SEND: We need to learn to synthesise information better!

By Anita Devi

Over the last two months, I have doing more in-depth work on the ‘Four Broad Areas of Need’.  This has included training, talking to parents, writing, working with leaders in a variety of roles and I’ve been looking at the quality of Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs).  In this blog, I seek to raise some of the unanswered questions, that I think is hindering the effectiveness of the SEND Reforms being realised.  This is not a fait accompli piece, just a few current thoughts.

I have already contributed some of my thoughts to the current #SENDInquiry Here I specifically wish to focus on how needs are synthesised to form a holistic picture of the child or young person.

The construct ‘Areas of Need’ (a legacy of the SEN Code of Practice 2001), I believe evolved from the shift in thinking from a medical model to a social model of disability in the 1970s.  However, it probably become more relevant when considering data analysis of need.  The SEND Reforms (2011-2018) saw a shift in emphasis in one area of need; from behaviour, emotional and social development (BESD) to social, emotional mental health (SEMH). These ‘areas of need’ are not directly referenced in the primary statutory legislation (The SEND Regulations / Children & Families Act 2014). However, they are discussed in the secondary statutory instrument, known as The 0-25 years SEND Code of Practice (2015), SENDCoP hereafter.

My own interest in the ‘Four Areas of Need’ and working with settings on this, since the SENDCoP was originally published in 2014, was triggered by 6.25, which states,

When reviewing and managing special educational provision the broad areas of need and support outlined from 6.28 below may be helpful, and schools should review how well equipped they are to provide support across these areas.”

At this point, I’m sure many colleagues may possibly think, ‘Oh she’s talking about Provision Mapping, Provision Management or SEND Reviews’.  I’m not, though there is some overlap.  For me, 6.25 goes further than just a review.  It’s about strategic leadership that is supported by a depth of knowledge and resources in all four areas.  It’s an understanding of holistic educational provision.

The second nudge for me came from The Rochford Review 2016 (Recommendation 3):

“Schools assess pupils’ development in all 4 areas of need outlined in the SEND Code of Practice, but statutory assessment for pupils who are not engaged in subject-specific learning should be limited to the area of cognition and learning.”

Hence began my work with a wide range of stakeholders on:

  • How well do settings / local areas assess in the four areas of need?
  • How well resourced are they to support the four areas of need?

The conversations have been varying and some dovetailed into work I undertook with local authorities on developing a ‘Written Statement of Action’, enhancing consistency of decision making for Educational Health Care Assessment (EHCAs) and EHCPs, as well looking at the quality of Assessment Advices that contribute to an EHCP.  Since 2011, working with Pathfinders and others, I’ve been in involved in numerous quality assurance (QA) activities on EHCPs; with a vision to see how this can be included as part of the 20-week cycle, not after the plan has been issued and agreed.  Other #TeamADL members are also looking at the QA process of EHCPs.  Sadly, I have yet to see a gold standard EHCP or see a system that embraces a QA process, as part of the 20-week cycle.  This has made me question several things.

Under the previous system, Statements were assessed and issued in a 26-week cycle.   We struggled to QA fully then, often taking just a random sample of cases.  What made us think, we could improve the quality of plans in a shorter time?  In pursuing speed, have we compromised further on quality?  The 20-week cycle is enshrined in law, but it is certainly something we need to consider.  Would families be happier with a slightly longer timeline, knowing that at the end of it, they would get a better quality plan that has been quality assured?

Back to ‘Areas of Need’. As a previous SEND Advisory Teacher, who use to undertake statutory assessment and sit on Panel, I recall how much time and thought I had to put into evaluating the diverse and what sometimes appeared contradictory evidence to truly narrow in on need and identify what was required in terms of support.  In reflecting on support, I also had to consider, whether the proposed intervention was long-term or short-term.  Was it to develop an adaptation independence skill (e.g. social stories on safety) or move a child or young person on to the next point, or indeed, was it something needed long-term (e.g. visualiser)? Since the SEND Reforms, these are not questions, I see colleagues asking and I genuinely feel we should.  Implementing short-term support, does not take away from the need of the child.  Instead, if accurate and appropriate, it provides a way of managing and supporting needs through inclusive practice.

Four Areas of Need

Prior to this role as an Advisory Teacher, I led SEN in a school, as a SENCO.  I was never keen on discussions about primary need or secondary need.  I insisted my team saw the four areas of need as a Venn Diagram.  So, we discussed overlaps, consequential needs etc.  The conversations amongst us as a team and with families were far more constructive.  Our approach rippled out to any external specialists commissioned for their input.  What this meant was we started see coherent and strategic multi-agency working.  On many occasions, in my SEND Advisory role, I recall undertaking joint observations assessments with members of other teams.  When we saw OT waiting lists were not being met, across local authority teams we worked on up-skilling setting staff on universal & targeted provision for co-ordination difficulties.  The impact – waiting lists went down and children’s needs were met in a timely manner.  Imagine that change model with mental health and CAMHS!  This is one of the many visions behind #TeamADL and the work we do in #MentalHealth

A carer recently said to me,

“When we were struggling with two boys with severe attachment issues, we had conflicting advice from social workers, psychologists, and others.   We worked a lot out for ourselves which meant sourcing and reviewing a lot of information ourselves.  We are a lot more therapeutic with our practice now, but even now there are those who don’t understand or agree with how we approach things. Many different voices, plus of course every child is a total individual, so therapies may or may not work with them. I love the multi-agency approach, but I suppose a lot of ongoing cooperation and flexibility is required.”

So, what next?

I think national changes in assessment and curriculum do give schools more autonomy and flexibility to be inclusive.  However, settings and practitioners need to give more thought to synthesising information and seeing the ‘whole’ child, as they progress into being ‘whole’ adults too.  I have always encouraged settings to align their vision / mission statement to the principles of the SENDCoP (p19, Section 19 CfA).  However, we now have a mandate to align these principles (which are universal and apply to all children/families) to the ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’ of any curriculum we deliver.

The second item on my wish list: I’d like to see those who write Assessment Advices and those who use them to write EHCPs become more intentional in how they synthesise information.  Demonstrating joint-up thinking in practice and provision. Considering the child, as a whole.  This takes skill and I do feel more training is required in this area.

Finally, I would like to see a more robust approach, at local authority level regarding how quality assurance can be brought into the system.  Not as an after-thought, but as part of the process.  This may involve changes in the law and extending the timeline.

To conclude the SEND CoP (6.27) is clear: (underline added)

These four broad areas give an overview of the range of needs that should be planned for. The purpose of identification is to work out what action the school needs to take, not to fit a pupil into a category. In practice, individual children or young people often have needs that cut across all these areas and their needs may change over time. For instance, speech, language and communication needs can also be a feature of a number of other areas of SEN, and children and young people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may have needs across all areas, including particular sensory requirements. A detailed assessment of need should ensure that the full range of an individual’s needs is identified, not simply the primary need. The support provided to an individual should always be based on a full understanding of their particular strengths and needs and seek to address them all using well-evidenced interventions targeted at their areas of difficulty and where necessary specialist equipment or software.”

We, therefore, have the responsibility to make this a reality.

Postscript:  It is my intention to share further thoughts on ‘well-evidence’ interventions at a later date.  For now, if you are interested in finding out on what we are doing around the ‘Four Areas of Need’ – do get in touch.  As I shared, we have other members of #TeamADL also involved in the QA of EHCPs.

About Anita Devi

Anita has had an extensive career in education.  Her why is based around the ‘Joy of Learning’.  As such, she focuses on what enables learners and what hinders them and more importantly, what can she do to improve the system.  Amongst her many other roles, Anita leads #TeamADL

To find out more visit


Why Cuisenaire® Rods are my Number-One ‘Go-to’ Resource

By Zena Martin

“The use of words for expression does not necessarily imply their useful communication… Because of this we can safely say that in verbal relationships ‘communication is almost a miracle.’”  – Dr Caleb Gattegno

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the use of concrete apparatus and manipulatives in primary mathematics teaching and learning. We have the pedagogy of the Far East to thank for this. Yet for many specialist teachers, the use of manipulatives has been part of their everyday repertoire of teaching strategies for the most struggling learners of maths for decades.

For me, and many others, there is one manipulative that rises ‘head and shoulders’ above all others. This is the mathematical rod, originally invented by Georges Cuisenaire. Cuisenaire® rods have been in existence since the 1930s and are the number one go-to resource for many specialist teachers who recognise the uniqueness and visual power of these materials.

However, there are still many teachers who do not yet feel confident in the use of this resource and will often reach for other manipulatives that appear to give a quicker short-term gain of a correct answer for children. Understanding the long-term learning benefits of Cuisenaire® is a vital lesson for every teacher of mathematics, whether new or experienced.

I concur with the view that many children with apparent learning difficulties are actually learning differences. What children with learning differences often find challenging in the mainstream classroom is the significant amount of language and verbal instruction that is employed. They require far more visual and practical input and experiences than are often provided. This statement could be echoed for most children in primary classrooms; it could be argued that they are just better equipped to cope with the absence of such visual stimulus. Here begin the seeds of quality first teaching!

Why rods?

Cuisenaire® rods allow children to see and internalise the relative sizes of numbers; to feel in their hands how six differs from seven, and from 10, and so on. They can see the difference of one white rod between each of the other rods. They internalise that all the blue ones are of the same length, or that it always takes two yellow ones to make an orange one.


Cuisenaire® rods have no numerical indicators. Though sometimes criticised or rejected for this (or even compensated for, with teachers and resource publishers adding markings or pictures to aid counting), the lack of numerical indicators is an essential feature for many children who struggle with number. I am sure you will have encountered children who reach the upper end of Key Stage 2, still insecure with number bonds to 10 and feeling compelled to count everything, still dependent on fingers and number lines for basic number bonds. These children have internalised that their only reliable method of calculating is to count – nothing else works for them because they struggle to ‘see’ magnitude. Of course, we know that counting has its limitations.

You can’t count rods – you have to become so familiar with them that you begin to see and internalise the ‘seven-ness of seven’ and understand its relationship to 8 and to 6, and later to 70, and so on. It moves children away from the ‘comfort blanket’ of counting and into a more secure internalisation of the magnitude of numbers and the structure of our number system. This cannot be achieved with any other manipulative that I know of as they all contain markings and numerical indicators that invite children back to their status quo of counting[1]. They provide an understanding of the magnitude of number, a fundamental concept that eludes many struggling learners. We can immediately see how small ‘red two’ is compared to ‘orange 10’. We can create ‘staircases’ with our rods, going beyond 10 up to 20, or even to 50. This requires a lot of orange rods but is a worthy exercise in demonstrating to children not only the magnitude of number, but also an introduction to place value. Long before children encounter the traditional ‘tens and units’ grid, they need to explore what these numbers ‘look like’. For example, recognising that the number 26 is made up of two ‘orange 10’ rods and one ‘dark green six’ rod is the beginnings of an understanding of place value.

Another wonderful thing about rods is their versatility and ability to become a familiar ‘first port of call’ for most new mathematical concepts all the way to the end of the Key Stage 2 curriculum. The possibilities are endless! Commutative laws, fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios, time, equivalences, bases, and so on. There are few concepts that cannot be taught at least initially through Cuisenaire® rods. For children who are fully familiar with these rods, they give access to mathematical concepts that many might’ve thought not possible. It is a resource that can ‘open doors’ to maths for children who otherwise would struggle to access its abstract nature. Just for starters, imagine if the ‘orange 10’ rod no longer represented 10. What if it represented 100? What would the others become? What if it represented a million? What do the others become? What if it represented one? What would the others become? What if the dark green one represented one? What would the others become? I can think of no other manipulative that I can effectively do this with.

Ultimately, these mathematical rods, whether used by Reception children in continuous provision or by a child in Year 5 to close gaps in learning and access the curriculum more effectively, are teaching children algebra long before arithmetic. They are ultimately discovering that a brown rod and a red rod together are the same length as an orange rod – that’s algebra!


I am often met with the response from teachers (and occasionally specialists) that they don’t use these rods because the child or children don’t know the number that each one represents. Consequently, they will continue to encourage children to use counting manipulatives (often cubes or counters) to help them complete their work. Whilst this gives a short-term gain in producing a page of sums that stand a fighting chance of being correct, it does nothing to develop the child’s long-term understanding and internalisation of the number system.

What is overlooked here is the need for children to develop full familiarisation with these rods before their potential as a learning tool can be fully realised. This requires huge amounts of structured play involving making pictures, building structures, talking about the rods with an adult or peer, exploring their representation on squared paper, colouring them in, and so on. Sometimes, we follow this with multi-sensory flashcards that the children make so that they can reach a point where they can confidently pick up any rod and say its colour and number. Knowledge of colour plus knowledge of number equals full familiarisation. Once this has been achieved, a world of mathematical concepts can be opened up to children with Cuisenaire’s® ability to represent the number system so visually, to strengthen number sense and to be used with such versatility.

Time to dig them out of the cupboard

In the UK, these rods were used by the teaching profession throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, particularly in primary schools. Many adults who were at primary school then remember these resources fondly and describe how they learnt and consolidated their knowledge of numbers bonds through these delightful coloured rods.

After that, these valuable resources seemed to fall out of favour, and I have heard many sad tales of boxes of Cuisenaire® rods being thrown in skips during ‘clear outs’ or moves to new premises. Many teachers at that time were unaware of what these resources were, let alone what to do with them.

But now they’re making a comeback! If you know you have these wonderful little tools in your school, that give visual access to the world of number to so many children who otherwise find the number system a mystery, then dig them out, dust them down, and explore their learning potential!

About Zena Martin[2]

As a member of #TeamADL, Zena specialises in developing teachers and leaders in the North to be more inclusive for ALL learners.  Zena facilities several SENCO Networks and is a SENCO Coach.

To find out more or book Zena’s services visit

[1] Please note that I do not advocate children being ‘forced’ to stop using fingers or other counting aids. They will stop using them when they are confident that another system has replaced the need to rely on them.
[2]Please note that I have no pecuniary interest to declare in sales of Cuisenaire® rods or any other manufacturer.