Special educational needs in Northern Ireland

This page covers special educational needs (SEN) support in Northern Ireland.

It gives a brief overview of early years and school-age settings, covering Statutory Assessments, Statements of Special Educational Needs, Annual Reviews, Transition Planning, the 1998 Code of Practice and Individual Education Plans.

On this page:

In Northern Ireland, the term Special Educational Needs (SEN) is generally used.

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Early years settings

The SEN Early Years Inclusion Service (SEN EYIS) is a regional service that supports pre-school children with SEN through advice and support to children, families and pre-school settings.

The Children and Young People’s Services Early Years Hub (EYH) is the single point of referral to the service. 

Referrals to the EYH come from:

  • Paediatricians for pre-school aged children.
  • Educational psychologists for pre-school aged children.

SEN EYIS offers advice to and runs workshops and tailored programmes for families and early educational settings of children referred by the Early Years Hub.

SEN EYIS also provides training for leadership and early years practitioners through the Children and Young People’s Training portal.

Statutory Assessment

A statutory assessment is the formal process to find out what your child’s special needs are, and what additional support they may need in their early years setting.

Your child may need a statutory assessment:

  • Before going to nursery school if they have very severe or complex needs.
  • As a child or young person already at school if the extra support they have been getting for their SEN is not helping.

A statutory assessment is only necessary in a very small minority of cases.

While the Education Authority is carrying out a statutory assessment, your child will continue to receive help and support from the school through their Individual Education Plan.

Statement of Special Educational Needs

A request for a statutory assessment can lead to a Statement of Special Educational Needs being issued, but not always. 

A Statement of Special Educational Needs sets out a child or young person’s SEN, describes the support needed to meet those needs and which educational setting they should attend.

Annual Review

The Statement of Special Educational Needs is reviewed every year to make sure the child or young person’s needs are still being met.

Transition planning

If your child is due to start primary school or move to secondary school, you should discuss transition arrangements at the annual review during their last year nursery or current school.

The Education Authority has to consider your preferred school but can still name a school it thinks can meet your child’s needs. 

However, when the Statement of Special Educational Needs is issued, you have the right to appeal through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal.

School-age settings

According to the 1996 Education Order, a child has special educational needs if they have significantly greater difficulty learning and need special educational support on top of, or different from, the education that children of a similar age get in an ordinary school.

A child also has SEN if they have a disability that calls for them to get special educational support.

The 1998 SEN Code of Practice

All schools must follow the 1998 SEN Code of Practice when making decisions about children who have SEN.

If your child’s school thinks that your child needs special educational support, they will discuss this with you and place your child on the school’s SEN register.

All children with SEN are recorded on the school’s SEN register under one of five stages of the Code of Practice, according to the level of support they need to help them make progress in school. 

Only the school can decide if your child should be placed on the SEN register. 

Individual Education Plan

The school will meet regularly with you to discuss your child’s needs and agree targets for their Individual Education Plan (IEP). 

They will also discuss what you can do to help.

If your child doesn’t make adequate progress on their IEP targets and continues to have significant difficulties, the school may ask for further advice and support from the Education Authority. 

The school’s principal and/or Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) will discuss this with you.

This content was last reviewed in May 2024. We’ll review it again in 2026.