance, where the child’s placement appears to be in danger, or there is a new diagnosis.

The annual reviews from Year 9 on must consider the young person’s future following the end of compulsory school age and should set up a ‘transition plan’  covering post-16 options. (see separate section on transition)

IEPs (or an alternative) should also be used (as above) to document strategies and resources, targets, and outcomes, and should also be reviewed preferably termly.

If the statement is no longer adequate and the LA is not willing to amend it, you have the right to request statutory re-assessment, which follows the same process, with rights of appeal at each stage, as statutory assessment.

Statements can only be ‘ceased’ when they are no longer necessary: for many young people with SEN, they continue to the age of 19. If the LA wants to cease to maintain the statement, it should inform the parents who have a right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (SEN and Disability) if they want the statement to continue. The statement must remain in force and implemented until the appeal is decided.

Statements can be transferred from one LA to another if you move. In this case the new LA may decide to maintain the statement or may decide to re-assess: it must tell you what it proposes to do within 6 weeks of the transfer.

For phase transfers (from infant to junior school, primary to middle, primary to secondary, middle to secondary or secondary to a sixth-form college, the LA must amend and issue the amended statement by 15 February of the year of the transfer.

Parents’ entitlements

As a parent you have the right to:

•    appeal the final statement
•    insist on the provision in the statement being made
•    request re-assessment and appeal if refused
•    be invited to contribute to annual reviews, and to attend
•    receive all advice for the annual review at least 2 weeks before the meeting, and receive a copy of the report of the meeting
•    appeal against an LA decision to cease to maintain

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Get help from...   

The National Autistic Society (NAS) publishes information sheets on the school-based stages: Education: getting extra help in school (England and Wales), on statutory assessment: Education: statutory assessment (England and Wales), and on statements. Education: statements of special educational needs (England and Wales)

The NAS has an Advocacy for Education Service, which offers telephone advice: 0845 070 4002. The service also provides links to other organisations that can offer live advice.

IPSEA has a ‘Refusal to Assess’ pack for parents, and model letters for requests:

•    to assess,
•    for a meeting on a proposed statement, and
•    for the implementation of provision in a statement,  among other issues.

ACE has booklets on:

•    getting extra help,
•    analysing the proposed statement and
•    annual reviews.

Afasic has a booklet on analysing the proposed statement.

The NAS also produces an Autism Services Directory which contains details of schools that cater for children and young people on the autism spectrum. You can visit to search for schools in your area.

If you are considering sending your child to an independent school, you can find information on those that take children on the autism spectrum in the Gabbitas guide to schools for special needs, which will probably be available through your local library, or from an information service such as Gabbitas or the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).

Other disability charities such as I-CAN and AFASIC can provide information on schools for children with speech and language impairments. Contact details for all of these information services and charities can be found in the 'Links' section.

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The National Autistic Society provides a wealth of information on autism and education

Teachernet offers considerable information on all aspects of autism and school provision

I-CAN works to support the development of speech, language and communication skills with children who find this hard

Afasic works in the field of speech, language and communication difficulties to help children and young people, their families and the professionals working with them.

School Action, School Action Plus and Statements of Special Educational Need

Gabbitas provides information on independent special needs schools

SEN Tribunal publications for parents including ‘How to Appeal’

IPSEA supports parents via helplines and casework, including representation at Tribunal where necessary:

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