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Mental Health and special educational needs

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Prime Minister, Teresa May, gave a speech on 9 January 2017 to the Charity Commission’s annual meeting. Mrs May took the opportunity to declare her Government’s intention to focus on mental health services.

Mrs May set out:

“What I am announcing are the first steps in our plan to transform the way we deal with mental health problems at every stage of a person’s life: not in our hospitals, but in our classrooms, at work and in our communities.

This starts with ensuring that children and teenagers get the help and support they need and deserve – because we know that mental illness too often starts in childhood and that when left untreated, it can blight lives, and become entrenched.”

Unfortunately, Mrs May’s speech, which ostensibly dealt with preparing children and young people for adult life and managing their mental health, failed to make any reference to special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Higher rates of mental health difficulties in SEND population

Children, young people, and adults with learning difficulties are substantially more likely to face difficulties with their mental health.

NICE have recently reported that in the UK, 40% of adults and 36% of children with learning disabilities are known to experience mental health problems at some point during their life. This contrasts to 1 in 4 of the general population as stated in Mrs May’s speech.

It is not difficult to understand the link. Some special educational needs are due to brain injury, genetic difficulties and/or learning difficulties. These needs can create difficulties with social relationships, friendships, communication and acquiring living skills. That can be isolating and result in mental health difficulties.

The enhanced risk of developing mental health difficulties is particularly why early intervention and support for children and young people with special educational needs is of significant importance.

Mental health difficulties are special educational needs

It is important to recognise that mental health difficulties can, themselves, be special educational needs.

Special educational needs is a legal term with a specific definition. There is a legal test to establish whether a child of young person has special educational needs. In summary, that test is (1) whether the person has a learning difficulty or disability (2) whether that difficulty or disability requires special educational provision.

Mental health difficulties are likely to be both a learning difficulty and a disability.

It is likely that a child or young person with mental health difficulties will face challenges accessing learning beyond that of their peers. As such, they have a learning difficulty. Alternatively, mental health difficulties are likely to have a long-term and pervasive impact on a person’s ability to complete day to day activities. As such, it is a disability.

A child or young person with mental health difficulties is also likely to need support in school not afforded to all pupils. That is reiterated by the above quote from Mrs May. That additional support is, by definition, special educational provision.

Mrs May’s speech deals with children and young people receiving the support that they need. There is already a support structure in place. It is through the special educational needs support system. Rather than suggesting that a new system is required, it would seem more appropriate to look at the current system that exists and make sure that it is working properly.

Securing support

Mrs May’s speech continues,

“For years the only people who have stood up for those with mental ill health have been civil society groups and charities. Now I want us to build upon your success and the fantastic work that many including those here today are doing.”

This comment will ring true for many parents of children and young people with special educational needs. The process of securing the support that their child is entitled to can often be seen as a ‘battle’.

The special educational needs reforms which took effect in September 2014 were intended to reduce these experiences of a ‘battle’. Almost uniformly, commentators feel that that outcome has not been achieved. I have written about that here.

Support for children and young people with mental health difficulties should be available. The special educational needs and disability system exists for that purpose. The issue is that parents have to advocate for their children to secure badly needed support. This includes accessing charities, advice lines, support services and solicitors.  If this focus on mental health difficulties can help change that, it must be welcomes.


It is promising that Government is understanding that mental health support needs to happen in school. However, the failure to make reference to special educational needs is a concern.

The special educational needs reforms have cost over half a billion pounds. Despite this investment to make the system more transparent, and less divisive, parents and families still struggle to secure the support their children need, and are entitled to.

Overall, if there is to be an improvement in the services that children and young people receive for mental health difficulties, the special educational needs system needs to be addressed. The current reforms have not been successful. Failure to even refer to special educational needs in announcements of key initiatives is worrying.

If you are experiencing difficulties as set out above or otherwise in securing additional support for your child from the Local Authority, then please do not hesitate to contact our specialist education law solicitor team on 02920 291704.