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Going back to where Special Educational Needs began: have things changed since the Warnock Report?

By Sofia Carlisle-Bell

In the UK, statistics highlight that there are an increasing number of students in mainstream schools with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). As of July 2023, there are now over 1.5 million students with SEND attending school in the UK, an increase of 87,000 since 2022. But it hasn’t always been this way. Prior to the Warnock Report (1978) and its recommendations becoming law in the Education Act (1981), being educated in school was normally not possible for students with SEND. The Warnock Report remains relevant today as it underpins much of what is still done in terms of SEND.

It is important to set the academic scene. It is worth noting that at the time the Warnock Report was written, there was no such thing as a National Curriculum. Schools were run by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), who managed the finances, staffing and curricula (amongst other things). Segregation was rife as students with SEND were often taken out of mainstream education. LEAs have since been abolished and the education system has changed dramatically since the report was written, such as with the introduction of academies and the National Curriculum.

The Warnock Report, led by (latterly Baroness) Mary Warnock, provided the foundations for much of inclusive education as we know it today. It was the first, and arguably the most comprehensive, report about the education of students with SEND that has been done by any UK government to date. It highlighted that the aim of education is the same for all children, but that different children will require different amounts of help. Proposals from this report were turned into law in the Education Act (1981). The report, and the following Education Act (1981) were integral in changing the discourse surrounding SEND in the UK. This is not to diminish the challenges faced by students and parents of students with SEND, as the recent 2023 SEND Review outlines that there are many.

The Warnock Report was unique at the time in that it rejected the medical model of disability. This model of disability states that any differences, or impairments, are intrinsic to the individual and it is these differences that cause a lower quality of life. The Warnock Report rejected the idea that individual differences should impact educational outcomes, instead putting the onus on schools to adapt to meet the needs of their diverse learners. In education currently, the social model of disability is used. This model was not coined until 1983, by the disabled academic Mike Oliver. The social model of disability suggests that social, physical and attitudinal barriers are what prevent disabled people from taking part in society. The term was not in use at the time the Warnock Report was written, so it is impossible to know for sure if the committee believed that education should follow a social model of disability. However, many of the recommendations from the report lend themselves towards the social model of disability, especially in suggesting that schools make the changes in order to adapt to pupils.

One of the most significant outcomes was that the Warnock Report recommended the idea of integration, which became the foundation for inclusion as we know it today. The report stated that all students, wherever possible, should be educated in mainstream settings. While the term “integration” is not used anymore, this was a significant recommendation as integration had never been considered before. Prior to this, students with SEND were educated in separate special schools, highlighting the segregation they faced. The Warnock Report used integration to describe practices that would later be considered inclusion. While the term is not easily defined, inclusive education in its broadest sense means providing equal educational opportunities for everyone. The Salamanca Statement (1994) was published by UNESCO and is the most influential global policy document in terms of SEND. It stated that education should be inclusive by design and that mainstream schools should be welcoming of students with SEND. Inclusion is complex in practice, and 43 years on from the Warnock Report, is something the education system is still striving for. The change from “integration” to “inclusion” is important because it marks the difference between a student with SEND simply being present in the same educational settings compared to all students being included and also receiving a high-quality of education, regardless of whether they have SEND or not.

The report embodied social acceptance in schools in a way that had not been done before. Part of integration meant that new practices were to be developed by teachers, who were expected to change their teaching skills to meet the demands of a diverse range of pupils. The same sentiment has been echoed by the SEND Review (2023), which highlights how schools and lessons should be more inclusive.

Integration in the Warnock Report meant that students with SEND should have the same educational expectations as their non-SEND peers in terms of going to college. The report highlighted that education should prepare students for their lives beyond education, such as in the workplace. This can also be seen reflected in the SEND Code of Practice (2014), which maintains support for students with SEND until they reach age 25 and sets out statutory requirements for further education institutes.

The Warnock Report also changed the language that was being used. Post-World War 2, children with SEND were often referred to as “educationally subnormal” or “handicapped”. Such terms have been left in history as a result of the report stating that these terms should be replaced by “special educational needs” (SEN). While it can be argued that this was essentially exchanging one set of labels for another, the term SEN, which later became SEND, identifies the individual needs of the children under the umbrella. The previous terms used for children and young people with SEND ignored the fact that these children had unmet needs, and instead put the fault on them. This is another example of how the Warnock Report unknowingly moved towards using a social model of disability. Changing the language used was significant, as the terms used prior to SEN carry huge amounts of stigma and are still used today in derogatory ways.

Another important feature of the Warnock Report was the introduction of statementing. A statement of SEN was done on an individual basis and outlined the requirements of each pupil. Statementing was based on common educational goals, mainly independence, enjoyment and understanding. These statements were annually reviewed and came with funding and resources for schools to direct towards meeting the needs of these students. This can be seen reflected in current practices such as with the implementation of an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP). An EHCP is a document put together in consultation with multiple professionals that sets out the support required to meet a child’s needs when they have needs that cannot be met by the available support. In today’s educational climate, ECHPs are seen as a means to guarantee support and due to the failings of the current SEND system, they are highly sought after.

The Warnock Report approximated that 20% of students would have some kind of SEND during their educational careers, and a further 2% would need a statement. The most recent figures show that 4.3% of students in the UK have an EHCP, and a further 13% are registered as having SEND.

To further challenge what was done, the Warnock Report highlighted a need for parental involvement when considering children with SEND. This was due to an increased need for awareness of SEN. Unfortunately, 40 years on, the recent SEND review is still striving to meet this need as parents face emotional and financial difficulties in accessing support for their children with SEND. The recent SEND Green Paper (2022) highlighted that parents have lost trust in the SEND system as it does not provide adequate resources for their children. Parents are now able to choose which schools their children will attend, rather than it being forced upon them, as was done prior to 1978.

The Warnock Report was massively influential in many of the practices still in use today, and set the foundations for inclusive education in the years to come. While things have changed since 1978 (and it would be a shame if they hadn’t), many of the recommendations of the Warnock Report can be seen reflected in the way practice is done now, highlighting just how relevant it still is. It set the inclusive ball rolling, and therefore cannot be forgotten.


Lindsay, G., Wedell, K., and Dockrell, J. (2020) ‘Warnock Report 40 Years on: The Development of Special Educational Needs Since the Warnock Report and Implications for the Future’, Frontiers in Education, 4(164)

Department for Education, (2014). Special Educational Needs And Disability Code Of Practice: 0 To 25 Years. London. Department for Education.

Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care, (2022). SEND Review: Right Support, Right Place, Right Time. HM Government. Available at:

Department for Education, (2023). Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision (AP) Improvement Plan: Right Support, Right Place, Right Time. HM Government. Available at: [Accessed 6 October 2023]

Webster, R. (2018). ‘Why the Warnock Report Still Matters Today’, TES Magazine, 6 May 2018. Available at: [Accessed 6 October 2023]

Webster, R. (2022) The Inclusion Illusion: How Children with Special Educational Needs Experience Mainstream Schools. London: UCL Press

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