A Unique Child

Identifying SEN in Early Years is crucial to removing educational barriers

  • Identifying SEN in Early Years is crucial to removing educational barriers

For too many children in our education system, they have already fallen significantly behind their peers by the time their SEN are identified.

It is clear that if needs are identified earlier, then effective provision can be put in place sooner. nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs) commissioned research on identifying SEN in the early years to shine a light on the barriers to early identification.

Early years is the least-well funded phase of education, but arguably the most important. The early years workforce is made up of a diverse range of professionals, so a consistent approach to the identification of SEN is hard to achieve in practice.

This study was led by Dr Helen Curran and considers the perspectives of SENCOs in relation to identifying SEN in early years settings as well as the resources they used and the wider support they accessed.

The findings are based on an online survey of more than 200 early years SENCOs as well as 19 semi-structured interviews. The study makes ten recommendations grouped into five broad areas.

Key Findings and Recommendations


  • Guidance for identifying SEN in the early years should take into account the variance between different types of early years setting.
  • Greater representation of the early years sector, and the different types of setting, when seeking views for future policy making should be ensured.

The recommendations in this area essentially acknowledged the broad range of early years settings and that this should be factored into strategic thinking and decision making.

The challenges and opportunities of childminders, which make up more than half of all early years providers in England, can be very different to those of maintained or PVI settings, so it is no surprise that Dr Curran’s research is pushing for guidance to be more nuanced.

In 2018, the government funded four mini guides supporting effective identification of SEN in the early years, which had multiple versions to reflect the breadth of the sector. Moving forwards this should be a routine expectation rather than the exception.

The SENCO Role

  • Guidance should be developed to help determine the time allocated to the early years SENCO role in different settings.
  • A job description, specific to the early years SENCO role, should be developed.
  • Work should be undertaken to help develop understanding of the early years SENCO role across the education, health and care sectors.

The research highlights significant levels of variation in the deployment of early years SENCOs. Whilst the Department for Education has published a recommended job description for the early years SENCO role, this is not statutory guidance since it is not incorporated into the SEND Code of Practice.

As a consequence the job description is not routinely used and the study suggests this is considered in the government SEND Review that is currently underway. This would help to raise the status of SENCOs in early years settings.

Dr Curran highlights the need for early years SENCOs to have allocated time to undertake the role and for guidance on the effective deployment of SENCOs.

Such guidance at a national level is essential in setting out the expectations of the sector in identifying and meeting needs, but it is important that this does not become a barrier in relation to settings being responsive to individual needs.

Sharing Good Practice

  • The sharing of good practice developed by early years SENCOs, particularly in relation to developing family relationships, should be facilitated across the sector and later phases.
  • Good practice demonstrated by early years SENCOs, in relation to developing inclusive environments, should be shared across phases.

It may seem like common sense to say that good practice should be shared, but the findings in this study suggests this is not always common practice.

Strong and meaningful relationships between families and early years practitioners can be a powerful factor in driving inclusive environments. Effective relationships are the foundation for bilateral sharing of effective practice for the benefit of children with SEN.


  • Training in relation to speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) should be prioritised within the early years sector.
  • Early years practitioners, particularly those new to the role, may benefit from support with how to develop family relationships.

It is not a surprise that SLCN emerged in this study as a priority as this is clearly an important aspect of early childhood development.

Early years professionals may well have ready access to training in relation to the development of speech, language and communication, but it is important that this includes a focus on children who are not making expected progress.

For a child with SEN, it may be an early years practitioner who is the first person to have a conversation with their family about their needs. This can be hard conversation for all concerned, so it is very important that sufficient training has been provided for this to be effective.

For families, this may be their first experience of the SEN system, which increases the significance of ensuring it is a positive experience.

Liaison with Other Settings and Agencies

  • Information from the progress check at aged two should be shared between the child’s providers as standard practice.

This study has highlighted the fact that essential information from the progress check at age two is not always shared even though this may be in the interests of the child.

This may be because of genuine concerns about not wishing to label children too early or about GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations).

Regardless of the reason, Dr Curran makes the point that information should be shared between providers to ensure there are no delays in children accessing the support they need.

Next Steps
Early Years settings managers and SENCOs are encouraged to read this report in full and to consider how the recommendations can be applied in their particular context. If identification of SEN for children in the early years is effective, then provision is more likely to make a difference.

To download the report, click here.

Click here to access nasen’s Early Years Miniguides.

And find nasen’s dedicated early years suite of free resources is available at nasen.org.uk/training-and-cpd/early-years.html.

SEN Top Tips for Early Years Settings

  • Given the significant incidence of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in early years, it is important to ensure that this is reflected in the professional development and training for early years practitioners.
  • Setting Managers should consider the different options for deploying their SENCO and how allocated time could be used to help them to be more effective in the role.
  • Working with families as equal, meaningful partners is a critical aspect of coproduction and this is the foundation for effective SEN provision. Settings should evaluate the impact of coproduction and produce an action plan to develop this further.
  • Early years SENCOs should review the information they have about children with SEN and how this is shared across other phases and professionals. Subject to data-sharing restrictions, there should be complete transparency to ensure a continuity in provision.

Professor Adam Boddison is the Chief Executive of nasen, a charity that supports and champions those working with, and for, children and young people with SEND and learning differences. For further information, visit nasen.org.uk or @nasen_org, and follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamBoddison.