Supporting children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)


There were four main reasons identified for the high number of SEND children in maintained nursery schools. Firstly, the schools have developed a reputation in the community for providing high quality support for children with SEND, and parents recommend the settings to one another. Secondly, because of this reputation, parents of children with SEND are signposted to Maintained Nursery Schools by a range of professionals, including health visitors, family support workers, local authority portage teams, children’s centres, Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs), educational psychologists, and hospitals that diagnose complex conditions. Thirdly, some local authorities have panels or advisory groups which allocate children with complex SEND to specific early years settings. A lot of these children are placed with Maintained Nursery Schools because of their expertise in this area – sometimes with accompanying funding and sometimes without. Finally, the majority of the interviewees had accepted children with SEND who had been turned away from other settings and told that their needs could not be met there.

As a result of these factors, several headteachers highlighted that children with SEND often come from further afield than their peers because they have chosen or been recommended their setting specifically.

Many children with SEND will not have had their needs identified before they arrive at the Maintained Nursery Schools, and will not have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). The process of applying for an EHCP is a long one; several headteachers suggested that the average EHCP takes a year to produce. In the meantime, the majority of Maintained Nursery Schools provide the support that the child needs without any additional funding.

Staff expertise

Maintained Nursery Schools have to employ a qualified Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), who coordinates additional support for children with SEND and connects with their parents, teachers and professionals ensure that any necessary assessments and interventions are put in place. This law applies to primary schools as well, but while a SENCO in a primary school might work across all age groups, the SENCO in the Maintained Nursery School is focussed solely on supporting the children at the nursery. Some Maintained Nursery Schools employ more than one qualified SENCO, and several invest in training for their other teaching staff to better understand how to teach children with SEND. Several headteachers pay for Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) to run sessions for children with speech and communication difficulties, and in some cases these SLTs also train up the full time teachers so that they are able to run language groups or support these children on a daily basis. The expertise of the staff at Maintained Nursery Schools allows them to identify needs at an early stage, respond to their needs effectively, and build trust with parents.

Identifying children’s needs

The expertise of the staff in Maintained Nursery Schools means that children’s needs are identified and responded to at an early stage, which is crucial in reducing the gap in attainment between children with SEND and their peers. Some headteachers talked about how they identified children with SEND before they even start at the nursery – for example, through getting to know the children at stay and play sessions, or by working with staff in the children’s centre. This allows them to prepare and structure their classes accordingly, and start working with the parents to think about what support their child might need. Some interviewees reported instances of children’s needs not being picked up by their previous setting, or practitioners at other settings being too nervous to approach a parent when they have spotted signs of SEND.

Supporting parents of children with SEND

A common theme across the interviews was the need to build a trusting relationship with parents, many of whom take some time to acknowledge their child’s needs. According to the interviewees, building this relationship requires knowledge, compassion and time. In addition to this one to one work, schools have held workshops with parents looking at how to support children with SEND, or monthly coffee mornings specifically for parents with SEND. One nursery gave an example of taking a group of parents to a local college with a department for young people with SEND and visiting a café where they were served by adults with SEND, to show parents some of the provision, support and opportunities that could be out there for their children in the future.

Specialist support

Some Maintained Nursery Schools that were involved in the research have specialist provision attached to the nursery for children with more complex needs, which identify need and provide extremely target and specialist support. Most children with SEND, however, are educated in mainstream provision. The support provided by MNSs is targeted, and specialist support is sourced where necessary. Children have individualised plans and targets, and classes are planned depending on the needs of the children who will be attending them. Different nursery schools provide different levels of support, but some examples of support offered by the schools that took part in the research are: language groups for children with speech and language difficulties; funded one to one teaching assistant support for children who do not yet have an EHCP; and full time learning assistants who work with small groups of children with SEND. Several headteachers discussed the importance they placed on transition for this cohort, and one school with a specialist unit said that the children might be taken to visit their primary schools four times before they leave the nursery.

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Case studies

In September 2017, 57 Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were in place in Lambeth for under 5s. Despite the fact that Maintained Nursery Schools in Lambeth provide funded places for just six per cent of children in the borough, they helped develop EHCPs for a third of Lambeth’s children, identifying the needs of the children in their settings and working with the local authorities and other partners to build evidence for the EHCP and develop a package of support. This not only shows the disproportionate number of children with complex SEND that attend Maintained Nursery Schools, but also highlights the time and resource they invest in ensuring that these children get the support that will allow them to progress and achieve to the best of their ability.

Old Church Nursery School in Tower Hamlets has a high proportion of children with SEND. One example of the kind of support the school offers is language groups for children with communication difficulties, in groups of about five. The school has one full time member of staff dedicated to running these sessions because there is so much demand, with a third of children in the setting attending one of the groups. The teacher running the group is supported by a Speech and Language Therapist and Phoenix Outreach Service in Tower Hamlets, which helps mainstream settings to work effectively with autistic children. Every day the school runs a bucket morning for children with autism, where children share toys from a bucket, helping them build social and sharing skills.