SEN: Understanding Learning Difficulties

Frustrated child learning

This discussion will focus upon learning difficulties in a broad sense, leaving dyslexia, dyspraxia and similar specific learning difficulties (SpLD) to be explored later in a separate review. The notion that a child may have ‘a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age1‘ is a defining concept which successive SEN legislation has sought to address via different forms of special educational provision. Access to additional support implies that certain criteria have been met and some measurement of a child’s ability to learn is a key component of any process leading to a diagnosis of learning difficulties. This assessment has also proved enduringly controversial.


During much of the twentieth century, the ‘standard’ educational method used to determine a person’s learning proficiency was an IQ rating. This was calculated using a varied series of tests with the resultant scores then aggregated to produce an ‘Intelligence Quotient’. Central to this assessment is the idea that a ‘normal’ score of 100 would be gained by a majority of the population; most of the rest would cluster either side of the 100 ‘norm’; and only a few would score at a significantly higher, or lower, level. In statistical terms this produces a graph with a characteristic bell curve, shown below.

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