Change how we think about Special Educational Needs and Disability

From special needs to rights: changing the Special Educational Needs and Disability Discourse


It is now more than thirty years since the publication of the Warnock Report (1978) and the introduction of the term ‘children with Special Educational Needs’ into the policy discourse. At the time, this was a step change, replacing the term ‘handicapped children’ that had previously been used to categorise children who’s learning and development was judged to be atypical.   The report represented a significant moment in changing attitudes towards the education of disabled children with the statement that the ‘majority of children’ could and should be educated in mainstream schools. This was the beginning of a cultural shift towards more inclusive approaches to education that were reflected in further changes in the 1981 Education Act and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA, 2005).

In 2010, the Coalition government announced their intention to change the system for children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disability (SEND); it was widely agreed that the system had become inherently confrontational, difficult to navigate and was failing to improve the educational outcomes of children with SEND.

Despite the promise of the biggest changes in thirty years to the SEND system, the definition of special educational needs and/or disability has not been revised since 1978 and continues to reflect an understanding of SEND that locates the difficulty firmly within the child.  Within policy and legislation, and more than thirty years after Warnock, children with SEND are still characterised as a potential threat to the education of ‘other’ children.  They remain the target of exclusion and hostility; the recent OfSED report Below the Radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms reveals scant regard for the rights of disabled children in education.

The Children and Families Act (2014) was a missed opportunity to re-consider the concepts underpinning understanding of disability and difference in education. 

We suggest that the current deficit model of special educational needs and disability should be replaced by a rights-based approach.  Children should no longer be described as having special educational needs, rather they should have ‘educational rights’ and the Education, Health and Care Plan should be replaced by a “Statement of Intent” which should set out the resources and accommodations to meet the child’s rights to be made by education, health and social care providers identified through a person centred review.  A revised Code of Practice for Educational Rights (replacing the current Code of Practice ) should re-instate an updated guidance on inclusion.

Researchers at MMU have been at the forefront of disability research working in co-production with people with learning disabilities, their families, allies, activists and other academics.  Recent research has evidenced the contributions to civil society and their communities that people with learning disabilities undoubtedly make as well as documenting the continued abuse, exclusion and institutionalisation that haunts their lives (;; ).