Special educational needs in England 2020: How does your school compare?

On 2nd July 2020, the DfE released their annual special educational needs (SEN) statistics publication, providing a summary of data taken from the January 2020 school census. The report highlights the overall figures for SEN identification in England. It also includes breakdowns by type of SEN provision, SEN need, age, year group, gender, ethnicity, English as a first language and free school meal eligibility.  

This year the format of the report has changed and the tables which were previously part of the release are not readily available. Instead, users need to set the parameters for the report first and then the report appears and can be exported. Depending on your point of view this makes the data less accessible or provides greater flexibility. In any case, whilst the report probably isn’t the most exciting read (unless you happen to really love data!), there are several interesting points to note and the information provided is useful for SENCOs and other senior leaders to consider in light of their own school SEN population.  

What are the headlines?

In total, there are 1,373,800 pupils with an identified special educational need in England. In line with the trend over recent years, the overall number and percentage has risen to 15.5%, increasing from 14.9% in 2019. This is due to a rise in both the numbers and percentages of pupils with SEN support and with an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. The data shows:

  • 1% of all pupils are identified with SEN support
  • The % of pupils with SEN support has increased from 11.9% in 2019
  • 3% of all pupils have an EHC plan
  • The % of pupils with an EHC plan has increased from 3.1% in 2019.

In fact, there has been a year on year increase of pupils identified with SEN support over the last four years. So what are the possible reasons for this? We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely to be as a result of a combination of factors, which could include schools becoming more proficient at early and accurate identification of SEN.

We also see a similar pattern over four years in the increase of EHC plans issued. This often comes as a surprise to SENCOs who feel it has become increasingly more difficult to gain this level of support. This could partly be due to the improvement in neonatal survival rates, resulting in more pupils now attending school with more complex difficulties and disabilities, who are certain to meet the criteria for an EHC plan in any local authority (despite the local differences that still exist!). Some of these pupils will be accessing specialist provision, and the number of pupils attending special schools has risen again, as it has continually since 2006. However, in the last year, the number of pupils with SEN has increased across all school types; primary, secondary, pupil referral units and independent schools.


How should schools use the data?

So why is it useful for school leaders to know the national identification figures? The special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) code of practice (2015) states that:

School leaders and teaching staff, including the SENCO, should identify any patterns in the identification of SEN, both within the school and in comparison with national data, and use these to reflect on and reinforce the quality of teaching. 
(Paragraph 6.4)

The national data shows us that there continues to be a significant proportion of our pupil population that require provision in school that is over and above high quality teaching. This can be provided in many forms; use of adaptive teaching strategies, specialist equipment, additional intervention, support from an adult or peer, input from other professionals etc. However, most additional provision requires time and resource to implement and it is crucial that senior leaders develop a good understanding of their SEN population in order to plan SEN provision strategically. Leaders in mainstream schools in particular may therefore find it useful to reflect on the following questions:

Questions for leaders’ reflection

  • What is our overall percentage of pupils with SEN?
  • What is the breakdown of SEN support and EHC plans?
  • How do these figures compare with the national averages?
  • If they are significantly different, can we explain why?
  • What are the possible implications of any differences in our data compared to national?
  • Do we have a shared understanding of what SEN means?
  • Do we have a clear and transparent process for identification?
  • Do all staff understand and implement the identification process?
  • Are our processes for identification effective?
  • Are we a school of choice for pupils with SEN because of our reputation for meeting needs?
  • Are there any actions we need to take as a result of these reflections?

What does the data say about primary areas of need?

The DfE publication also provides details on the primary, or main, area of need for pupils identified with SEN. The table below shows the total % of the 5 main areas of need within primary and secondary schools:


Primary area of need (% of total SEN)




















Among pupils with SEN support, the most common type of need in total is speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). With 24% of pupils with SEN support recorded as having this type of primary need, this is a small increase from 23% in 2019.


The next highest type of need is moderate learning difficulty (MLD), with 21% of pupils identified. Interestingly, this is down from 22% in 2019. Over the last few years, the high numbers of pupils recorded as having MLD has been questioned. It has been suggested that this not a true reflection of need as some pupils are given the label of MLD but in fact have another unidentified need, such as SLCN or a specific learning difficulty (SpLD). The drop in the % of pupils recorded with MLD, along with an increase in both SLCN and SpLD suggests schools are now more accurately identifying pupil need.  

Questions for leaders’ reflection

  • What is our breakdown of primary area of need? What are our most common areas of need?
  • How do these figures compare with the national averages for our phase?
  • If they are significantly different, can we explain why?
  • Are we confident we are appropriately identifying area of need, particularly for pupils with MLD?
  • How does our needs analysis influence how we strategically plan SEN provision across the school? Are we targeting the priority areas?
  • What expertise do we have to meet the identified needs and how can we develop it further?

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) remains the most common primary type of need for pupils with an EHC plan. 30% of all pupils with a plan have ASD. The second most common type of need for pupils with an EHC plan is SLCN at 15%. These types of need were also the most prevalent in 2019.

It is important to remember that the data in the DfE report focuses on pupils’ primary area of need. In reality, many individual pupils with SEN will have more than one area of need and there will be a range of factors to take into consideration. Information about an individual pupil should reflect their full profile, including any secondary needs. However, carrying out a breakdown of primary areas of need across the whole school will again support leaders in their strategic planning of provision by targeting and prioritising support and resources in the areas where there is most need:

How can Provision Map support schools’ analysis of the data?

Provision Map has a built in facility to support school leaders to carry out an analysis of their SEN identification data and compare this to the national data. Under the ‘Reports’ tab, the ‘National baseline statistics’ will automatically create graphs to show the comparison in relation to:

  • Total % of pupils with SEN
  • % of pupils with SEN support and % with EHC plans
  • % of pupils at each primary area of need

In addition to the national data, the graphs also show the comparison with the relevant local authority averages. This can help to give schools a picture of how they compare with other schools in the local area.  

What else does the DfE data show?

The DfE publication also provides breakdowns by age, year group, gender, ethnicity, English as a first language and free school meal eligibility.  2020 headlines include the following:

  • SEN is more prevalent in boys than girls. 73% of all pupils with an EHC plan and 65% of all pupils with SEN support are boys.
  • The percentage of pupils who have SEN increases as age increases through primary years, up to a peak of 19% of pupils at age 10. It then declines through secondary ages, down to 15% at age 15.
  • The percentage of EHC plans continues to grow with age, throughout all school ages from 2% at age 5 and to 4% by age 15.  
  • Pupils with SEN are more likely to be eligible for free school meals. The percentage of pupils with an EHC plan who are eligible for free school meals is 35%, more than double that for pupils with no SEN (15%). The percentage of pupils with SEN support eligible for free school meals is 30%.

Where relevant, school leaders may also want to consider how these factors compare with their own SEN cohort. See the full DfE publication for further breakdown of groups: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/special-educational-needs-in-england#releaseHeadlines-dataBlock-tables

What should school leaders do next?

Once this level of analysis has been carried out, getting beneath the data and considering the particular circumstances of each pupil is key; addressing needs at an individual level is what will make the real difference to outcomes. Nonetheless, comparisons with national trends for SEN are both a requirement of the SEND Code of Practice and can be a useful starting point for SENCOs and other senior leaders in developing their whole school approach to SEND.

[3] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/making-best-use-of-teaching-assistants/